Should we stay or should we go?
July 3, 2011 3:28 PM   Subscribe

In After Earth Ben Austen looks at "Why, Where, How, and When We Might Leave Our Home Planet" while Jared Daniel asks, if given a chance to found the first human colony on Mars, would you go? Maybe we could turn it into a home away from home or perhaps we should terraform Earth first.
posted by joannemullen (68 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't want to be the first to say that this is a foolish dream.
posted by fredludd at 4:01 PM on July 3, 2011


I don't want to be the first to say that this is a foolish dream.
posted by fredludd at 4:01 PM on July 3 [+] [!]


So... Guess what?
posted by gc at 4:05 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


But also, fredludd, I had a great physics class in college (more or less Physics for English Majors), and the professor more or less crushed my dreams about space exploration. No one is going to leave this planet for good unless there's REALLY good money in it.

And that SUCKS.
posted by gc at 4:07 PM on July 3, 2011


Yeah, I've always been in the "colonize Earth first" camp...look at the tiny size of Aquarius Reef Base...we'd do much better getting a handle on our own oceans before we try for space colonies.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 4:07 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's a foolish dream, necessarily, but it's definitely a fantasy that distracts us from the uncomfortable fact that we're already terraforming Earth. Specifically, we're ruining it.
KSR: One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.
posted by gerryblog at 4:09 PM on July 3, 2011


That Jared Daniel piece doesn't make any sense to me. It talks in terms of technical possibilities without any awareness of historical realities. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels (might as well get the mention out of the way immediately) are not perfect on technical detail, but they are convincing as a possible future because they recognise that it is incredibly difficult to predict which people, events and movements will turn out to be significant.

The Schroeder piece is nobler and more interesting, but it suffers from a related problem. Of course we should be developing our civilisation in a sustainable and low-impact way, but recognising that isn't the problem. The problem is motivating a ruling class, whose interests are in carrying on just as we are, to do things that are in the interest of the majority. We all know the house is on fire, it's just that some people have a lot to lose from turning on the hose. To put it another way, we're at least waist deep in the big muddy.

Technical discussions of the possibilities of terraforming are fine, but if you're talking about what we should do, or practically can do, you're going to have to take some notice of politics and history.
posted by howfar at 4:11 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would go to Titan or Europa alone with no other hope than being marooned and dying there. Mars, not so likely.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:20 PM on July 3, 2011


How about fixing our issues we have right in front of us first.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:41 PM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Carl Sagan argued pretty convincingly in Pale Blue Dot that figuring a way to colonize other places is a necessity if we are to persist as a species, because planetary impacts are an eventuality and diversification into space stations and onto other planets is the only way to prevent our extinction. Although we've shown to be short-sighted when it comes to making smart decisions about our survival.
posted by incessant at 4:49 PM on July 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've been watchnig a show called Pioneer 1. It's about a Russian Cosmonaut that crash lands on earth and we slowly realize he's from some unmentioned colony on Mars.

It's a free show, funded by kickstarter, and I recommend it for the story. Interesting.
posted by joelf at 4:49 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]




Colonize northern Quebec. It ought to be good enough for farming once the Kansas breadbasket suffers from irreversible desertification in however many decades.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:09 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just want to say that sentence about andromeda wiping us out was silly. Galaxies collide without a single star colliding. They're very big and very disperse.
posted by Buckt at 5:13 PM on July 3, 2011


Besides, I think it would be us wiping Andromeda out. MILK-Y WAY! MILK-Y WAY! MILK-Y WAY!
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:21 PM on July 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


I've been watchnig a show called Pioneer 1.

this looks really interesting, thanks. i'll give it a go later tonight. here's a link to the official site for anyone else who wants to check it out.
posted by jjoye at 5:27 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


How about fixing our issues we have right in front of us first.

Americans landed on the moon in the midst of '60s turmoil. Cutting the space program wouldn't have fixed any of those problems.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:29 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think we should upload the sum total of human consciousness into a 20 foot tall matte black slab of rock and wait for the next semi-intelligent species to evolve and see if we can sell them time shares or maybe life insurance.
posted by doctor_negative at 5:30 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


No one is going to leave this planet for good unless there's REALLY good money in it.

Pastabagel has a idea worth trillions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:44 PM on July 3, 2011


Cutting the space program wouldn't have fixed any of those problems.

Well no, not "fixed", but what you invest time and resources in does have an effect on outcomes. As an example, if the time and effort spent on the space programme had been spent on hospitals, more people would have got good treatment. The problem of ill-health wouldn't have been solved, but quite a lot of people would have been alive and fit who, as it turned out, were not.

Whether you think this is more or less important outcome that the space programme is up for debate. Whether the money might have been sensibly spent on something like healthcare if it were not invested in the space programme is similarly a matter for discussion. However, the fact that cutting the space programme would not have directly solved anything does not invalidate the arguments of those who doubt its value and utility or that of its potential successors.
posted by howfar at 5:44 PM on July 3, 2011


There is a high probability there will be no manned lunar expeditions in my lifetime. It seemed impossible when I was younger, but now it is increasingly likely.
posted by humanfont at 5:47 PM on July 3, 2011


As an example, if the time and effort spent on the space programme had been spent on hospitals...

The entire Apollo program cost less than one year of the Viet Nam War. I can think of things more worth cutting than science and exploration, can't you? Or are you only in favor of cutting good things to fund good things and leaving the funding for bad things alone?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:56 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm waiting to see if the Chinese will want to colonize space. Their government isn't broke.
posted by Net Prophet at 5:59 PM on July 3, 2011


I would. I love the idea of teraforming and colonizing other planets. Though once we're all just uploaded thoughts in computer brains where were are physically won't matter much.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:00 PM on July 3, 2011


Cool science fiction.

Human space travel is pointless for the foreseeable future. But I think there's a good chance humanity will spread out from Earth well before the sun's expiration date comes around.

What really fascinates me about this notion is how invested some people are in the idea that humanity must venture beyond our planet/solar system as a matter of survival. If/when that time comes, it's not as if anyone I know, or can even conceive in my imagination will be alive. And there's no particularly compelling reason why humanity must survive our sun's demise. It's not as if the universe cares, or can't go on without us mucking about among the stars.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:02 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can think of things more worth cutting than science and exploration

So can I. But to be specific, I can't think of many reasons to continue funding manned space flight. "But it costs so little" is a very poor justification.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:04 PM on July 3, 2011


Given our screw-ups on this planet, I can't really see us making any other planet considerably better than it is now. Most likely scenario: we terraform Mars into an even more hostile planet. Only we'll call it progress and sit in some sort of biosphere as it happens.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:13 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The entire Apollo program cost less than one year of the Viet Nam War.

I don't understand why you think this is a counterargument to what I said. A cake costs less than a bomb, but that doesn't mean the money from either wouldn't be better spent on a bandage.
posted by howfar at 6:14 PM on July 3, 2011


I would go to Titan or Europa alone with no other hope than being marooned and dying there. Mars, not so likely.

ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:16 PM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


How about fixing our issues we have right in front of us first.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It is always possible to plan on improving things where you are, rather than moving on. Those who dared to cross the Siberian land bridge, the first Polynesians, the early Viking explorers, Magellan and Christopher Columbus could all have been turned down by their rulers with the justifiable excuses of the time. Would things have been better? Maybe. The native peoples of what would become known as the New World could have survived a few generations longer unmolested; some of the fauna of the Pacific Islands might not have gone extinct. That doesn't mean that living conditions back in the Old World would have improved: it may just have meant an expanded and more viscous Inquisition, for example. Denying outside exploration does not necessarily improve a culture... it tends to merely hothouse and ossify it (see: Shogunate Japan).

There's a theory that civilizations don't begin to seriously explore and colonize until there is sufficient pressure (environmental degradation, population sizes) to provide a motivation. I wish that was not so: I would desire that every culture have a sober, long-term approach to development. But humanity tends not to act that way.... so it is very possible that the colonisation and exploitation of space will not occur until we've taken this planet for almost everything, and there are 10 billion of us rooting around for more. And if that is the case, I'd like to at least have a technological infrastructure and experience in place before it became vital to our survival. I would argue that we simply need to get our priorities straight: right now NASA receives less money than what is spent annually on air conditioning for US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 6:19 PM on July 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


And, to clarify (although I'm pretty sure I said it the first time), I did not say that money spent on space exploration is necessarily wasteful, but rather that the specific point made by Brandon Blatcher was not any sort of rebuttal of that made by Ironmouth.
posted by howfar at 6:20 PM on July 3, 2011


Well no, not "fixed", but what you invest time and resources in does have an effect on outcomes.

My statement, "Americans landed on the moon in the midst of '60s turmoil. Cutting the space program wouldn't have fixed any of those problems.", was specifically about the how that money and resources didn't have a lot with those problems. Vietnam, civi rights, feminism etc, didn't have a lot to do with whether NASA did moon launches or not.

As an example, if the time and effort spent on the space programme had been spent on hospitals, more people would have got good treatment. The problem of ill-health wouldn't have been solved, but quite a lot of people would have been alive and fit who, as it turned out, were not.

Under Johnson, NASA's budget was gradually cut to make room for his Great Society programs and Vietnam. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say spending on NASA as opposed to Vietnam would have been better in the long run. The Great Society spending was understandable though

Would NASA's budget and resources helped keep more hospitals open, better treatments, etc? Yes. Would that have been worth it? Not in my opinion, as I've written here before. Cut the American defense budget by about half first. If more cuts are needed, then maybe we can talk NASA cuts.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:28 PM on July 3, 2011


The comments below the article will blow your mind. Can anyone tell me what the lizard being "nagas" are?
posted by Lisitasan at 6:39 PM on July 3, 2011


The attempt it self does have value. NASA's efforts have resulted in many, many very useful technologies. Sure, so has military R&D, but at least NASA doesn't use its knowledge to kill people (on purpose).
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:40 PM on July 3, 2011


Damn it - my link above is wrong - should have been this one.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:45 PM on July 3, 2011


The vast emptiness of space makes it extremely unlikely that there's much chance for humans ever to escape this planet. Although we can get to Mars, realistic odds would have us only suffering and dying there.

To preserve life beyond the time remaining to our planet perhaps we could take another, less specieocentric, approach: develop strains of bacteria (maybe starting with Deinococcus radiodurans and Paracoccus denitrificans) able to resist the hardship of interstellar travel and hostile termini. Firing a huge number of such payloads off in all directions, to travel silently for centuries or millenia befor being captured by some distant planet's gravity, would do nothing to preserve humanity but might provide a fighting chance for DNA.
posted by fredludd at 6:48 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


millenia? millennia?
posted by fredludd at 6:51 PM on July 3, 2011


Cut the American defense budget by about half first. If more cuts are needed, then maybe we can talk NASA cuts.

It's a good point, and it's a flaw in all arguments against investment in subjective goods. The general thrust of an argument against the space programme is the same as the one for cutting arts funding, cultural grants and all the other apparent fluff that makes life worth living. But discussion about what subjective goods we value is not invalidated by the fact that governments waste money on objective bads like killing people.

I'd like to see a good argument for the space programme, and for human colonisation of the solar system and beyond, because I think it's just about the coolest thing ever. But I'm not sure I get it. Flicking back through your linked posts, you assert that you've demonstrated an "earth bound" good, but I don't really see what it is. The arguments in your posts seem to be:

(1) "Humans need something something to do and our current track record seems to call for war" - True, but exploration and war really don't seem to be mutually exclusive so far.

(2) "These technologies and system often benefit those who are not in space" - Yes, they do, but investment in other kinds of research would also have subsidiary benefits. This is not an argument for why our science budget should be spent on space.

(3) "[it] produces a return on the investment" - Indeed, as would any kind of science and technology spending. Again, not an argument for the space programme.

I'm not dismissing all arguments for investment in manned space-flight. I am, however, unconvinced that you've yet made a good argument for its worth.
posted by howfar at 6:51 PM on July 3, 2011


Those who dared to cross the Siberian land bridge, the first Polynesians, the early Viking explorers, Magellan and Christopher Columbus could all have been turned down by their rulers with the justifiable excuses of the time.

This example always seems to be mentioned when it comes to this topic. But it's such a poor one, I can never imagine anyone who's given this any thought to be swayed by it. It's not as if all we have to do is point a space shuttle at the nearest planet, glide down, and start plowing for the next growing season.

Would that have been worth it? Not in my opinion, as I've written here before.

Your reasons always amount to "We need something to keep busy. Therefore, space!"

NASA's efforts have resulted in many, many very useful technologies.

Yes, the Tang Argument, once again. At least you're honest to note that space program isn't unique in this regard. I've proposed that we should build a self sustaining city under the sea. Think of all the neat gizmos that will end up on the shelves as a result. But of course, few sane people would ever think that was a good idea, even if the bottom of the sea is a much more hospitable place than an anywhere we know of outside the planet.

Of course, the problems with manned space flight are obvious. Manned space exploration is limited by the amount of resources spent on keeping humans alive, rather than actual exploration. This reveals that for us, manned space flight isn't even about science all that much. It's about stoking national pride, feeling good about waving that big foam #1 finger, and maintaining a government work program for poor disadvantaged rocket scientists.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:12 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Manned space exploration is limited by the amount of resources spent on keeping humans alive, rather than actual exploration. This reveals that for us, manned space flight isn't even about science all that much.

How, exactly, does that follow?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:15 PM on July 3, 2011


Admittedly, Philip K. Dick was stuck with the remnants of the 50's science fiction fixation with Mars, but he did a pretty good job of describing the desolate conditions of trying to colonize an inhospitable planet, in, among others, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.


(Eldritch, BTW, is a strange word not recognized by Microsoft Word, since it has fallen into the realm of the archaic. Hawthorne used the word (meaning weird, eerie) to describe Hester Prynne's daughter, Pearl, in The Scarlet Letter.).
posted by kozad at 7:15 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I suspect that many of the technologies touted by NASA as originating or developed by the space program were actually already under active development and were merely used by the space program. For example on the NASA website they claim credit for the hand held mini vacuum and highway rumble strips.
posted by humanfont at 7:16 PM on July 3, 2011


Yes, the Tang Argument, once again.

For a moment, I thought you were referring to a specific argument made a well known scholar, one Professor Tang, of whom I was woefully ignorant.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:17 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


(1) "Humans need something something to do and our current track record seems to call for war" - True, but exploration and war really don't seem to be mutually exclusive so far.

Yes, but war kills lots more people, destroys more infrastructure etc. A program that isn't designed to kill a lot of people would be a lot better, IMO.

(2) "These technologies and system often benefit those who are not in space" - Yes, they do, but investment in other kinds of research would also have subsidiary benefits. This is not an argument for why our science budget should be spent on space.

No one is arguing for all the science and technology budget to spent on space exploration, merely that it shouldn't be cut. It's not a giant hole that we throw money into, it has produced tangible benefits to society.

(3) "[it] produces a return on the investment" - Indeed, as would any kind of science and technology spending. Again, not an argument for the space programme.

Of course it is, see the answer to no. 2.


My argument for continuing manned space flight boils down to this: It provides side benefits to society in the form of technology, increases our knowledge of the universe, stimulates the economy, kills very few people, establishes a sense of national pride and promotes science.

I'd like to see a good argument for the space programme...

What do you think a good argument for manned space flight would look like?

Think of all the neat gizmos that will end up on the shelves as a result. But of course, few sane people would ever think that was a good idea,

I think it's an excellent idea and should be tried. It might turn out useless or too dangerious, but we'll never known until we tried.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:21 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know about you, but this [xkcd] is the saddest graph I've ever seen. Regardless of the economic justification it just makes me sad.

I wouldn't mind having a reason to wave that giant foam #1 finger.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:23 PM on July 3, 2011


Admittedly, Philip K. Dick was stuck with the remnants of the 50's science fiction fixation with Mars, but he did a pretty good job of describing the desolate conditions of trying to colonize an inhospitable planet...

In one of the books about the Apollo moon landing, one of the astronauts mentioned how unnerving it was to be in the lunar module on the moon. They were trying to sleep and he became aware just how dead the moon was. There was no wind blowing, no city sounds or insects or animals. There was no sound or the presence of any type of life, except for the machines in the lunar module.

I suspect some people would go nuts after a while. There would be no lying in the sun by the ocean or going to the park or taking a stroll in the woods. It would be a very different kind of life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:28 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It provides side benefits to society in the form of technology, increases our knowledge of the universe, stimulates the economy, kills very few people, establishes a sense of national pride and promotes science.

All of which could be said of any other research programme. We get it, you love manned space-flight, but you haven't told us why it's the best option.

What do you think a good argument for manned space flight would look like?

It would tell me why we should spend money on manned space-flight rather than other projects which produce the same subsidiary goods. It would explain why manned space-flight has distinctive value, rather than relying on the notion that nothing good should ever be cut while military spending still exists. It would actually be an argument for manned space-flight. Nothing you've said so far actually is such a thing.
posted by howfar at 7:30 PM on July 3, 2011


If you think there's a disparity between rich and poor now, just wait until the rich get access to the infinite mineral resources of space!
posted by blue_beetle at 7:32 PM on July 3, 2011


All of which could be said of any other research programme. We get it, you love manned space-flight, but you haven't told us why it's the best option.

There was disagree. For America there's a national pride in being one of only 3 countries to launch people into space and the only one to land on the moon.

And best option for what? What are your referring to?

It would tell me why we should spend money on manned space-flight rather than other projects

What other projects? What is America currently cutting that would suddenly be flush with money if manned space flight was terminated tomorrow?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 PM on July 3, 2011


I'd like to see a good argument for the space programme...

the case for mars (warning: auto-tune)
posted by jjoye at 7:46 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is losing its interest. You asked what an argument for manned space flight would look like to me. I gave one. If all you've got is 'national pride's I don't think I'm the only one it'll be hard to convince.

Let's try to make it simple. Why spend the money on manned space-flight rather than unmanned?
posted by howfar at 7:49 PM on July 3, 2011



My argument for continuing manned space flight boils down to this: It provides side benefits to society in the form of technology, increases our knowledge of the universe, stimulates the economy, kills very few people, establishes a sense of national pride and promotes science.


These are the tangible benefits? Compared to what alternative? Evidence that manned space flight has uniquely profited us over other public funded research, or none at all, hasn't been established.

Side benefit technology has to be compared to other government programs. Increases our knowledge of the universe compared to...? Economic stimulus? Sure. But is it a good value compared to other kinds? Establishes national pride? Do Americans really suffer a deficit of national pride? Promotes science? Is science really suffering? I suppose it might draw more people into publicly funded space program, feeding itself.

I'll grant you that it kills few people, but that's not really a benefit. Did anyone expect it to be destructive in that way? Then again, military application are no small part of the space program.

No, manned space flight is poorly justified now, and is likely to get worse, at least in the short term, as robotics advance. When sold as essentially a make work program, its flaws become too serious to ignore.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:06 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is losing its interest. You asked what an argument for manned space flight would look like to me. I gave one. If all you've got is 'national pride's I don't think I'm the only one it'll be hard to convince.

I know, that's part of the problem. People remain stuck on the financial aspect and give it prime importance. Hell, people continue having babies, despite the financial drain they can be. Why? Because it's not about the money. If it was about the money, we'd never leave the house, got a movie, go out to dinner or go travel. We do it from the emotion benefits, the good times.

We send humans into space because we're explorers at heart, on a species level and space is what's next. People like knowing there's something more going on that just the crap on Earth. That the fact the manned space program also provides benefits to society at large give further weight to continuing to send humans into space.

We're growing as a species. We'll need more room in time, should start preparing now.


Let's try to make it simple. Why spend the money on manned space-flight rather than unmanned?

Because sending people is much more interesting and robots, despite their obvious strengths, can't totally replace a human when it comes to exploration. Sending robots would not have gotten us a lot of the useful human related technology.

Ideally, this should be an either/or but a combination of manned and unmanned working together.

These are the tangible benefits? Compared to what alternative? Evidence that manned space flight has uniquely profited us over other public funded research, or none at all, hasn't been established.

Then do the research, make the argument and prove it hasn't.

Your argument seems to come down to 'we need to spend science money on things that give the most returns'. Ok then, what are those programs that give high returns?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:20 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll go.
posted by trip and a half at 8:50 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


People arguing against space travel on the basis that the money could be better used elsewhere miss one important point.

Humans are not doing anything important. Every scrap of energy or resources we have except for a small part that is devoted to research and medicine is devoted to convincing each other to produce and consume stuff, so that others can make a profit from it.

We are not going to change our focus until the earth becomes uninhabitable for people or there is a clear and present danger of apocalypse.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:16 PM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


As an example, if the time and effort spent on the space programme had been spent on hospitals, more people would have got good treatment. The problem of ill-health wouldn't have been solved, but quite a lot of people would have been alive and fit who, as it turned out, were not.

We've already done that. Compare NASA'S budget vs. social entitlements. So how's that spending money on fixing the problems on Earth working out?

Anyway it's a specious argument that you've made, both that more hospital funding was needed, and that if it was provided, the world would be better off. One could equally argue from a 1960s perspective that saving people would be a BAD thing; more people equals more resources consumed, more pollution, more children being born, and hence another step closer to the future of "Stand on Zanzibar" or "Soylent Green". Maybe of you didn't care about the Population Bomb it would be different, but could a truly conscientious 60s liberal actually argue that hospitals was an unmitigated good?
posted by happyroach at 10:26 PM on July 3, 2011


We're not getting off this rock. Even if Earth is about to get hit by a "dinosaur killer" asteroid and we have the technology necessary to lift large numbers of passengers into Orbit and build orbital colonies/ship them to Mars we are still not getting off this rock.

You don't relocate ~7 billion folks into space easily or at all quickly. You'd need to be able to launch 10000s of people into space each hour to get the entire population into space in anything like a timely manner (~80 years assuming everyone crosses their legs).

That's not to say we should stop manned exploration of space - just that for 99.9999…% of us, we're going to have to get used to being Earthbound.
posted by schwa at 10:39 PM on July 3, 2011


I'm just going to quote Carl Sagan here:

"Since, in the long run, every planetary society will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring -- not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive... If there were self-sufficient human communities on many worlds, our species would be insulated from catastrophe. The depletion of the ultraviolet-absorbing shield on one world would, if anything, be a warning to take special care of the shield on another. A cataclysmic impact on one world would likely leave all the others untouched. The more of us beyond the Earth, the greater the diversity of worlds we inhabit, the more varied the planetary engineering, the greater the range of societal standards and values -- then the safer the human species will be...

"This strategy -- breaking up into many smaller self-propagating groups, each with somewhat different strengths and concerns, but all marked by local pride -- has been widely employed in the evolution of life on Earth, and by our own ancestors in particular...

"This is the justification for a permanent human presence in space: to improve our chances of surviving, not just the catastrophes we can foresee, but also the ones we cannot... If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds. Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of the breeze."

(pull quotes from Chapter 21 of Pale Blue Dot)
posted by incessant at 10:42 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Do Americans really suffer a deficit of national pride?

Is science really suffering?


I don't necessarily disagree with your conclusions about manned space flight, but just focusing on the questions above: Do Americans really suffer a deficit of national pride? If you believe Republicans, yes, we suffer from an enormous national pride deficit that's even larger than our actual economic deficit. Is science suffering? Well, given the fact that there's a significant anti-science movement in what passes for the current GOP establishment and a concurrent drive to cut massive amounts of funding from federal agencies that deal primarily with the advancement of scientific knowledge, then yes, I'd say it's suffering, or at the very least it's back on its heels.
posted by blucevalo at 12:42 AM on July 4, 2011


This reveals that for us, manned space flight isn't even about science all that much. It's about stoking national pride, feeling good about waving that big foam #1 finger, and maintaining a government work program for poor disadvantaged rocket scientists.

How are any of these bad reasons? National pride and glory are excellent justifications for a space program, as is the heroic aspect of a manned space program. Pursuit of these values is an end in itself and shouldn't be dismissed as mindless jingoism or adolescent posturing. When these things were considered worthy goals and were articulated as such without shame, America's space program was at its zenith. Who really cares whether the space program leads to the development of an X% more efficient widget Y?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 1:22 AM on July 4, 2011


It's maybe hard to justify scientifically, economically, or strategically, but manned space travel is top notch performance art, and for that reason should have continued funding under the NEA.
posted by condour75 at 4:35 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The attempt it self does have value. NASA's efforts have resulted in many, many very useful technologies.

This is a standard justification, and the easiest to verify, but I suspect that NASA's biggest contribution might have been that, for a brief period during the space race, math and science and engineering was aspirational. There was something driving interest in the kind of educational foundation that enables the production of new kinds of wealth.

Today, geeks are sexy for other reasons (eg they have money and they spend it on pop culture, so Hollywood tailors its products to attract them, depicting them in a flattering light, glamorising geekdom etc. The dot com era made the idea mainstream that geeks are the movers and shakers (which I suspect is a myth, but it's a compelling one), etc etc)

But I wonder if there is a difference when you're a kid, between being interested in science because it gets lip-service in comics and movies, vs because you have real-life heros who are TAKING US TO THE MOON!
posted by anonymisc at 7:10 AM on July 4, 2011


If I recall, the human population has been in the proximity of 2000 individuals or so before, we believe, at it's worst bottleneck. With genetic engineering we should be able to beat that

Yeah, while it is expensive to send people, it's not expensive to send much smaller packages, like, uh, sperm. So while the colony might be small, it still has access to the staggeringly vast genetic diversity of the mother planet. So technically at least, there is no size at which a colony is genetically "too small".

But this seems like kind of a silly line of thought, like making a spreadsheet to help figure out how to spend your future lottery winnings, instead of how to buy a ticket :)
posted by anonymisc at 7:22 AM on July 4, 2011


The economic reason is scarce resources. It's a long term project but there are limited resources on this single planet, pretty much unlimited out there. Some resources are beyond our current reach, but some like asteroids, better control of the energy from the sun are conceptually possible. Needs a lot of engineering, and until we bridge some 'singularity' level of computation/robotics it will need engineers on site.

I also really like the spaceflight as art project idea.
posted by sammyo at 8:24 AM on July 4, 2011


Yeah, while it is expensive to send people, it's not expensive to send much smaller packages, like, uh, sperm. So while the colony might be small, it still has access to the staggeringly vast genetic diversity of the mother planet. So technically at least, there is no size at which a colony is genetically "too small".

Except that isn't "saving the human race", that's saving the human genepool. Different things.
posted by schwa at 9:01 AM on July 4, 2011


Except that isn't "saving the human race", that's saving the human genepool. Different things.

No, they're the same. If humans exist, then the human race exists.

If you're talking about relocating all humans off planet so that all individuals survive an extinction-level event happening on Earth, that's neither here nor there. When people like Sagan talk about a Mars colony saving the human race, they mean that the colony prevents total extinction, not that it saves anyone on Earth. The human race is saved because a handful of colonists were exempt from the extinction event.
posted by anonymisc at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2011


I think NASA is taking the right approach now. Fund a number a initiatives with the goal of enabling human deep space exploration with journeys of 21 days as a first step. Support the development of low cost to orbit technologies and see what happens. We could try to massively increase funding but there is a limited number of skilled workers able to conduct the research and engineering required to push hung faster. Many of the technologies required for deep space exploration and settlement are in development now as a consequence of their other more earth bound possible uses such as energy efficient environmental control systems.
posted by humanfont at 10:20 AM on July 4, 2011


Although we've shown to be short-sighted when it comes to making smart decisions about our survival.

We did phase out the moon exploration program after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published though.
posted by ersatz at 5:00 PM on July 4, 2011


The human race is saved because a handful of colonists were exempt from the extinction event.

Then what a few thousand survivors are supposed to sustain human history, knowledge and culture? I don't see that working out. At best we relegate a handful of individuals to a pre-European Easter Island existence.
posted by humanfont at 5:58 PM on July 4, 2011


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