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"That View Is Tremendous"
February 20, 2012 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. In an recent interview, he lamented the decline of the manned US space program: "It's unseemly to me that here we are, supposedly the world's greatest space-faring nation, and we don't even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station."

Surviving Mercury 7 astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter address NASA employees

Photos from the mission
posted by dsfan (80 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
obligatory: Neil deGrasse Tyson "don't get me started" on NASA's budget
posted by trackofalljades at 8:44 AM on February 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


It may be unseemly, but the Tea Party says that we need to stop spending money on foolish space missions and anything else that's remotely science-y -- even though some of our greatest moments of remembered glory as a nation are watching that footage from 40 to 50 years ago of astronauts pushing to new frontiers.
posted by blucevalo at 8:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


"It" being the decline of the space program that Glenn refers to
posted by blucevalo at 8:46 AM on February 20, 2012


Yep, I could dig through my old comments here about NASA and point out that it was entirely predictable that we'd be here, today, looking at delays to the private effort to create an ISS docking vehicle plus safety problems with the Russian vehicle, but what's the point? It's just depressing.
posted by muddgirl at 8:47 AM on February 20, 2012


supposedly the world's greatest space-faring nation

Does anyone but NASA employees, the jingoistic, and the ignorant really suppose that?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


He's both right in the general point and has just pissed off a few space agencies by calling it NASA's ISS. The clue is in the title.
posted by jaduncan at 8:49 AM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


By the way, budgetary issues are interesting and important, but another thing, which comes out in the video (which is really what I thought was the interesting link), is how easily they accepted risk of death that just seem unfathomable today--the narrator (an astronaut) at one point describes a one in six chance of Glenn's flight being fatal.
posted by dsfan at 8:50 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've said this before, but: in 2 or 3 centuries, nobody will really care about Irak, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Chile, etc. But that the country that controlled such a large portion of the world's resources frittered them away on ego-wars and SUVs instead of, I don't know, colonizing the Moon and Mars will probably be one of the largest criticisms of the US empire.
posted by signal at 8:50 AM on February 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


is how easily they accepted risk of death that just seem unfathomable today

I'm guessing that it was deemed more acceptable at the time because that generation of pilots had been exposed to the horrific odds of the European bombing campaign of WW2. Just a guess, though.
posted by veedubya at 8:53 AM on February 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


He's both right in the general point and has just pissed off a few space agencies by calling it NASA's ISS.

If it gets more funding, I doubt they'll begrudge it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:53 AM on February 20, 2012


supposedly the world's greatest space-faring nation

I do -- at least, for the vast majority of my life, we were, and we are still in many ways. We built appx 80% of the ISS. We did walk on the moon. We have sent probes to every planet, and we've sent probes farther than any other nation. We currently have a mission that is taking nine years to reach the target -- New Horizons.

We still put more kg into orbit than any other nation. True, the vast majority of these flights are classified DoD and NRO flights, but there are still big science payloads. We're sending four tons to Jupiter, a one-ton rover to Mars. Last year, we had several probes orbiting mars, one orbiting Saturns, one -- the first -- orbiting Mercury, three orbiting the Moon, and one orbiting the asteroid 4 Vesta.

And, heck, we're paying for a good part of the mass that the Russians are lofting.

Are we what we were? No. Manned spaceflight is expensive, and we've chosen not to take part. Could we become also-rans? Yes, easily. But, today, in Feburary 2012, we have a very good set of boosters (the Atlas V and Delta IV series), and we have private outfits bringing more into use -- SpaceX's Dragon is slated to go to the ISS this year, Orbital Science's Antares booster is set for first launch in April.

We are not what we were -- but we are not spending over 5% of our GDP on spaceflight. We could -- in a very short time -- do more, if we wanted to spend more.
posted by eriko at 9:07 AM on February 20, 2012 [19 favorites]


I can only wonder how intellectually incurious people are who would cut NASA budgets and rule out manned spaceflight. The very concept of being capable of exploring space and potentially taking that next step in humanity's progress is enthralling to say the least. Anyone who throws that out because it interferes with quarterly profits is thinking with a mind so dull that I can only wonder how it is they manage to wake up in the morning and be excited about living.

Maybe they're not. Maybe they wake up in a dull haze, hoping to justify their existence through grabbing what money they can and forcing people to live the way they see fit like it's some sort of game of Calvinball except only they get to declare new rules. I only wish the super wealthy would have the curiosity to spend a fraction of what they have to see the world from space. The sheer perspective that could give, I only wish I'd have that opportunity even once.

Money isn't a high score game. It's something we can use to ensure a proper living for people who pave the way for the next generations. If mankind survives long enough to understand our foolishness today, I only hope they have the resources to go where just a few of us started to go.
posted by Saydur at 9:08 AM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can only wonder how intellectually incurious people are who would cut NASA budgets and rule out manned spaceflight.

If you actually care about science, then manned-spaceflight is a huge waste of money and resources.
posted by empath at 9:09 AM on February 20, 2012 [13 favorites]


is how easily they accepted risk of death that just seem unfathomable today

Today's view of the value of life, or at least the expectation of avoidance of death, is a pretty recent phenomenon. Prior to the development of antibiotics, vaccines and OSHA it was much more likely that someone would suddenly die than we'd ever consider appropriate today. Most major construction projects could be measured in numbers of dead, working in heavy industry implied a daily chance of mortality or severe amputation. Test pilots may have taken on great risks, but the notion that human advancement should proceed without human risk is a pretty modern concept.
posted by meinvt at 9:09 AM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


you see, this cause above all others is a pointless waste of resources, for reasons not at all relating to its fashionability. were the money to be cut from this wasteful spectacle, it would certainly be justly reallocated (as has been the custom of the land) toward governing Humanity, as exemplified by programs such as [goes here] and [insert item]

no advances have originated from this shameful spectacle, nor will they, at any point, ever, and despite the protests of so-called 'experts' and 'informed people' such as the cr-- the scientist Hawking, there is no adequate reason to pursue this. in conclusion, robots simulation.

i am a Rational Thinker and a Hard-Nosed Realist and you would do well to follow the example of those who share my opinions.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:11 AM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


i am a Rational Thinker and a Hard-Nosed Realist and you would do well to follow the example of those who share my opinions.

To be “matter of fact” about the world is to blunder into fantasy--and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful. --Heinlein
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:18 AM on February 20, 2012


i prefer "christopher hitchens" to heinlein
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:21 AM on February 20, 2012


That "our own International Space Station" is real statement...
posted by RollingGreens at 9:24 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


i prefer "christopher hitchens" to heinlein

I prefer Gagarin to Glenn
posted by snottydick at 9:24 AM on February 20, 2012


So, reading a story about this led me to read the wikipedia entry about Scott Carpenter.

Seriously, how cool were this guy's career choices:
Navy Pilot.
Test Pilot.
Astronaut.
Aquanaut.

I know Glenn gets a lot of the publicity, but Carpenter seems to have had more fun.
posted by madajb at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2012


The John Glen School has been "live tweeting" the Friendship 7 mission all day.
posted by nowoutside at 9:43 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Space. It's everywhere - from here to at least 10 billion light years away, there's definitely no shortage of space. Some say that it gets boring after a while, but I say: when you are tired of the universe, you're all outta alternatives. So get used to it.

And yet, every day, many billions of cowardly killjoys turn their grubby faces away from the sky and yawp out pathetic, bleating excuses for not getting all up in that shit.

I hate these people, and if I were in charge they'd all be mulched, poured into a giraffe and made to spend weeks being slowly dissolved in its digestive system until they were excreted with some common sense.

Any self-respecting nation has got to travel in space, whatever the cost in economic, environmental or health-and-safety terms. For one thing, travelling in space is pretty much the best way of getting places. You can travel in time by just sitting on your ass all day and waiting for things to change, but "space is a place where you gotta race your face," as Shakespeare so famously said.

That's why America should immediately attach giant rockets to the Earth, so that we can finally travel where we want to go in space - and not just circle the same boring old sun over and over and over again. I, for one, would like to pilot the Earth to the vicinity of Superman's home world of Krypton, where the ancient red sunlight means that the Man of Steel is reduced to a forelock-tugging weakling. Then we can finally give him the wedgie he so richly deserves. I mean, those brightly-coloured underpants on the outside - he's been taunting us all these years, hasn't he? Just tell me YOU'VE never thought about it. GO SPACE.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:44 AM on February 20, 2012 [15 favorites]


"It's unseemly to me that here we are, supposedly the world's greatest space-faring nation, and we don't even have a way to get back and forth to our own International Space Station."

Spoken like a true politician.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:52 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Check out NASA's website for tidbits, graphics and visuals about the flight and spacecraft, including a panorama of the interior.

Fun fact, the legendary space hero testified that women should be excluded from spaceflight. He changed his mind at some point in the '80s.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:57 AM on February 20, 2012


Science isn't well served by manned spaceflight, other than Life Science about Humans in Space.

NASA has destroyed its manned spaceflight program with all of its "Humankind MUST Explore!" rhetoric over the past 40 years. That's claptrap designed to stir up some cash for astronaut joy-rides and doesn't lead to sustainable efforts toward space colonization.

The second angle, "Hey lets mine the MOON!", rings equally hollow, because it is equally hollow.

The third angle, "We will magically obtain awesome new technology!", pre-supposes that there isn't loads of evidence for things other than spaceflight doing the exact same thing.

So if "MUST Explore!" and "Mine the MOON!" and "Magic new Technology!" are garbage, why do we need a robust Human Spaceflight program?

We need a robust human spaceflight program because it is the ultimate insurance policy against the extinction of the human species, while also having some nice spin-off effects in terms of new technology, economic opportunity and gee-whiz-golly exploration of the unknown.

Getting hit by an asteroid would suck. Destroying ourselves in a thermonuclear holocaust? Still pretty probable, given the seemingly unending unwinding of history. The best bet against this is figuring out how to put human beings into space and thrive there, cheaply and in at least moderate numbers.

This is what upsets me about the "We are stuck in Low Earth Orbit! ISS sucks!" crowd. Yeah, maybe it is a little boring to circle the planet but it has a lot more to do with figuring out how to live in space that 3 day or even 2 month field trips to the moon or Mars. Building a permanent base, anywhere, before figuring how to do it in Low Earth Orbit first is ludicrous.

The US has actually had a pretty decent overall 'Space Exploration' strategy over the past 30 years, with the glaring and crippling exception of the Shuttle System. Learning how to live in Low Earth Orbit is the least expensive, most instructive way of figuring out what it takes to live and build in space. Leaving the exploration to robotic probes is likewise the best bang for the buck. The problem is that the Shuttle was such an expensive disaster that it got it into people's heads that LOE can't be done relatively inexpensively or much more substantially, when it most certainly could be.

Were it up to me, the next 50 years would be spent building small moon base, and building it to be increasingly self sufficient and to gradually expand. This would require the man-rated high volume heavy lift rocket that the Shuttle has been holding back for 30 years. Forget Mars. The only reason to go to Mars instead of setting up shop on the moon is that "Humankind MUST explore" lunacy [pardon the pun]. We have robots for that stuff.

Humans on Moon + Robotic Exploration + some sort of robotic mission to alter the orbit of an asteroid would be a terrific use of the next 50 years at NASA. This would accomplish the three 'non bullshit' goals of effective, efficient robotic space science, self-sufficient off-planet settlement and 'hey, how about let's not let an asteroid kill a few billion people some day'.
posted by striatic at 10:09 AM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


At least you can still carpool with the Russians. I wonder what their space budget is like these days.
posted by pyrex at 10:10 AM on February 20, 2012


As much as I love science and admire how well space travel can capture people's imaginations, I have to agree with empath above, that manned space travel is a huge waste of money if you are interested in science. The return on investment for manned space travel is pretty low right now, by pretty much any measure.

This article looks at an astrophysicist's view on the history of space exploration, and talks about why the moonshot was a (very impressive) publicity stunt, but that we also have hard limitations on what is possible.

Charlie Stross gives more hard numbers on just how hard manned space travel is, in terms of money, energy, and distance.
posted by jasonhong at 10:11 AM on February 20, 2012


The return on investment for manned space travel is pretty low right now, by pretty much any measure.

If only we could apply that level of reasoning to other areas...

2012 NASA Budget: $17.77 billion
2012 US Military Budget: $1.03 trillion
posted by fairmettle at 10:21 AM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Our manned space program was an unsustainable stunt. We made it a race instead of using it to unite the world. The Russians started right by trying to establish a permanent presence in low earth orbit, that is the road to the stars. Lofting tons of fuel and airframe from the earth's surface with less than 1% of it returning is an expensive race to bankruptcy. Our national treasure was wasted to realize Werner Von Braun's dream in his lifetime.

We should've gone slower to produce a repeatable process rather than the expensive stunt we got.
posted by shnarg at 10:22 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The triumph of manned space flight should be the understanding that manned space flight is really fucking hard and our mantra should be robots, robots, robots. Automated spacecraft and exploration should be the sole focus, if only to tell us where we should be focusing on sending the humans.

Why should we send humans back to the Moon to look for ice to allow us to send humans to Mars to find life? The robots can find both first, and then we can talk about sending humans to Mars. This way, Tom Hanks gets to be in the good movie, not the one where he almost dies because an engineer dropped the service module and then went "Ehh, it's still good."

Man is a tool-builder. A robot is a tool. 'nuff said.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:24 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


supposedly the world's greatest space-faring nation

Does anyone but NASA employees, the jingoistic, and the ignorant really suppose that?


Well, you know, you're pretty good.

our own International Space Station

Way to give the game away!
posted by Artw at 10:29 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you actually care about science, then manned-spaceflight is a huge waste of money and resources.

Other than new treatments for osteoporosis and balance disorders from studying microgravity, digital mammography, telemedicine emergency care, microelectronics and computing, navigation, food storage, metal cutting, combustion science, energy storage, new propulsion methods, solar energy generation, ballistic parachutes, material science advances like teflon and joint lubrication, safer mass transportation vehicles and water purification, what has manned spaceflight ever done for us?

Sure, maybe "only a human can experience what being in space feels like", and only a human can communicate this to others, but it's probably pretty much the same thing as looking at a grey screen view from a robot.

Colonize the Gobi desert

Done.
colonise the North Atlantic in winter
Did that about 1,000 a.d.
— then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

Well, perhaps it's instructive to try to live in a sealed controlled environment and observe the effects so we can put the information to use on Earth. There's a big difference between pretending to live in a controlled environment and actually depending on one for your survival.

Best way to do that is to get out there.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:31 AM on February 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


We (people of earth) continue to have a way to get to and from our (earth's) space station. I don't know why this has to be about nations. That's kind of an outdated way of thinking, and getting even more so.
posted by ctmf at 10:41 AM on February 20, 2012


"If only we could apply that level of reasoning to other areas...

2012 NASA Budget: $17.77 billion
2012 US Military Budget: $1.03 trillion"


In this article, a Nike Executive pegs total US expenditures on Sports Events and Merchandise at $200 billion a year.
posted by striatic at 10:41 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Smedleyman: "Well, perhaps it's instructive to try to live in a sealed controlled environment and observe the effects so we can put the information to use on Earth"

Why not start with Mariana's Trench?
posted by vanar sena at 10:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


As much as I love science and admire how well space travel can capture people's imaginations, I have to agree with empath above, that manned space travel is a huge waste of money if you are interested in science.

1. It's not just about science.

2. We have no problem wasting money on many other things, we might as well waste some on sending people into space, because it is awesome and captures people's imagination. I just started reading The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age and the author notes the fathers of rocketry, both American and Russian, were inspired by early sci fi, particularly Jules Verne. Inspiration is good and humans need it.


Were it up to me, the next 50 years would be spent building small moon base, and building it to be increasingly self sufficient and to gradually expand. This would require the man-rated high volume heavy lift rocket that the Shuttle has been holding back for 30 years. Forget Mars.

I could go for that. We have a lot to learn and there's no need to do another "Look we went there, now let's never visit again" program, much as I find Apollo to have been amazing feat for mankind. Robots should definitely be a part of space exploration. Hell, we should be teleoperating a few Moon rovers from Earth, try out and see how easy it is to mine the surface. We should have a few probes winding there way through the systems of Jupiter and Saturn, along with a lander or 10 exploring the various surfaces.

why the moonshot was a (very impressive) publicity stunt

It was more that. It was a battle between two different systems of government about which was better, as well as a testing ground for military applications. If nations realized that whoever dominated the air would win a conflict, as they did between WW I and WWII, it's no wonder that there was a Space Race. It was practically demanded by human nature.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not a huge fan of Newt Gingrich, but it was very enlightening to see the response to his suggestion of a lunar colony. Was it a political sop to the fact that he was campaigning in a state that derives much of its economy from NASA? Of course. But to most of the punditry and intelligentsia, the idea of a moon colony was not only far-fetched, it was laughable and derisive.

As a space buff, taxpayer, and reasonably-educated pragmatist who believes we shouldn't be confining our species to one overcrowded rock, this was heartbreaking.
posted by zooropa at 11:26 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


It was a battle between two different systems of government about which was better, as well as a testing ground for military applications. If nations realized that whoever dominated the air would win a conflict, as they did between WW I and WWII, it's no wonder that there was a Space Race. It was practically demanded by human nature.

Nailed it. The American Space Program of the 50s-70s was a quasi-military offense against the dreaded Soviets, and all the science and other stuff was secondary. When the Soviet Union went away, it was natural that it would wither away. And the only thing that could bring it back would be an Islamic Space Program (they have that crescent and star symbol; they should be claiming the real things, right?)
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:28 AM on February 20, 2012


zooropa - the idea of a moon colony is (unfortunately) laughable at this time, especially since Gingrich's plan was to give a pittance to private industry to encourage them to try. Private industry can't even make deadlines to mate up with a space station which has been in continuous operation since 1998. There is no incentive for private industry to go to the moon, much less colonize it. Yes, very laughable.
posted by muddgirl at 11:31 AM on February 20, 2012


Today's view of the value of life, or at least the expectation of avoidance of death, is a pretty recent phenomenon. Prior to the development of antibiotics, vaccines and OSHA it was much more likely that someone would suddenly die than we'd ever consider appropriate today. Most major construction projects could be measured in numbers of dead, working in heavy industry implied a daily chance of mortality or severe amputation. Test pilots may have taken on great risks, but the notion that human advancement should proceed without human risk is a pretty modern concept.

Or even in war. Today its a disaster if we lose 20 guys at one time. And no, I'm not mocking those casualties. During the Vietnam war, we had 200 to 300 dead a week. No, I'm not harking back fondly. But somewhere between the 1960s and now, things changed.
posted by etaoin at 11:34 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


We have no problem wasting money on many other things, we might as well waste some on sending people into space

That's a pretty dumb reason to do something. If we're going to spend money on science, it would have been far better to spend it on the super collider.
posted by empath at 11:37 AM on February 20, 2012


As a space buff, taxpayer, and reasonably-educated pragmatist who believes we shouldn't be confining our species to one overcrowded rock, this was heartbreaking.

Where are you getting the money from? I'd rather spend the money on making people's lives better here, right now, today.
posted by empath at 11:38 AM on February 20, 2012


The American Space Program of the 50s-70s was a quasi-military offense against the dreaded Soviets, and all the science and other stuff was secondary.

No, the science stuff was pretty much about equal with the military aspects. America wanted (needed?) to prove that the capitalist way of life could produce greater dividends for all mankind, in comparison to communism. We were not just a stronger military power, we also had to show the world we a better way of life, capable of producing more and better technology for the world.

That's partially why Glenn's flight was so hailed by America system. Keep in mind, he was only the third American in space and the fifth person. Russia had already sent Gargin up for a single orbit and then Gherman Titov for a day. Glenn went up for three orbits in under 5 hours. They went from doing a single orbit to doing 17 orbits, leapfrogging themselves. Add in these other firsts:
1957: First intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka
1957: First satellite, Sputnik 1
1957: First animal in Earth orbit, the dog Laika on Sputnik 2
1959: First rocket ignition in Earth orbit, first man-made object to escape Earth's gravity, Luna 1
1959: First data communications, or telemetry, to and from outer space, Luna 1.
1959: First man-made object to pass near the Moon, first man-made object in Heliocentric orbit, Luna 1
1959: First probe to impact the Moon, Luna 2
1959: First images of the moon's far side, Luna 3
1960: First animals to safely return from Earth orbit, the dogs Belka and Strelka on Sputnik 5.
1961: First probe launched to Venus, Venera 1
and you realize America was getting its ass handed to it by an avowed enemy, that practiced a completely different system of government. It wasn't the Canadians or Brits, who as least were allies and similar to us in government and lifestyle. It was the Russians, who were thought of as some backwards ass and simple military power, yet they were repeatedly beating the so called leader of the world at their own game, technology, and doing it on the world stage. Everyone noticed the Soviets were doing fantastic feats on a new frontier.

America has little choice but to respond, for both military and political reasons. That's why Glenn's flight was so celebrated. It signaled that America had a shot at beating the Russians, if not now, then at some point down the line. It was small renewal of faith that the United States could still do incredible technological deeds.

That's a pretty dumb reason to do something.

I will be the first to admit that humans rarely do something for logical reasons.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:58 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


With the 2012 military budget alone, we could explore space, build a new supercollider, fund wolf habitat awareness, AND give everyone below the poverty line a living wage (more or less).

Arguing that we should cut the space program to fund other science and humanitarian programs is arguing over table scraps.
posted by muddgirl at 12:04 PM on February 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


Arguing that we should cut the space program to fund other science and humanitarian programs is arguing over table scraps.

I'm pretty sure that military spending on space dwarfs NASA spending and always has.
posted by empath at 12:09 PM on February 20, 2012


Current DoD Space budget, $26 billion.

Current Nasa Budget, $19 Billion
posted by empath at 12:14 PM on February 20, 2012


Muddgirl was proabably talking about the entire military budget and how it could be used to fund space and numerous other things.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:20 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The combined DoD Space and NASA Space budget are dwarfed by what we have been spending JUST on Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Afghanistan and other counter terror operations; Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), providing enhanced security at military bases; and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
posted by muddgirl at 12:28 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the heart of this problem (and like nineteen other budget-related problems) is that (a) there are crazy people who expect the US military budget to grow ~3% each year in real dollars; (b) people really don't understand just how much we spend on defense relative to everything else.

The first point means that defense spending grows faster than everything else, and thus eats a larger share of the total budget with each passing year.

Pursuant to the second point, I tried to find a poll I read about last year, but I'll have settle for this paraphrase from a think tank:

“Fifty-eight percent of Americans know that Pentagon spending is larger than any other nation, but almost none know it is up to seven times that of China,” Wheeler wrote recently. “Most had no idea the defense budget is larger than federal spending for education, Medicare or interest on the debt.”

I'm not saying I know the magic number that will keep us safe, and I'm sure the average voter doesn't either. But if more people had a better sense of the proportions — and understood that we could build, say, high-speed-rail with the change we'd find between the cushions of the couch at the Pentagon — then I think it'd be more politically palatable to start talking about sensible defense cuts.
posted by savetheclocktower at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not saying that we should take 1.23 trillion dollars and spend that on all my pet projects. I'm saying that when we're talking about spending cuts, it's frankly stupefying that we are cutting NASA's miniscule budget (and the NSF, and HHS, etc etc).
posted by muddgirl at 12:35 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am saying that we should spend tha t1.23 trillion on my pet projects.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:39 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree that we should dramatically cut defense spending, regardless of where the money goes. I don't, however, think that 'we should cut defense spending so we can build a moon colony' is a good argument.

The only way that's going to happen is if we cut it so much that we can do it with pocket change. Stuff like social security, health care, etc, are going to come first.
posted by empath at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Come on. We don't really need a space-based laser to etch "Brandon" on the moon.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2012


Maybe you didn't preview, empath? I don't think we should cut defense spending to build a moon colony. I DO think we should fulfill our commitment to the ISS, and that we should recognize space STEMs as an important contribution to humanity. NOT because I want to frolic on the moon with the ghost of Heinlein, but because we inhabit Space.
posted by muddgirl at 12:50 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I'm not a huge fan of Newt Gingrich, but it was very enlightening to see the response to his suggestion of a lunar colony. Was it a political sop to the fact that he was campaigning in a state that derives much of its economy from NASA? Of course. But to most of the punditry and intelligentsia, the idea of a moon colony was not only far-fetched, it was laughable and derisive."

It wasn't so much that people thought the idea was far-fetched, just that is was so incongruous in terms of the "Cut EVERYTHING!" tone of the Republican primary debates.

I think it was also a matter of word choice. The word "Colony" started getting batted around, even though I don't think Gingrich actually said "Colony"on the trail .. then it got wrapped up in all the "Moon Statehood" stuff and snowballed from there.

Maybe if the Human Spaceflight budget was shifted over to the DoD, putting off planet survival under a "Security" banner and leave NASA to focus entirely on science and exploration, then the budget would be put in more immediate perpective.
posted by striatic at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2012


I do think it's depressing to see manned space flight dying; the reasons might be good to prefer unmanned space exploration, but for sheer inspirational value, there's nothing like manned space flight. My five year old son wants to be an astronaut, just like virtually ever other five year old in the world, for a simple reason: the idea inspires child-like wonder about the universe and the potential for life in it. It gives him something to aspire to, and helps me encourage his interest in science.

I honestly think if I were to tell him today, no, son, there is absolutely no chance you will ever be able to fly in space, it would break his heart forever. And it would break mine, too, to have to say it.

You can beat me on the pure mathematics of the issue, sure, but the poetry of manned spaceflight--and its intangible value to society--is inexpressible.

In so many ways, the manned space program has always been a beautiful idea that gives people hope and inspires our shared sense of adventure. There's no way to chart that kind of value on a graph or calculate it down to the nearest Nth decimal point, but the current fashion for rigidly mathematical approaches to understanding and defining social value is just about the most dismal product modernity has to offer anyway, and while I get all the arguments against manned space flight and the general cynicism around it, I'll never be able to explain it to my son, and I don't want to. The attraction to manned space-travel is a romantic one, to be sure, but a life without romance isn't much of a life.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:14 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I do think it's depressing to see manned space flight dying;

It's not dying, it's just that America isn't doing it at the moment. Instead, we're trying to jumpstart a private space industry, so 10 years down the road, the situation may look much better.

India (ISRO), Ecuador (EXA), Japan (JAXA), Iran (ISA) and Malaysia (MNSA) are all in various stages of preparing for manned space flight. I suspect India will be the 4th country to send humans into space, probably by the by 2020.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:41 PM on February 20, 2012


I hope you're right, and I'm being too pessimistic, but it sure feels like it's dying. Get back to me in ten years and we'll see. So far privatization hasn't really worked out as advertised in other areas. And Russia's manned transports to the ISS haven't proven nearly as reliable as they were billed in advance. And I'm none too optimistic we won't have our hands full with bigger problems in ten years. But at least there's still hope.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:56 PM on February 20, 2012


I think we should explore space, but by proxy. And by "by proxy", I mean robots. Really. Getting humans up into space and keeping them alive is by far the most expensive aspect of space exploration. We should have a race-to-the-moon-type of concentrated effort (difficult without a competing enemy nation, I know) to put robots up there. Smart robots, that can harvest raw material from asteroids, create more robots, create moon bases and probes for all the planets. Robots that create batteries and charged them up and drop them down to us. All they need are some solar panels and they're good to go for decades.

Once the robots have paved the way, then us humans can get there much easier.
posted by zardoz at 2:01 PM on February 20, 2012


Once the robots have paved the way, then us humans can get there much easier

Oh, here's robot zardoz come to tell us all that robots should be in charge of everything AGAIN. "Roboastronauts are cool!", "I think ROBOTS should have the last piece of pie!!", "Hey guys let's have a robot president called Gorebot 2000!!!". This guy couldn't pass the turing test with 100 point head start, lemme tell ya.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:11 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


If the idea is to use robots to make a bridge for humanity to the stars, I can get behind that. But entirely abandoning the dream of humanity one day becoming a space-faring species, that just triggers a suffocating feeling in my chest. I know it's not rational. But that's my point. Not everything humans value has to be or should be coldly rational. We might as well be snakes or cockroaches if our outlook on the universe has to be rigidly constrained by cold rationality.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:20 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hell, you don't even have to be a country to send people in to space. In Denmark, there's amateurs trying to do it. Previously.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:26 PM on February 20, 2012


If the idea is to use robots to make a bridge for humanity to the stars, I can get behind that. But entirely abandoning the dream of humanity one day becoming a space-faring species, that just triggers a suffocating feeling in my chest. I know it's not rational. But that's my point. Not everything humans value has to be or should be coldly rational. We might as well be snakes or cockroaches if our outlook on the universe has to be rigidly constrained by cold rationality.

I think the idea that humans will enter space should be a "not yet" rather than "never". The moonshot was pushed ahead of time—and our imagination way ahead of that—because it was politically feasible to spend more money on it than otherwise. We need not change our eventual goals, but rather set a more reasonable timescale for them. It is hard to think in hundreds of years rather than decades, but it's more realistic. In the meantime, surely the romance of exploration and discovery can be sought elsewhere?
posted by Jehan at 2:38 PM on February 20, 2012


look if you want "inspiration" just play a video game or watch someone else play one

Bonus Director's Cut Extra
look if you want "inspiration" why don't you get a job and earn it like the rest of us

posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:41 PM on February 20, 2012


In the meantime, surely the romance of exploration and discovery can be sought elsewhere?

As far as I know, science fiction is a larger genre than one that covers exploring the Gobi desert, Antarctica or the underwater sea. Getting off planet has certain "come hither" look that many fall in love with.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:43 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


2012 NASA Budget: $17.77 billion
2012 US Military Budget: $1.03 trillion"


The entire sum we have spent on NASA since its inception in 1958 is not even half of this year's annual US military budget.

Not. Even. Half. Of one year.

Making budget cuts to NASA funding in order to save money is like patching up a Benelli M3 wound with a glow in the dark spongebob band-aid.
posted by elizardbits at 3:01 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Pretty interesting discussion on here about the benefits of spaceflight and the space program, and funding for stuff like this or other projects, and thanks for that (truly), buuut...

Did anyone else think it was pretty cool to learn tidbits like this? (Or maybe you knew these already)

1) The mission was Mercury-Atlas 6, but Glenn dubbed the spacecraft Friendship 7 after the original seven astronauts in the US program.
2) The Atlas rocket had blown up on test flights, and was somewhat unreliable (thanks to an earlier commenter mentioning that some thought Glenn's flight had a one in *six* chance of blowing up... good lord!)
3) NASA picked up a signal indicating a problem with Friendship 7's heat shield, and they had Glenn leave his retrorocket package on the base of the craft during reentry to give extra protection -- and they weren't sure he was going to make it through reentry. Crazy! I never heard that story. Nice info in the original post, plus some good tidbits on the wikipedia page for Mercury-Atlas 6.

That Twitter feed from the John Glenn School of Public Affairs was pretty cool, especially the parts about seeing parts of the craft breaking off in reentry.

Also, my $0.02 about the 'should we spend money on spaceflight' -- other than to second all of smedleyman's great points in his earlier post -- is that space is cool and it's an unknown frontier and we have a pretty deep-seated desire to explore those places and try to better understand them, whether they're vast, like the oceans or the skies, or very tiny, like cells or atoms. And you can't always do a cost-benefit analysis on discovery and understanding -- many times, these things will have little or no practical value right away, if ever, but *sometimes* they do pay off, even if it takes decades or centuries. And the point is the discovery and exploration itself, not the payoff.
posted by jsr1138 at 3:17 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Here's my dumb opinion now that I've had time to think about this stuff:

Yes, we should absolutely spend more on space exploration, however we end up doing the exploring. Yes, manned spaceflight is expensive, and that's part of the problem for me; I get the ideals of exploration and “because it's next” and all that Sam Seaborn shit, but those ideals only buy you so many orders of magnitude of cost increase. It's hard to wax poetic when we pay for a manned mission to Mars instead of twenty unmanned projects that might be better able to tell us stuff we don't yet know.

(These numbers are rectal approximations, but that's my point. There's a number at which the wanderlust is just Not Worth It, but I imagine it varies from person to person.)

But, hey, I'm not an astronaut, and I trust smart people to figure this stuff out without my interference. But something else nags at me: I'm absolutely convinced that the Next Big Science Thing is not going to be space-related.

For no good reason, I'm confident there will be another Space Race–type event in my lifetime, where we make a breakthrough and suddenly things are possible that weren't before, and we give ourselves a deadline to do something extraordinary. But I'd bet anything that it happens in a completely different field of study, batteries or soybeans or superconductors or something like that, and I wouldn't want the US to lose that race because we couldn't stop staring at the night sky.

If I controlled the budget, NASA would be getting way more money, but only because I'd be writing blank checks to anyone wearing a lab coat. I think the best shit the US has ever done has come from paying smart people to sit around and brainstorm. Anyone who's ever used the internet or GPS should agree that it's a damn good way to spend taxpayer dollars. But it's annoying to try to persuade people to this point and get derailed into an argument about NASA and whether it's worth it to go back to the moon. Treating NASA like the public face of government science research does a disservice both to NASA and to government science research.
posted by savetheclocktower at 4:48 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the meantime, surely the romance of exploration and discovery can be sought elsewhere?

I remember having a foursome in Split, Croatia, with a female military officer, her rich professional tennis player girlfriend and a former olympic swimmer I'd met. She knew someon at Diocletian’s palace (yes, that Diocletian), so after making love for hours, we're in the belfry on the marble resting on soft pillows and thick towels, eating pasticada and brazier cooked honey lamb and roasted lemon, drinking Karlovacko beer and hundred year old bottles of wine from grapes island vineyards with a lineage that goes back 500 years before the founding of the Roman Empire.

And after the warm sea air has cooled us off we're eating nougat for dessert and making more love and drinking sweet sparkling wine and licking yogurt off each other, overlooking the jewel of the Corinthian pillared Dalmatian coast, watching the sunset daub the pure tuff stone walls and dapple waves in the Adriatic sea.

And I'm thinking, shit, I might as well be jerking off in the shower. Pretty much the same thing really.

Why not start with Mariana's Trench?
I think it's a dead giveaway that one of the first two guys down there was named Jacques Piccard.

But yeah, the Trieste was extremely valuable in designing modern DSVs. And understanding human physiology and sustaining life under a variety of conditions we're not normally subjected to. Always seemed like an end in itself to me.

And of course, we haven't gone back there either. I'd like to see that too.

I think it's a fundamental loss of the acceptance of sacrifice as a natural progression. Sacrifice for an ideal, for the future, something. Some kind of meaningful purpose.

Robots are more efficient than people for a bunch of things. I don't dispute that. They can't live our lives for us though. We might transfer our consciousness into more durable bodies at some point, but we're still going have to decide whether something is worth working so hard to achieve that it's worth dying for. Or asking someone else to die for it.

That's a powerful thing.
When is the last time we believed in a scientific cause and so much had a stake in the future that we asked someone to risk their lives for it? And they believed in it so much they were willing to die for it, and publicly.

It's a powerful statement that's going to be bound up with funding.
Doesn't make it right or wrong - or logical, but it's an accurate observance of human nature.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:17 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Our manned space program was an unsustainable stunt... Our national treasure was wasted to realize Werner Von Braun's dream in his lifetime.

You've never bothered to actually think about this. That amount of money spent on the space program pales in comparison to just about anything else the government does. If manned space flight is "unsustainable", then so are roads.
posted by spaltavian at 5:21 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) The mission was Mercury-Atlas 6, but Glenn dubbed the spacecraft Friendship 7 after the original seven astronauts in the US program

Hey, if you think that's interesting, check these tidbits!

All the Mercury flights seven in the name, based on those first seven astronauts. There were, in order:

1. Freedom 7-Alan Shepard
2. Liberty 7-Gus Grissom
3. Friendship 7-John Glenn
4. Aurora 7-Scott Carpenter
5. Sigma 7-Wally Schirra
6. Faith 7-Gordon Cooper

What happened to the seventh flight? That would have been Delta 7, which was supposed to be launched after Glenn's flight. Deke Slayton was going to be the pilot. But doctors had discovered an erratic heart rate during testing and nobody knew what the hell that would do to a man in space. So they pulled him out of the astronaut corps and bumped his pilot's lesson down to a Class 2, meaning he wasn't allowed to fly solo anymore. What'd he do? Well, since everyone knew more astronauts were going to be hired, some one would need to run the astronaut office. The other Mercury astronauts figured if they were going to get a boss, it might as well be one of them, so they suggested Deke apply for the job. He did, got it and went on to be the major decision maker for picking crews in the Gemini and Apollo programs.

It's hard to wax poetic when we pay for a manned mission to Mars instead of twenty unmanned projects that might be better able to tell us stuff we don't yet know.

The James Webb telescope is eating up money left and right, to the point where NASA had to pull out a of a couple of joint Mars exploration projects. Why is Webb so expensive? Because it is going to do something that's never been done before, in a place that can't be reached to fix or service it. Figuring out how to do all of these unknown things isn't cheap. How much would NASA need to continue building the telescope and do the joint Mars mission? $300 million. So close and yet so far...

Naturally if the Mars project succeeds and brings back a soil sample from Mars or makes some awesome discovery, Congress will scream bloody murder about NASA's incompetence and mismanagement. Yay, politics.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:10 PM on February 20, 2012


so after making love for hours, we're in the belfry on the marble resting on soft pillows and thick towels, eating pasticada and brazier cooked honey lamb and roasted lemon, drinking Karlovacko beer and hundred year old bottles of wine...

OK, with you so far...
posted by jsr1138 at 6:49 PM on February 20, 2012


If manned space flight is "unsustainable", then so are roads.

Yeah, but roads stick around decades after they're built and anyone can drive on them. The total social utility we get from I-95 alone dwarfs the entirety of the manned space program.

On the other hand, a robot spacecraft has a 100x chance of proving there's life on Mars than a manned program -- a potential to dwarf the accomplishment of every road ever built.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:59 PM on February 20, 2012


On the other hand, a robot spacecraft has a 100x chance of proving there's life on Mars than a manned program...

And what practical benefit would discovering life on Mars provide?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:01 PM on February 20, 2012


And what practical benefit would discovering life on Mars provide?

Oh, nothing much, really. Ushering in a new age of mankind that involves a radical re-think of every social norm ever conceived. You know, that sort of thing. Pretty mundane next to Velcro and Tang, if you stop to think about it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:14 PM on February 20, 2012


If manned space flight is "unsustainable", then so are roads.

Yeah, but roads stick around decades after they're built and anyone can drive on them.


I wasn't arguing the merits of the expenditure, just the notion that manned space flight was somehow bankrupting us.
posted by spaltavian at 7:19 PM on February 20, 2012


i think we are missing the big picture here, which is that nerds
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:13 AM on February 21, 2012


And what practical benefit would discovering life on Mars provide?

If just 100 out of every million people get a taste of existential angst, I would consider this to be any price worth paying. If just 50 of those 100 people take it to heart and decide to, perhaps, become better or more learned or more conscientious or even only a little less selfish or a little more imaginative, I would consider this to be any time or effort worth spending.

I don't consider that a selfless and grandiose thing to say because, seriously, most human beings with enough power or money or potential (i.e. Americans, sadly) to make a difference are, or at least act like, selfish little shits. We need all the help we can get.

Besides, it'd be funny to watch a number of the fanatical religious right go into a panic for a short time.
posted by DisreputableDog at 1:25 AM on February 21, 2012


Gobi desert ... North Atlantic ... Mariana's Trench

The best terrestrial analogue to what a moon base would actually be like is probably the American base on Antarctica. It's something, but it's nothing like an "insurance policy against extinction". We don't have the politics, psychology, physiology, or technology to build a thriving civilization anywhere off-planet. It's a worthy goal, but I wouldn't expect success in anything less than hundreds of years, if ever. Such an outpost would not survive long if cut off from the resources of the earth. Individuals who go there may enjoy it, but it's not really likely to ever be the salvation of the whole species.
posted by sfenders at 4:16 AM on February 21, 2012


JOHN GLENN: ‘I CLAIMED EARTH FOR MYSELF WHILE ORBITING PLANET’

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:48 AM on February 21, 2012


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