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Making Space Omelettes
September 12, 2009 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Last Tuesday, The Augstine Commission - an independent council created earlier this year to study NASA's human spaceflight objectives - released their findings. While many are responding to the report's grim findings on NASA's budget woes, former aerospace engineer Rand Simberg has a criticism of his own: "If our attitude toward the space frontier is that we must strive to never, ever lose anyone, it will remain closed. If our ancestors who opened the west, or who came from Europe, had such an attitude, we would still be over there, and there would have been no California space industry to get us to the moon forty years ago. It has never been 'safe' to open a frontier, and this frontier is the harshest one that we've ever faced."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (104 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change rather than wasting money on opening a new "frontier"? We have to get used to the fact that Earth is all we have. There is no rational reason for exploring space.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:04 AM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's funny that they invoke the exploration of the new world and the western migration in North America. They both had something that current space exploration lacks, which is great economic benefit for individuals. People went west because they were either going after gold, free land, or believed that there was a good chance to lift themselves up economically. While Europe had its Age of Exploration, much of that exploration had to do with a search for natural resources and riches. If scientific curiosity is all that is motivating the people of our world to go forward into space, then we will always just crawl our way to the moon, to Mars, and perhaps beyond.

If real riches and economic benefit was awaiting the world out in the stars, such that dwarfed the costs and risks, then the solar system would be flooded with humanity. I very much hope to watch on my tv someday a human setting foot on Mars, but it will be just that, a trip and return and nothing more as the world is at the moment.

It's by no means surprising that the biggest leap in interest in space craft development has risen with the idea of commercializing tourist trips to space, or providing incentives for companies that will bring them much more profit.

That or this planet will have to become so gosh darn awful that people will be climbing over themselves to live somewhere else.
posted by Atreides at 11:08 AM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Maybe if we focused on space a bit more, we wouldn't be so apt to stumble into so many military misadventures like those you feel need our attention. I'd rather have arms merchants busy making rocket fuel and O-rings than bombs.
posted by RavinDave at 11:11 AM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


And yet the federal government thinks nothing of tossing tens of thousands of our finest young men and women (and their expensive training) onto desolate Iraqi and Afghanistani roads to get blown up like chumps by IEDs to no discernable advantage to anyone. Think of it: More than 3,000 astronauts would have to die in space before we even came close to matching the life-wastage of our federal government's military adventures of the past several years. If they considered astronauts lives as expendible as they consider soldier's lives, why we'd... uh, I don't know what it would mean. But it's a comparison, anyway.
posted by Faze at 11:11 AM on September 12, 2009 [9 favorites]


... the fact that Earth is all we have . There is no is a rational reason for exploring space.

Changed that for you. Won't say fixed, because obviously there's plenty of room for rational disagreement there. We're going to expand into space sometime (unless we kill ourselves off.)
posted by ecurtz at 11:17 AM on September 12, 2009 [11 favorites]


And yet the federal government thinks nothing of tossing tens of thousands of our finest young men and women (and their expensive training) onto desolate Iraqi and Afghanistani roads to get blown up like chumps by IEDs to no discernable advantage to anyone

There were plenty of people who were 'advantaged' by those wars.

Anyway, I don't really see what the point is in human exploration at this point. All of it can be done with robots at this point.
posted by delmoi at 11:17 AM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why do anything at all when there's other stuff to do?

We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.

An often-ignored benefit of space activities involves its capacity to increase international cooperation and generate goodwill. A return to the moon will bring the international community together in an activity that pits man against the cosmos. An international effort will not only lower costs through the pooling of resources, it will create concrete links between the U.S., Russia, Japan, Europe, even China; and this will have tremendous symbolic over-tones.

What can it do for war, famine, and disease? Increase international cooperation, developed rapid advances in growing nutrient dense crops in small areas under unusual condition, rapid development in water recycling and conservation technology, and development of medical tests, equipment, and procedures that can be used by people with minimal medical training to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases when a doctor simply cannot be consulted.

Plus it's fucking awesome.
posted by Science! at 11:19 AM on September 12, 2009 [35 favorites]


Traveling on Earth is relatively cheap. It can be done on a personal level, allowing an individual to own the risk. You could head into the frontier with a horse and a sack of beads and possibly do alright.

Space travel is REALLY expensive. It takes massive amounts of government funding or private investors. As a result, the risk is shared. The people funding space travel are not those doing the actual traveling. As a result, they're conservative because they're putting someones life at risk and they're not too keen on seeing their multi-million dollar investment explode into a billion tiny bits.
posted by fatbobsmith at 11:19 AM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


No rational reason except for a lot of cheap metal and energy, and the chance to get some of the dirty-making stuff on the outside of our biosphere, as God intended.
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:19 AM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


If real riches and economic benefit was awaiting the world out in the stars,

oh, it very much is, but it takes a lot of energy to get there and back.

I'm all for a big space program but think it should be rational and robotic. The cowboy stuff can wait.

This direction has strong overlap with wealth extraction here on Earth. It's intolerable that mineral riches are distributed so unequally.

Sending people out is a gross misallocation of capital, and a waste of rocket scientist talent. "We choose these not because they are easy, but because they are hard" -- a prime glittering generality.

Japan built out its shinkansen system while we were bringing rocks -- rocks! -- from the moon. It's as if we have rocks in our heads.
posted by Palamedes at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


... the fact that Earth is all we have . There is no is a rational reason for exploring space.

Recorded human history is what, five thousand years old? The human race evolved just about 100,000 years ago, and the sun won't explode for billions of years. We have plenty of time to figure it out. And also, getting to mars, etc, won't help anything.
posted by delmoi at 11:22 AM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is no rational reason for exploring space.

Allow me to modify that by saying there is no rational reason for manned exploration of space. Unmanned space exploration, either through telescopes or (more recently) probes can be extremely valuable and rewarding in various areas of science. High-energy physics, theoretical physics, geology and so on.

Manned exploration can do the same things, but vastly more unsafe, infinitesimally smaller mission lengths and at an exponentially larger cost.

I think the key to this discussion is that the manned-exploration fanatics have some very sweeping romantic notions about humanity and our place in the universe (and yes, I blame SF. Vaporize me.) Homo sapiens will never be a galaxy-spanning or even solar-system spanning species (in the sense that we will be able to create self-sustaining ecologies for ourselves around other stars or even around other planets in our own system). Fuck, we can't even create "self-sustaining" right here.

We need to get used to the fact that Earth is our home, probably always will be, that we are going to go extinct one day and that is OK. Once we get those priorities straight, we can go about the very difficult task (of which space travel is easy by comparison) of improving our home for the generations to come.
posted by Avenger at 11:23 AM on September 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.

Robots, I say. Bigger payouts. Less capital. Better applications. Ignoring the Terminator aspect here, the day the robots start making robots the promise of the industrial revolution will become complete and we'll have to start thinking about how to create another economy.
posted by Palamedes at 11:24 AM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Time for Wilde and knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Or vice versa, if you like.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:25 AM on September 12, 2009


Also, manned vs. unmanned is the biggest NERD FIGHT since Yoda vs. Dracula.
posted by Avenger at 11:33 AM on September 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


I love the space program. Maybe it is because I grew up 20 minutes from the Johnson Space Center. Maybe it is because I'm not a particularly religious person, but the vastness of space reminds me how small I am. It reminds me that the social problems that we fight about today are infinitesimally small when lined up in the history of even just our solar system alone. And it reminds me that they'll get better.

Space exploration and social progress are not the great Sophie's Choice of our generation, and to pretend that they are is far more simple than MetaFilter deserves.
posted by greekphilosophy at 11:33 AM on September 12, 2009 [8 favorites]


Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change rather than wasting money on opening a new "frontier"? We have to get used to the fact that Earth is all we have. There is no rational reason for exploring space.

CAN YOU FIND ALL 15 FALLACIES HIDDEN IN THIS PARAGRAPH?
posted by DU at 11:35 AM on September 12, 2009 [11 favorites]


Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change rather than wasting money on opening a new "frontier"?

Let's assume you meant them in that order, and that war is the worst problem the world faces.

Then, following your logic that we should not do anything with one problem until another is completely solved, it would be better to address war to the exclusion of all other human problems until there is no war. Only after war is rendered permanently impossible would it make sense to address famine, and at that point we should expend the entire productive capacity of the planet solving famine. Only after famine is permanently and irreversibly defeated should we even begin to consider the problem of climate change, and at that point we should again devote the entire productive capacity of the planet to solving that problem for all time.

But, of course you don't mean that. Like anyone sane, you want the world to pursue a variety of different things at the same time, and work simultaneously to solve many problems of differing intensity.

But once you accept that we can work on many problems at the same time, the entire argument that we should not do anything with space exploration because some other problem remains unsolved collapses like a bunch of broccoli.

There are of course many reasonable arguments one can make against space exploration and manned space exploration in particular, or against the particular levels of resources devoted to them. But you didn't make any of those; you made the one you made.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2009 [10 favorites]


We should choose to go to space -- manned space -- not because it is easy, nor because it is hard, but because it would be the best story ever told, far better than Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, yes, even better than M*A*S*H. Because putting a handful of humans up there in space where they are at the mercy of science, skill and chance would grip the the planet's collective consciousness all at once -- something utterly amazing, fantastic, and beyond the wildest dreams of billions. We should go to space so those billions who are left behind can dream about going to space -- can dream about something other than their walls, their job, and cleaning up baby shit. We should go because it's something we can do together, even if all most people can contribute is a few rubles/rupees/dollars in taxes. We should go because perhaps the most important thing humanity is lacking right now is the ability for me to go out at night on a cloudless evening and point to the second star to the right and say to my step-son, "there are people up there, right now."

That's why.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:40 AM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Avenger: Fuck, we can't even create "self-sustaining" right here.

By that standard we couldn't even generate and channel electric power into marvelously complex devices such as the computer you typed that on... until the time came when we could, which was pretty recently on a historic scale.

Right now we suck at sustainability, but it's for lack of will rather than lack of ability. No inherent reason to assume we won't figure it out in the next century or two.

We need to get used to the fact that Earth is our home, probably always will be, that we are going to go extinct one day and that is OK.

That, my friends, is what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe space exploration (manned or unmanned) is a fool's errand, maybe not. But what the fuck else are we going to do with our time? I'd rather try and fail to expand beyond our limitations, than just accept The Real Housewives of New Jersey as the peak of human civilization.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:41 AM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


I find it depressing that the moment anyone brings up the space program, someone (or several someones) out there trot out the old "we have other problems to solve" canard.

As though the Department of Defense doesn't spend the entire NASA annual budget approximately every three days. As though the economic payoff for the manned AND unmanned space program has not been many times its cost in investment.

As though there isn't a space telescope out there right now that will tell us in less than 5 years just how frequent Earth-like planets are in the galaxy.

As though the entire 20th Century is insufficient proof that science, engineering, and technology can achieve things that were not only previously considered impossible, but were previously never imagined.

"Oh we'll never get a toehold outside of Earth because the stars are too far away and the solar system is too inhospitable" sounds an awful lot like "Heavier than air powered flight? you're loony."

The failure of imagination I find even at a highly educated and imaginative place like Metafilter depresses and distresses me. Because it means even here, where I've found the most rational, creative and intelligent people as you can probably find on the entire internet, the possibilities are just too many or too hard to grasp for some very influential members.
posted by chimaera at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2009 [34 favorites]


Does any other society describe space as a "frontier" or is this a unique conception? Beliefs that space exploration is an investment and must be risky seem to stem from this. It's not that rewards can't come from such exploration, or that people won't die in the course of exploring, but rather that it's almost necessary for venture to be considered successful. People have to be inspired and challenged by the very act of going into space, not solely what can be done and seen there.

Why isn't space thought of like Antarctica or deep sea trenches? A scientific process of unfolding and understanding, and not a conquest or expansion. People should go into space, but not with the wrong mindset.
posted by Sova at 11:45 AM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why isn't space thought of like Antarctica or deep sea trenches? A scientific process of unfolding and understanding, and not a conquest or expansion. People should go into space, but not with the wrong mindset.

Probably because Antarctica has been "conquered" in that the south pole has been reached, and the deep sea trenches, a la bottom of the sea, just seems familiar. More to the point, the idea of exploring space has been dressed in adventure, romance, and excitement for than a hundred years.
posted by Atreides at 11:56 AM on September 12, 2009


Exploration of the Americas analogy would work much better if we could say "It would take Spain 80% of their yearly budget to send 5 people to Mexico."
posted by rainy at 12:00 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why isn't space thought of like Antarctica or deep sea trenches?

because to get anything done in this country you've got to buffalo people with bullshit. cf:

"the possibilities are just too many or too hard to grasp for some very influential members."
posted by Palamedes at 12:04 PM on September 12, 2009


rainy: NASA's annual budget is around 0.5% of the federal budget and an even smaller proportion of US government spending when you count state and local budgets as well. That's a far cry from 80%.
posted by zachlipton at 12:06 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Please folks, when you come down for or against manned spaceflight, can you clarify whether you mean "starting immediately" or "starting some distant point in the future, perhaps 50-100 years." Because these two things are quite different.

Given enough money, we know that with current technology we can throw some poor bastards outward into the solar system some distance while they live lousy, shortened and basically pointless lives for little more than nationalistic pride. Pretty much anything they do up there can be done by machines more cheaply (or reliably, pick one). If all it comes down to is to prove that humanity can create a closed but functioning ecosystem artificially, it makes much more sense to send them into an ocean instead of to Mars.

If the goal is to expand humanity's physical living space, then there are more important things to be done first - 1) find a suitable location that would allow colonies to become relatively self-sufficient (water, minerals etc), 2) design and refine the transport systems that would be cheap, reliable and powerful enough get the colony to that location, and 3) seek out some way for the colonies to interact in the economy of the Earth - mining, low-grav factories, R&D, whatever - those folks have to DO something out there, or they might as well be back on Earth.

All of the 3 above can be done without launching humans right now, and guess what... it's already happening. So to talk about sending humans out there in the near future makes little scientific or economic sense.
posted by vanar sena at 12:07 PM on September 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


Someday this planet is going to end.
posted by showmethecalvino at 12:13 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Also, manned vs. unmanned is the biggest NERD FIGHT since Yoda vs. Dracula.

Once, I would have said Yoda would have wiped the floor with Dracula. But then when he couldn't outright school Christopher Lee, I revised my opinion a bit of Yoda's awesomeness.

Ah, right...the whole space exploration thing...
posted by darkstar at 12:14 PM on September 12, 2009


There is no rational reason for exploring space.

Many comments have tried giving you a rational reason. However, there's not always a requirement for a rational reason.


There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon... (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

posted by DreamerFi at 12:16 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's my opinion: If we decide to abandon manned spaceflight and stay on Earth we will die. Might not be now, might not be 200 years from now - but there are dangers in the universe that we cannot defend against at this point that I know of and I'm sure there are even worse things out there that we have never seen.

If we don't get hit by an asteroid (which has happened multiple times in Earth's History) or by something more exotic, we will die due to overcrowding and stagnation. At this point in our history, we have the vast majority of people living in pretty much poverty and a small amount of us in the first world living high on the hog. What happens when the rest of the world decides they want the same standard of living? It's already happening now. Look at the projections for car use in China and India for the next 20 years. We've been living on the oil credit card for a long time but it's starting to reach its limit. We need a stable source of energy that is more powerful than oil and that will last for the long term. The only place to get that is outside of Earth.

And no offense, but we all stay here the eco system will be pretty much fucked. At some point or another. Even if we educate and actually regulate pollution in something more than the ridiculous way we do now, there will be too many of us here to have it work out. We will need more living space. Sooner or later.

These are all practical reasons. But there's another side.

We are standing at the vast wilderness in our tiny, tiny little village. We can see the unknown extending on perhaps forever and you're telling me you don't want to go? Bullshit.

The entire course of human history has been driven by exploring, by going out to the wilderness and testing ourselves against it. By learning and adapting. By doing more than just surviving. So you think, just because we've explored the Earth that we're done? We should just sit back and stop. We're about 3 years old as a species at this point. We haven't even reached our front door. We should be doing more.

Maybe NASA isn't the organization to do it. And yes, robots should have a very big role, but they should be aides to humanity, not humanity's replacement. Maybe the crux reason hasn't been found yet. Maybe we will be stupid and wait until the very last second, when the vast stupidity that is humanity's group awareness realizes "oh shit, we're out of fuel!". But we're going out there. Or we'll die.

So personally, I'd appreciate it if everyone who wants to just stay here gets out of the way.
posted by concreteforest at 12:19 PM on September 12, 2009 [16 favorites]


We went to space and discovered that once you've been to one lifeless satellite orbiting a star you've been to them all.
posted by geoff. at 12:23 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


What about an irrational reason? We should go into space because the GOV'TS MIND CONTROL LASERS can't point outwards - it's the only way to escape the influence of the evil lizard-aliens who inhabit our leaders' bodies.
posted by R_Nebblesworth at 12:31 PM on September 12, 2009


Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change rather than wasting money on opening a new "frontier"? We have to get used to the fact that Earth is all we have. There is no rational reason for exploring space.
I started writing up a big long reply to this, one of the stupidest things that's posted in every space thread ever, but then I realized KokoRyu is trolling, and we're all feeding him, so I decided to go read a book instead.
posted by !Jim at 12:31 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


We can start building bases and terraforming, etc, without humans. Let's just keep launching robots and start building bases and factories on the moon and mars. It'll be time to send humans when we have everything necessary up there for humans to survive without having to come back to earth.

But I was reading about what would have to be done to make Titan, Mars and Venus, etc, inhabitable, and it just seems impossible to me. Venus has no hydrogen-- none, on the entire planet. Mars has no magnetic field to protect people from radiation, or to hold on to the atmosphere, even if we were to create an atmosphere.

You're talking thousands and thousands and thousands of years and gazillions of dollars, for what benefit? There's nothing there. Mars is just a gigantic, barren rock.

To make space travel worth-while, we'd have to go to other stars, and find other civilizations. I think we can do that without ever colonizing other planets. Alpha Centauri Direct, as it were. But you're still talking many thousands of years in the future.
posted by empath at 12:41 PM on September 12, 2009


I agree with concreteforest, hard, and he made pretty much every point I would have, so I won't even try, but I will repeat: if we don't get into space, shit's over for us as a species, one way or another. We're pretty liberal here on MeFi, so we like to think we're hot shit, with our "Why can't those idiots think long term and realize the danger of global warming?" attitudes, and we're right; but it'd be nice if we maybe didn't suffer from the same kind of limited perspective, with only a slightly longer lead time.
posted by Amanojaku at 12:44 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, water filters, insulation, cordless tools and pill transmitters that help monitor fetuses are complete wastes of time and money. Goddamn you NASA for the side benefits of manned space exploration!

Look, people this is how it works: NASA sends people in space and brings them back alive. In order to do that, they develop a lot of new technologies that wind up benefiting those back on earth.

NASA isn't the problem, rather it's the various administrations playing politics with the agency's agenda instead of funding it and getting the hell outta the way.

As to fixing other problems first, NASA achieved its greatest feats in the midst of the 60s, while America was going through major shit. Canceling the manned space program wouldn't have done a damn thing to fix those problems.

Frankly, one of the tragedies of America is that it's wiling to spend half trillion dollars per year on defense, but can't spend a tenth of that on space exploration.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:51 PM on September 12, 2009 [9 favorites]


A world without frontiers - no matter how comfortable it can be made - is horrifying to me. There's something fundamental in human nature that needs to know that there is somewhere new to go - something that hasn't been seen, someplace out of reach of the current world and it's restrictions. Whether or not it's possible for me, a middle aged woman, to go into space is not important (though it would be awesome!) - I need to know that someone is out there and that it will sometime be possible for future generations to go there. Lock us on this rock and we will die - like rats in a cage - from lack of inspiration if nothing else..
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:58 PM on September 12, 2009


if we don't get into space, shit's over for us as a species, one way or another.

I used to think like this a lot too, and then one day I realized that there is nothing inherently wrong with our extinction as a species. Sad? Sure. Tragic? I guess. "Shit", as you say, is going to be "over" for us no matter what, one way or the other. Eventually we will join a long line of successful species that, for whatever reason, failed to adapt to changing situations and then we will die out. Maybe some of us will live on and, over millions of years, become Something Else, maybe we won't.

(Actually, that's one of the neat things about evolution. There really is no definite "we". "We" exist along a gradient of biological heritage. Maybe our branch ends, maybe one day it will become the root of something different.)

My point, though, is that space colonization as a means to preserve humanity is just incredibly silly. We belong to this planet and, perhaps more importantly, we belong to this particular time in this particular planet's history. I can guarantee you, with virtually total certainty, that "we" will not be around in any recognizable sense 10 million years from now -- or even a tenth of that.

Just accept it and move on, I guess.
posted by Avenger at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


rainy: NASA's annual budget is around 0.5% of the federal budget

I'm in the pro humans-in-space camp, however, NASA space programs rely more on the Department of Defense's budget than NASA's (I'd bet the Space Shuttle has hauled more satellites with military attributes than it has purely scientific ones).
posted by zippy at 1:06 PM on September 12, 2009


Since mid-middle school, I have wanted to colonize at least one crater on the moon. I want to see this done before I die some ~50* years from now.

*Given I do not die from another inevitable war I had nothing, and could do nothing with, the climate is better than determined, and some sickness that quietly got released into the wild does not reach me.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 1:09 PM on September 12, 2009


The difference between robotic and manned space exploration is the difference between sitting in your parents' basement watching a webcam feed of some mountains and actually going backpacking for a week in the Rockies.

The threat of humanity going extinct isn't really a compelling argument in favor of exploring space, but I'd rather die trying to leave this rock than be content to just sit here thinking I can't.
posted by casarkos at 1:10 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


If nations were just out for discovery and experimentation, they would concentrate on unmanned exploration and get much more back on their investment.

Manned space exploration is preparation for taking and commercializing extraterrestrial territory: we have flags. Having a human being in place and flying your flag is a bit like holding yourself hostage. Other nations might announce that no one can legally own all or part of the Moon, but what do you tell 10,000 Chinese [or whoever] living on the Moon? That they have to leave? Make room for others? Says who? Are you going to attack their colonies? They are just exploring, conducting research, bringing back samples, just as today's Japanese conduct research on whales. Tasty, nutritious research. And once you hold the thing, well, that's nine-tenths of the law.

After discoveries are made and land is grabbed and a system is worked out for getting valuable materials back to Earth at reasonable cost, nations will act just as they did when the Old World invaded the New.
posted by pracowity at 1:11 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not opposed to "space exploration," usually no matter what the definition is, but if you see human expansion into space as an inevitability, I think you have to ask yourself some hard questions.

Is it possible to travel faster than the speed of light? We have no evidence that it is, and unless this changes it's simply impossible for humans to colonize anything. Well, unless we can terraform Mars or something equally far-fetched. I'm intentionally failing to imagine a fantastical alternative to point out that it might be a lonely truth that we're stuck in this solar system.

Will we be able to set up shop on another world before a planet-wide catastrophe hits that wipes out a majority of the life here, including us? Now this is an inevitability, so when you point out that it will be billions of years until the sun burns us up, keep in mind that's not really the kind of thing we have to worry about. As history has shown us there are plenty of other wonderful ways to go extinct.

Is it possible you've been influenced by science fiction and have strong romantic notions about what it means for humanity to be "successful"? I grew up on Star Trek and there was a time when considering that humans may never colonize the galaxy felt like a betrayal of everything I've ever valued. We're explorers! Imagine what alien species can share with us! And so on.

But imagine that the future of humanity isn't to spread out into the galaxy and remain brainy, intrepid explorers until the end of time. Perhaps the future of humanity consists of descendants in the form of small, furry ground-dwelling mammals. Based on my perhaps loose and generalized understanding of scientific evidence as it exists now, that future seems more probable than one in which humans colonize the galaxy. I know, it's not very fun or romantic; everyone wants to fly around on the Enterprise shooting photon torpedoes and rubbing Picard's head. It's just not on the top of my list of probable futures, you know?
posted by palidor at 1:12 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]



You're talking thousands and thousands and thousands of years and gazillions of dollars, for what benefit? There's nothing there. Mars is just a gigantic, barren rock.


Empath, so was earth. For millions of years. And as to nothing being there - it's a fucking planet, it's probably got enough stored energy and materials in the form of minerals to power a civilization. If you don't believe that founding a new civilization is inherently a benefit - see my post above.
posted by concreteforest at 1:13 PM on September 12, 2009


Robots vs humans really isn't a debate at this point. Humans are smart and able to improvise. As computers get smarter, this may be less of issues, but in the meantime, a combination of the two would be best.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:16 PM on September 12, 2009


I think the manned-v-unmanned controversy is silly. Obviously, you need both. But sending humans to Mars is a bit more of a show than going to the moon. I think the big short-term future for spacepeople is in orbital stations. Any long-term, large-scale space exploration program is going to need to be staged from orbit, anyway.

plus - space tourism, huh? HUH? You know you still want to be an astronaut.
posted by Casimir at 1:20 PM on September 12, 2009


And no offense, but we all stay here the eco system will be pretty much fucked. At some point or another. Even if we educate and actually regulate pollution in something more than the ridiculous way we do now, there will be too many of us here to have it work out. We will need more living space. Sooner or later.

There is still lots of space on Earth to live on, it's just under a bunch of water. Surely, it's cheaper safer and far more likely to be physically, ecologically and economically sustainable to colonize than, say, the moon? I bet lots of cool tech would come out of it making it happen, too.

NASA's job is to send stuff into space. Great! Let them do that. But to pin them and the rest of the world's space programs as the only hope for humanity is a little premature. If there is so much wasted money floating around, there are other avenues that could use some funding.

But I guess living underwater isn't sexy enough.
posted by vanar sena at 1:24 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm actually against manned spaceflight at the moment, at least, as practiced by the US. NASA has basically become Yet Another Conduit of Money to the defense industry, who is never, ever, punished for failing to do something on time, on budget, and to spec.

The disaster-in-the-making that is Constellation is the latest in the incredibly dumb mindset. What was Shuttle Derived -- so at least we'd get something for all of those development costs -- now has nothing to do with the Shuttle. The only thing left that's arguably shuttle derived is the launch transporters. Wait, those were Apollo!

And yet, despite the fact that they've rebuilt everything -- new first stage, new 2nd stage engine (based on an Apollo engine we haven't built in 40 years...), and new fiddly bits, the thing is way over budget *and* doesn't make the specs. It now cannot loft it's target mass into orbit -- can put it 2/3rds around the planet, but not into orbit.

So now, a large fraction of that target mass will need to be, in effect, another stage, to make sure that at least part of the target mass -- namely, the part with the living people in it -- actually makes it to orbit.

BTW, all that mass is mass that can't be used for missions.

So. Over budget, Under Target. I'm just waiting for "late."

So, yes, I think we should kill the manned space program in the US. Kill it dead, and if the US wants a manned space program, let's buy one from the Japanese, the Russians, hell, China.

I don't mind spending $10B on space. Hell, I would argue the country would be far better off spending $100B on space than $100B on the Defense Department. But it's obvious that we're going to get $1B of effort for our $10B, and that's just stupid.
posted by eriko at 1:28 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Tasty, nutritious research
posted by vibrotronica at 1:30 PM on September 12, 2009


Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change

If only NASA could help us understand famine and climate change...
posted by lukemeister at 1:39 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


We will need more living space. Sooner or later.

And yet the advanced nations are facing population declines this century. Odd, that.

The coldest patch of dirt 5,000 feet under the Antarctic ice pack is more hospitable than anywhere on the moon.

Now, there is an argument for not having all our DNA eggs in one planetary basket. I don't really buy it ("won't anyone think of the children!?") but it is at least supportable.

I think the best counter-argument to that though is that any amount of robotics will pay a better species survival rate than the equivalent (and lesser) amount of manned exploration, at least this century.
posted by Palamedes at 1:40 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Our manned space program was a stunt. We are planning future manned space programs to be stunts as well. We build huge vehicles of which 99% is discarded in a round trip. That will never be sustainable, it's the reason we've not been back to the moon or walked on Mars. If there is a manned road to the stars it starts from earth orbit, not from the earth's surface. It's just too damn expensive to overcome G on every trip.

We let a significant scientific program become a "Race to the Moon". If there are future, productive, sustainable, manned excursions they must be global efforts and from earth orbit.

That's if there really is a need for manned missions.
posted by shnarg at 1:40 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


If only NASA could help us understand famine and climate change...

NASA spending isn't the issue here. WHAT -- "hey! let's go to the moon again! It'll be fun!" -- they're spending it on is. Just another dumbass policy direction from the Bush years, this whole thing was an attempt to capture some "vision" PR cooked up by Rove. Just like the Freedom Car.
posted by Palamedes at 1:43 PM on September 12, 2009


Palamedes,

That's a fair point. I'm a planetary scientist, somewhat involved with lunar research, and I have mixed feelings about sending people to the Moon. It is certainly true that the 'bang for buck' is much great with robots. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with the US getting out of the manned spaceflight business entirely.
posted by lukemeister at 1:49 PM on September 12, 2009


Robots vs humans really isn't a debate at this point. Humans are smart and able to improvise. As computers get smarter, this may be less of issues, but in the meantime, a combination of the two would be best.

"We choose this challenge not because it is easy, but because it is hard".

IMHO a century from now our robots will make C3PO look like [some really crude technology example that I can't be arsed to identify right now]. The payoffs for getting there are truly immense, if not downright frightening in their total import (eg. say goodbye to a labor-based, human-centered economy). Going to the moon and mars will give us some Apollo-era rocket re-treads, plus a chance to watch some lucky dudes (plus a token dudette or two) play bouncy-house out in space.

::eye roll::
posted by Palamedes at 1:52 PM on September 12, 2009


Anyway, I don't really see what the point is in human exploration at this point. All of it can be done with robots at this point.

From the Wikipedia page on Expedition 20, the current ISS mission:
Koichi Wakata performed an experiment where he did not change his underpants in order to test a specially designed underwear which he wore for 1 month without washing or changing and did not develop body odor.
WHERE'S YOUR DAMN ROBOTS NOW, HUH?! Do you have any idea what this will do for nerds around the world?!

Anyway, NASA has a PDF on the first eight years of experiments done on the ISS. Take a browse through and see if it's something robots could have done.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:59 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Recently on wikipedia I read that the Pacific Ocean has the surface area of all the continents, plus another Africa.

I've vacationed on Maui several times and the central ocean has plenty of insolation and a steady wind energy source. Thanks to the USN in WW2, we also kinda already own most of it.

If you gave me the choice of a floating arcology in the middle of the Pacific, vs. some equivalently advanced colony on Mars, I'd take the terrestrial option. If I wanted some low-g fun I'd go into skydiving or refresh my PADI training.
posted by Palamedes at 2:07 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I loved Space as much as the next boy geek. Its enormity enforces upon us a humility suitable for the worship of deities - even if it is just, in aggregate, a cold black nothing. [Matter is so rare as to be statistically incidental - like the fragrance molecules of a spritz of perfume diffused throughout the Houston Astrodome. Surely it wouldn't make sense to describe the Astrodome in these circumstances as "perfumed".]

But we left bags of garbage on the moon. Think about that for a moment.

And there are 1,000,000,000 human beings on this planet who don't have adequate access to water.

Think about that for a moment.

I think that as long as we're a species that can permit that, the universe is better off without us.

Great thread.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:08 PM on September 12, 2009


Koichi Wakata performed an experiment where he did not change his underpants

It's because the activities on the Space Station are so lame that I'm somewhat enthusiastic about sending people to the Moon. We'd learn about how people can live in space for long periods of time (assuming we built a base) and could do a lot of good science.
posted by lukemeister at 2:11 PM on September 12, 2009


I always fail to understand what evidence gets rational people to believe things like humanoid robots and space colonization and brain uploading are inevitable or even quickly approaching events. They're all just flying cars, I tell you! Ideas that kind of follow from current events but aren't very practical even if they were anywhere near technically feasible. It's like repeating talking points you desperately want to believe. YOU'VE BEEN BRAINWASHED BY SCI-FI O'REILLY!!!! Sorry.
posted by palidor at 2:12 PM on September 12, 2009


chimaera: Arguing against large-scale funding of a space program does not imply an abandonment of a belief that "science, engineering, and technology can achieve things that were not only previously considered impossible, but were previously never imagined." Simply that by pushing funding for research in different directions that we can solve problems that need to be solved more immediately and to the benefit of greater numbers of people, and come up with solutions along the way that also deliver significant benefits to humanity. To wish to see funding directed preferentially to these other issues as a priority is not a product of irrationality but of a perfectly rational process which has concluded different prioirities than yourself.
posted by biffa at 2:14 PM on September 12, 2009


Koichi Wakata performed an experiment where he did not change his underpants in order to test a specially designed underwear which he wore for 1 month without washing or changing and did not develop body odor.

They used a highly trained astronaut and an eight-figure rocket launch? I know some grad students who would do this for a meal plan and a vague promise of an academic career.
posted by vanar sena at 2:21 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


gets rational people to believe things like humanoid robots and space colonization and brain uploading

Oh, I most certainly do not believe the 22nd century will have "humanoid" robots or necessarily meaningful brain uploading. But I do think our robotics today are the equivalent of steam-punk physical computation devices while eg. the iPod Touch represents the relative advance in capabilities we'll see a century from now. Robots don't have to be humanoid, they just need to get the job done. This is more a problem of sensors, effectors, and computer science in the aggregate.

A century from now the wireless internet, or something like it, will be the global dial tone. Cars, flying or no, will be driving themselves.
posted by Palamedes at 2:31 PM on September 12, 2009


Oh, of course, they will get the job done just like our rudimentary robots do now. It's just when someone brings up humanoid robots or human-like AI I think of a situation like, "Oh no, I spent my whole life programming this human AI for my robot buddy and now it's depressed and won't stop crying and it's getting ice cream all over my e-couch!!" Robots designed to mimic humans are not practical!!
posted by palidor at 2:37 PM on September 12, 2009


And there are 1,000,000,000 human beings on this planet who don't have adequate access to water.

Which doesn't have anything to do with a manned space program.

They used a highly trained astronaut and an eight-figure rocket launch?

He was probably doing other things too, but I'm just guessing there. A bit more about the experiment and clothes here.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:40 PM on September 12, 2009


Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change rather than wasting money on opening a new "frontier"? We have to get used to the fact that Earth is all we have. There is no rational reason for exploring space.

Leaving aside the not exactly uncontroversial claim that there is no rational reason for exploring space, let me ask whether you similarly eschew art, music, sex (when not trying to have children), food besides tasteless bland gruel, and every other part of life that isn't strictly devoted to the rational pursuit of one's own continued existence.
posted by Justinian at 2:41 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


You can find a lot of this debate we've got going here in almost identical form (minus Richard Brautigan poetry and kick-ass paintings) in Space Colonies, a Stewart Brand production from 1977 gathered out of the extended argument-by-letter on the pages of Coevolution Quarterly still further back in the day. Investment and profitability, manned/unmanned, technical advances v. opportunity cost, "fix Earth first" v. "leave the cradle planet"/create redundant settlements/etc. -- it's all there. Even the wording is sometimes the same. (These concepts turn up in the epic comments section of Charles Stross's 2007 High Frontier Redux, too.) Any debate we've been having pretty much unchanged for more than thirty years is fascinating aside from its content. These are potent ideas.

So I won't presume to weigh in with anything except a personal two cents: I've always looked up to astronauts, read SF, choked up a bit watching For All Mankind, and I would go into space tonight, if the chance was offered (just let me get my toothbrush) -- but I suspect humans in space to be mostly a noble and harmless project of achievement against incredible odds, the summiting of Everest rather than the Age of Exploration. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, quite the opposite, but that if it comes to problems of resource depletion and overpopulation I think there's a lot more value in working on new areas of materials science, cellulosic biofuels, water recycling, recapturing value from landfill, and stuff like urban planning, population control and changing the culture of consumption (and asteroid detection and deflection, of course!) than in holding out for mining the asteroid belt and living in wheel cities at the L5 point.

(Trivia note: the term "cyborg" was coined to describe the kind of person best suited for long-term activity in space, since the authors assume "the incorporation of internal exogenous devices" is probably the only solution, rather than "artificial atmospheres encapsulated in some sort of enclosure." Space capsules are for wimps! Self-regulated machine-people, capable of staying awake continuously "for flights of relatively short or moderate duration -- a few weeks or even a few months" are the future circa 1960. Forget jetpacks; what the hell happened to the space cyborgs, relentlessly concentrating and hooked up to osmotic pumps?)
posted by finnb at 2:47 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Actually, you might be able to make an argument that with a limited amount of intelligent scientist research "power" and the finite nature of fuels and material resources, space exploration and the prospect of solving earthly problems could be at odds with eachother. It'd be a pretty lame argument, though.
posted by palidor at 2:49 PM on September 12, 2009


zachlipton: Please remind me how many people NASA sent to Mars this year, on current budget.
posted by rainy at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2009


Should have previewed since finnb actually made the argument in a reasonable way.
posted by palidor at 2:51 PM on September 12, 2009


Brandon Blatcher: "[And there are 1,000,000,000 human beings on this planet who don't have adequate access to water.]

Which doesn't have anything to do with a manned space program.
"

I disagree.

If humankind has any moral obligation to itself (and most societies throughout history have at least paid lip service to the conclusion that it does) then in my personal calculation, manned spaceflight - at least at this, one hopes, as yet early moment in world history - represents a luxury so expensive as to be morally obscene.

YMMV.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:55 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Joe, if we completely shut down space flight, both manned and unmanned tomorrow, those people still wouldn't have access to water. They don't have access for a number of reasons, the least of which is space flight.

You're trying to equate two different things.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:20 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm all for space exploration, but the way forward seems muddy. Manned missions do nothing at this point but maybe help us work out some of the details of how to man missions, and while that's a worthwhile endeavor, ultimately where the hell are we going?

It's pretty much a given that with current technology, we're not going any further than Mars or Venus. It's also pretty much a given that with current technology, we're not colonizing either of those places either.

Jupiter-Pluto are right out. It's a long, long, long, long, long, long, long way to anywhere else -- where we're not even sure if there are even planets to land on.

I think we do need to continue working on space exploration, I'd like to see Nasa funded well, but it seems like what we should be focused on in the short term is not sending people to Mars (Venus seems pretty bleak as a destination) but a two-pronged approach that would include first, finding much, much faster ways of moving through space than we currently have, and secondarily, focusing a good bit more on destinations -- we need a WHY to go somewhere, other than "because we can." We already went to the Moon because we can. Good show. But.

There's lots to be done from earth orbit that would benefit humanity through advances in technology, and we could certainly use earth orbit to refine our search for other planets, if we really need to go somewhere. The short-term focus should continue on how to move large payloads safely into orbit & research into propulsion, observation (Hey! Look! An earth-like planet 175 million miles from the Dog Star!) -- here's a nice start -- & long-term survival in The Void.

I guess the upside to a Mars shot is that it might drive some of that research, but ultimately the getting there just to get there is not really even the point.

Or, here's a fun project, Nasa -- go out the the asteroid belt, and haul back a medium-sized ore-based asteroid. We could probably use that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:26 PM on September 12, 2009


One thing to keep in mind: no one needs to argue for 100 percent manned or 100 percent unmanned exploration. The question is what the mix should be.

A sensible program would use unmanned explorers for everything that can be done with unmanned explorers. Except for experiments conducted on humans themselves, almost everything can be done by robots and remote control with no humans present, and there is certainly never any reason to send large teams of people when one or two could run the machines and make the immediate decisions.

If we sent you to Mars, you wouldn't be able to get out of your suit to sense anything directly, so everything you could learn there would be through your faceplate and through remote sensing and through taking samples back to a lab in your ship or at home. Then why should we send overpriced, overdelicate you and your life support stuff all the way there and then bring you all the way back rather than send a cold box full of rugged, reliable robots on a one-way trip?

Arguments about relative budgets (such as those comparing NASA's budget to the military budget) are silly: having a bloated military budget doesn't make it OK to waste smaller amounts in other ways. Arguments that NASA spending generates collateral discoveries are also silly: if it's important to develop a non-stick cooking surface, then spend the money on developing a non-stick cooking surface, don't throw it at something entirely unrelated and hope you get lucky. You could, for example, spend the NASA budget on medical research and probably get a much higher rate of discoveries beneficial to humans. What makes sense is determining whether we get more benefit from spending money on space programs than we do from spending money on other sorts of programs (medical, environmental, etc.).

But all you need to know about manned space flight now is that there's a space race on again, and this time there are more competitors. No one wants to risk not participating in the next big land grab. Follow the money.
posted by pracowity at 4:18 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Then why should we send overpriced, overdelicate you and your life support stuff all the way there and then bring you all the way back rather than send a cold box full of rugged, reliable robots on a one-way trip?

Who says the humans need to come back?

posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:43 PM on September 12, 2009


I'd say robots could do everything necessary to do research, mining, and power generation in space, but who'll teach the hot aliens about this strange Earth custom of kissing? Not to mention hot zero G sex.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:47 PM on September 12, 2009


Arguments that NASA spending generates collateral discoveries are also silly: if it's important to develop a non-stick cooking surface, then spend the money on developing a non-stick cooking surface, don't throw it at something entirely unrelated and hope you get lucky.

No, they're not. The point is that in the process of keeping humans alive in space, NASA has developed technologies that have applications here on Earth, not that NASA found solutions to the problems in an over-budgeted fashion. No one is exactly sure how the discoveries NASA makes will apply to other areas or even if they will. But their track record has shown that they a good number of them do, so it seems silly to say there's no point to manned space flight. You never known when those happy accidents will occur, but that doesn't mean you don't look.

Incidentally, the non stick cooking surface was discovered by accident.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:11 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Wouldn't it be better to address and solve problems on earth like war, famine and climate change?

If all humans leave the planet, we' ll have fixed all three.

Seriously, we should be doing it because we can.

War is moral obscenity, space exploration isn't. I'll take a space-industrial complex over a military-industrial one any day.
posted by Artful Codger at 5:15 PM on September 12, 2009


Koichi Wakata performed an experiment where he did not change his underpants in order to test a specially designed underwear which he wore for 1 month without washing or changing and did not develop body odor.

If they could manufacture those with World of Warcraft logos on 'em, they could fund all the space programs they want.
posted by rokusan at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


This nerd is casting his vote for the robots. The Mars Rovers and the planetary flyby missions have been much more exciting than the shuttle and the ISS. RC all the way.
posted by Edward L at 5:52 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I used to think like this a lot too, and then one day I realized that there is nothing inherently wrong with our extinction as a species.

I don't necessarily disagree -- "wrong" is a pretty loaded term -- but that's not really an argument for why we shouldn't do anything about it, either. On a grand enough scale, there's really nothing "wrong" with any given individual getting flattened by a bus -- life goes on for other folks, right? -- but that doesn't mean he or she is going to let it happen since they're just gonna die of old age eventually anyway.

My point, though, is that space colonization as a means to preserve humanity is just incredibly silly. We belong to this planet and, perhaps more importantly, we belong to this particular time in this particular planet's history.

Well, here's where I see things differently. Yes, there's a possibility of something dramatic happening. But the real issue is what's already going on. In the global security thread from yesterday, there was a pretty succinct list of the Big Problems causing global instability. They were: "climate change; competition over natural resources; global militarism; and poverty and marginalisation." Really, they're all so connected, one could easily reduce the problem to something even simpler: "there are too few resources for too many people."

Now, maybe somebody has a realistic idea for how we might want to, uh, "reduce" the amount of people, or increase the available resources, but I haven't seen anything that looks like it's gonna pan out in a much shorter time frame than fucking space exploration, and that's pretty sad.

Feel like the Sun going supernova is too "sci fi" for anyone to care about? Fair enough. Think us spreading out so the Cylons don't vaporise us is silly? Well, yeah. But my support for the space program is anything but idealistic; it comes from the increasing strong evidence that we may already be well and truly fucked; that, frankly, it's probably too late to address global warming; that we've had essentially no success addressing global overpopulation; that our resources aren't coming back, and we're only going to continue to run out of increasingly important ones; that everything that's wrong with the world today is only going to get worse and be more of a problem unless we address the underlying issues.

So by all means, let's keep on worrying about carbon emissions and overfishing and peak oil and so on. And yeah, maybe a bad end for us is inevitable. But if there's an avenue that might buy us some time and -- literally -- space for us to sort some of these other issues out, I'm all for it.

I understand how people who don't care about global warming or endangered species or dwindling resources or people in the third world might not give a shit about space exploration. At least it's a self-consistent viewpoint. But people who do care about these things and don't believe in trying our damnedest to at least put one more solution on the table? Baffling.
posted by Amanojaku at 6:40 PM on September 12, 2009


but who'll teach the hot aliens about this strange Earth custom of kissing?

It gathers no food. It does not serve Vaal. Yet, they seem to enjoy it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


Robots first, but only to prepare for permanent, self-sustaining settlements.

Forget global warming and overpopulation and all the slow deaths: do you folks not remember all the "two minutes away from accidental global thermonuclear war" stories from the 80's and 90's?

Once technology advances to the point where simple human error can make the whole planet uninhabitable... we need a backup strategy.
posted by rokusan at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2009


Manned space travel was never anything more than an excuse to wave a flag. Everything else is simply trying to justify fantasy. It fails if bang for buck is a consideration. At this point, if manned space exploration can't be justified by the private sector, then it probably can't be justified at all.

If one is an enthusiastic supporter of space exploration, in what world is risk aversion not a factor? Dead astronauts make for really bad PR. Especially when PR is the biggest reason to have manned flights.

Too much of the space program is welfare for aerospace companies. The consumer by products don't justify anything. I'm not sure it's worthwhile even if serious research projects get to feed off the scraps of the manned program.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:45 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Once technology advances to the point where simple human error can make the whole planet uninhabitable... we need a backup strategy.

When the backup strategy is moving to another planet, then the real backup strategy is fixing the Earthbound fuckups. Because moving to another planet simply isn't a serious backup strategy.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:53 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Amanojaku: "I understand how people who don't care about global warming or endangered species or dwindling resources or people in the third world might not give a shit about space exploration. At least it's a self-consistent viewpoint. But people who do care about these things and don't believe in trying our damnedest to at least put one more solution on the table? "

Having failed to control our tendencies towards despoilation and fratricide, our backup plan should be to emigrate somewhere with desperately fewer resources?

I don't mean to be snarky. I respect your instinct for species self-preservation - even though I don't share it. But this argument seems a non-starter.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:54 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


2N2222 - what a great handle!

Otherwise, there's so much wrong in your post I don't know where to start.

Suffice it to say that despite relentless entropy and The Utter Pointlessness Of It All, there's still a few of us who don't want to simply curl up and die. Man's reach should exceed his grasp, and all that.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:06 PM on September 12, 2009


Dead astronauts make for really bad PR.

No, dead astronauts because NASA fucked up is bad PR. Dead astronauts because of a genuine crisis probably wouldn't be bad PR.

It fails if bang for buck is a consideration.

It doesn't seem like it:
"$7 or $8 in goods and services are still produced for every $1 that the government invests in NASA."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:11 PM on September 12, 2009


but who'll teach the hot aliens about this strange Earth custom of kissing?

Also, to tell them what brain is.
posted by Snyder at 8:38 PM on September 12, 2009


I'm always struck by the argument in this sort of debate that the space environment is just too harsh for humans, therefore manned missions are wrong. It's weird. 90% of the Earth was too harsh for humans until we started wearing clothes and building houses - how many of you could sleep outside naked where you're living, tonight? I couldn't, and I'm not even Inuit; I just live in Indiana - a biome I could no more survive in, half of the year, than could any other tropical creature (think orchids) without special help.

"Desperately fewer resources?" Ever compare Canada to, say, Amazonia? And yet people live in Canada and appear to like it there.

We'll go. And we'll figure out how to like it. We'll change ourselves doing it - perhaps to something not even recognizable (after all, even pasty Vitamin-D-adapted Europeans would look like aliens to the stay-at-homes in Africa of 50,000 years ago).

Me, personally, I'd like to live to see it. So would my daughter.

Do recall that the Iraq war alone cost us about five manned Mars missions, and no Serious Person ever thought that was a bad idea. Talking about scarce resources is just plain bone-headed stupid. Space missions cost nothing in comparison with anything else our species does.

That said, I like the suggestion upthread that NASA should just bring us back an asteroid. It'd be way easier to study it here anyway, prior to melting it down and giving everybody in the world free metal. Or, we could just keep it as a second moon for a while. I mean, "third moon."
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:19 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you misguided people want manned space exploration so much, you should encourage NASA to increase its funding by selling lottery tickets for spots on shuttles & the space station. There are probably a lot of people who would pay $100 per ticket for even a slim chance at getting to go aboard. Maybe they'd have to have a clause where if you win but you can't meet the physical requirements, you can give your spot away to whomever you wish, for no money or for whatever price you feel like charging. They could even hold a lottery multiple times.

Of course they'd have to train you to do a few experiments up there, but I'm sure you could handle the simple ones. Just type into your little log, "Gee spiders sure do make some fucked up webs in zero G, who would have guessed? I'm sure this knowledge will benefit humanity immensely and is worth the expense".

Then again maybe the lottery idea isn't such a good one. They might end up with some dipshit who thinks it's funny to masturbate up there. You know, not into a receptacle of some sort.
posted by marble at 9:26 PM on September 12, 2009


Manned space travel was never anything more than an excuse to wave a flag.

Manned space travel BY NASA and other government agencies up until this point perhaps. But honestly I think now it's just people are either too afraid or short sighted to take the long view.

Amanojaku has it. There are very few morally acceptable ways to limit the long term growth of humans as a species. Given that, we have already used a lot of the materials and energy on the planet to get to this point. The rest is still going. We don't live in a perfectly closed system - every day we're consuming resources that will not be coming back. EVEN IF I am wrong on the increasing number of people on the planet, I am not wrong that those who are here will want to have the best life for themselves. And we in the first world have given everyone an idea of what's possible. Something to dream about. Without materials and supplies from off planet, we will not be able to provide that. Which means, inevitably, people will take it by force.

THe future of the human race is above our heads. Maybe not now, but at some point we will have to move out. As I said before, I don't know if NASA is the one to go this far.

If I had a chance, I'd probably set it up as a religion. Then again, if I was given a chance to go to Mars, on a one way ticket - I'd take it. Just give me a few days to set my affairs in order.

Also, Joe Beese:
Having failed to control our tendencies towards despoilation and fratricide, our backup plan should be to emigrate somewhere with desperately fewer resources?

Fewer resources like air and water yes. I know those are absolutely essential and a huge problem. But Mars and other planets we may reach one day, and space itself - have a huge amount of minerals and exotics that we no longer have on Earth.

Besides, we need a challenge. The space station is meh. Underwear experiments are laughable. I honestly believe that it could be done. Probably a lot sooner than everyone estimates.
posted by concreteforest at 9:28 PM on September 12, 2009


concreteforest: "Underwear experiments are laughable."

Those blind fools at the Institute also laughed at my underwear theories. But I'll show them. I'll show them all!
posted by Joe Beese at 9:53 PM on September 12, 2009


we have already used a lot of the materials and energy on the planet to get to this point.

We haven't scratched the surface, assuming we solve the energy side of the challenge. I'd rather put more money and brains on that problem than figuring out how to land on Mars.
posted by Palamedes at 12:00 AM on September 13, 2009


Underwear experiments are laughable.

Actually it makes the point of NASA and unseen advantages of space exploration very succinctly.

This isn't just underwear we're talking about, it's clothing. Someone is actually putting serious thought and money into making durable clothing that can be worn for days or weeks. If you can't see potential implications for those who aren't fortunate enough to afford multiple sets of clothes, then you're being willfully obtuse.

I'm not saying manned space flight is an altruistic endeavor, showering us all with gifts from the gods. Just refuting the point that putting humans into space is not and has not been a zero sum game which has benefited humanity.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:10 AM on September 13, 2009


> if manned space exploration can't be justified by the private sector, then it probably can't be justified at all.

I still can't believe you said that. We are painfully aware of what the private sector has done for finance and health care.

* * *

Here's another angle. Think of the planet in terms of personal finance. The earth has savings (all the things we have found and used on the planet) and income (mainly - solar energy).

We are currently using a little of the income - all the plant systems that convert solar energy to matter, and of course we get direct solar heat and light - but mainly we are spending our savings - the energy previously captured and stored as oil, nuclear energy, and we use the minerals.

ALL our energy problems are over when we can efficiently capture solar energy and transport it to where we need it. Lots of issues to solve to get there, but surely no one doubts the truth of this.

So, maybe putting a man on Mars doesn't seem a good use of resources. Whether or not that is a goal, though, we still need to gain the expertise to safely and economically move people and material to earth orbit (and back) because solar energy can be collected most efficiently out there.

(BTW we've also barely begun to tap the energy we could get from the oceans - wave motion, floating solar collectors, etc etc, but this thread is about space)

(Note to self - re-read Tom Swift)
posted by Artful Codger at 8:09 AM on September 13, 2009


Working to solve energy issues on Earth will be useful for solving energy issues in space, and vice versa. I like that.

So many problems, so many ways to work on them. Understanding eco-systems is a good example. It applies to Earth, and it applies to generation ships, as well as settlements on other planets.

Frontier? I really think, and have been saying for quite a few years, that 'frontier' is damn important for humans. We need that edge. Some of us need to go at it, others just need to know about it, and support it. Still others need to get some of those folks out of the way chasing frontiers, so they can better handle some of the boring details, being better suited to handling boring details.

But I take the long view, and extinction is a possibility, but not an option. Those who think extinction desirable are welcome to take the first step. Don't get the idea of personal end confused with species death. For a human, the time comes to give up. For human kind, it simply doesn't happen. As a species, we will do anything to survive.
posted by Goofyy at 10:01 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, to tell them what brain is.

Brain and brain! What is brain?!
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:34 AM on September 13, 2009


To go back to someone mentioning the Pacific Ocean before. There are lots more places to be explore under the ocean that we haven't been to yet, and that's easier than going to Mars. Let's colonize the oceans first.
posted by empath at 11:12 AM on September 13, 2009


I'd bet the Space Shuttle has hauled more satellites with military attributes than it has purely scientific ones

Military shuttle missions declined precipitously after Challenger. The Shuttle was designed largely toward DoD mission requirements (carrying a Keyhole to polar, in short), but they were never happy with the mission frequency and the loss of launch capability after 51-L led the USAF to select the Delta rocket as its primary launch capability (with an emphasis on redundant systems so they would never be grounded again).

Even the commercial launch business was something that NASA largely got out of. For the last 20 years Shuttle has had two main missions: scientific, and ISS.
posted by dhartung at 3:05 PM on September 13, 2009


Having failed to control our tendencies towards despoilation and fratricide, our backup plan should be to emigrate somewhere with desperately fewer resources?

I don't mean to be snarky. I respect your instinct for species self-preservation - even though I don't share it. But this argument seems a non-starter.


Good point; that came out a bit more -- for lack of a better word, Heinleinian -- than I otherwise intended. To clarify, the goal isn't to replace one environment lacking resources with another; it's additive; to use resources (loosely defined) from elsewhere in addition to what we already have and the steps we're already taking.
posted by Amanojaku at 12:02 PM on September 14, 2009


I would only support space travel as a human endeavor if every country was focusing every single erg of energy that would normally be devoted to killing people and increasing the efficiency with which it could kill those people onto space travel instead. Until then, it's just dick-waving in space. (note: they're doing great work on the ISS with all those microgravity experiments, don't get me wrong. but man's not going to walk on mars anytime soon)
posted by tehloki at 9:44 PM on September 14, 2009


Oh, hey! Maybe the terminator of this place would be slightly habitable.

Okay, maybe not, but it's a start!
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:25 PM on September 16, 2009


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