Reinventing NASA
January 9, 2004 6:35 AM   Subscribe

To the moon, Alice! (And then, on to Mars) Time will tell whether this declaration will lead to an actual rebirth of NASA and realignment of goals for the agency. But I for one am absolutely thrilled that Bush is planning to give NASA a long-overdue new mission and goal. Avoiding the obvious pro/con debate of doing this (or the cost), I think it's absolutely vital to the national psyche for the United States to have a long-range goal that it can focus positive energy upon. This could be the first real "Challenge to the Union" that I think should become an annual event to replace the State of the Union.
posted by tgrundke (84 comments total)
"Even after only a 35 percent success rate thus far, the 11 missions to Mars have in total cost probably less than 1 percent of the projected cost of sending astronauts to Mars..."
Before you start waving the flag for manned missions, -please read this commentary from today's paper by the brilliant Lawrence Krauss (author of "The Physics of Star Trek").
"now is the time to face up to various truths about human space travel, both from a scientific and a human perspective. First, all that we primarily learn from sending humans into space is basically how humans can survive in space. The International Space station, located several hundred miles about the Earth is not only boring but also expensive. Pretending that it has a scientific objective of any significance is an insult to those aspects of NASA, including the Great Observatory programs, and this month's Rover landings, that promise real science."
posted by Faze at 6:56 AM on January 9, 2004

bread, meet circus.
posted by quonsar at 7:10 AM on January 9, 2004

How will the United States pay for a manned flight to Mars? My kids and grandkids only have so much income that the Bush administration can tax.
posted by faceonmars at 7:12 AM on January 9, 2004

I'm one of those the thinks that human colonization of space is one of those steps necessary to the long term survival of the species.

However, I am also open to the idea that a better path than launching feel-good one-off missions to the moon and mars would be to increase our prowess to the point where we can field a real, general purpose space infrastructure to support commerce between planets and an eventual foray outside of the solar system. I'd pay $ 1 trillion towards that (well, not me personally - you know what I mean).
posted by rocketpup at 7:13 AM on January 9, 2004

George W. Bush - he's just like JFK!

Only - he'll never actually fund this thing. It's just a Rovian ploy to scoop up the NASA/technogeek vote. He'll announce it with all the overtones of divine mission amidst fanfare of trumpets, killer fireworks displays, teams of crack cheerleaders leaping about and twirling batons.....

But, strangely, only 1/10 of the actual proposed funding will actually materialize. Bush will then blame this on Democrats and acuse them of a lack of vision.
posted by troutfishing at 7:20 AM on January 9, 2004

Pretending that the ISS has a scientific objective of any significance is an insult

I wouldn't say that. The very fact that the station is so boring and non-vote-winning indicates that the masses spent on it must have scientific value. It's only going to improve. And in my opinion, manned space travel is what is going to stop our species becoming extinct one of these centuries.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 7:26 AM on January 9, 2004

How is it that he managed to pick the ONE topic that I might consider voting for him because of.... But I think that troutfishing is probably correct in his comments about funding. But who cares - I'll vote for him again, my civil liberties are irrelevant if we're sending people to freakin' mars man! /sarcasm

On preview: highly agrees with Pretty_Generic
posted by woil at 7:28 AM on January 9, 2004

So, Avoiding the obvious pro/con debate of doing this (or the cost), I also think it's absolutely vital to the national psyche for the United States to have a long-range goal that it can focus positive energy upon, but, I ask, is this the best we can come up with?
Certainly it's the sexiest, but really, what's the point, Faze's link sums that up nicely.
I say we go Down not up, or better yet start focusing on all the stuff we can fix right here on land.
posted by Blake at 7:29 AM on January 9, 2004

posted by RylandDotNet at 7:31 AM on January 9, 2004

Sterling on Mars.

I'm far too cantankerous to comment on the absurdity of space exploration.
posted by shoepal at 7:32 AM on January 9, 2004

"I think it's absolutely vital to the national psyche for the United States to have a long-range goal that it can focus positive energy upon."

I thought capturing Bin Laden, the war on terror and the eventual Disneyfication of the entire world had already been decided upon.
posted by Pericles at 7:33 AM on January 9, 2004

I'll believe it when I see actual funding to support it. One thing is that I hope that they don't pretend that it's all about the science. Most or all of the science could be done via robots so if it's really about science then spend money improving robotics to the point that if you can land something on mars or the moon it can accomplish it's mission. When I read that they're worried about a rover because it's won't be able to descend a ramp head on, that it might have to make a turn, then I say to myself that there's an engineering weakness.

I hope that these missions do come to fruition, if they do then I sincerely hope that NASA gets some oversight by a scientist or engineer with Feynmann's honesty, stature and willingness to lay any unfavourable truths on the line. When the Challenger exploded he wrote a very good essay about the management failures that led to the disaster. Basic statistics were ignored and people paid the price.

If people are willing to risk their lives for this then it's not our business to stop them, but it is our business to make sure that the risks we have control over are vigorously analyzed, documented and that any procedures that are required to minimize these risks are followed.
posted by substrate at 7:37 AM on January 9, 2004

Troutfishing has it right. I'm pretty sure this is just a plot to finally kill off NASA.

The ISS would actually be useful for things other than keeping 2 guys in space if it got the funding for a complete buildout.
posted by bshort at 7:37 AM on January 9, 2004

How about taking the $1.5b/week we're spending in Iraq, add to it the $xxxb we'd spend to send someone to Mars, and increase our spending on hydrogen fuel technology accordingly. That's a long-range goal with real benefits to all of us. I guess that wouldn't make W's friends in the oil industry very happy. Instead he's spending 1/2 as much on hydrogen as Ford did to develop the Taurus.
posted by Shike at 7:37 AM on January 9, 2004

.. now I've vented my spleen, I agree that space exploration is a good thing. I don't know why; romantic words about humanity needing to explore and discover spring to mind.

And the pricetag? Well, how much money has been spent on weaponry? Not just by the US, but worldwide? Sending people to another planet seems a far more constructive way to blow the money that stockpiling guns and bombs to kill each other with. But then I already said I'm a romantic.
posted by Pericles at 7:41 AM on January 9, 2004

It would be cute if the first moombase was actually called ALICE.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:41 AM on January 9, 2004

American Lunar Initial Colonization Environment? Oh, whatever....
posted by ParisParamus at 7:43 AM on January 9, 2004

Wooo! Another unfunded mandate! I'll believe it when:

1) actual hard cash is appropriated to fund this
2) Bush et al. raise taxes to fund the appropriation

...otherwise it's simply smoke & mirrors at best, and at worst a scheme to destroy another arm of the federal gov't by burning a giant deficit hole in yet another agency.
posted by aramaic at 7:47 AM on January 9, 2004

Welcome to the bait and switch, 2004.
posted by the fire you left me at 7:55 AM on January 9, 2004

I heard there's TERRORISTS on Mars.
That'll get some action, I bet
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:02 AM on January 9, 2004

Nobody has yet mentioned the Space Elevator, which if they can pull it off would give us space at a fraction of its current cost. How much easier would it be to get to Mars if instead of using a craft the size of a school bus, you could use one the size of a battleship!
Plus, the Space Elevator technology could be used to "wire" the most travelled routes, so spaceships could just pull themselves, instead of push themselves.

As an interim step, a moonbase is a spectacular idea from several directions. Not just research, both physical and astronomical; but as a materials fabrication and launch center. The lessons learned there will be directly applicable to any Mars mission, to include hard rock mining and practical nuclear power secondary systems, from high temperature furnaces to construction robotics.

In other words, how to make a steel mill fit in a building the size of a couple of double-wide trailers? One of a million problems and solutions.
posted by kablam at 8:03 AM on January 9, 2004

America is near to bankrupt, so hey, lets send more people to space!

I'm sick of space being expensive. Instead of blowing bucks on feel-good missions, lets spend the money making orbit an affordable journey. This has far more use as time moves forward.
posted by Goofyy at 8:07 AM on January 9, 2004

I think it's absolutely vital to the national psyche for the United States to have a long-range goal that it can focus positive energy upon.

You mean, something other than what we actually need, like an educational system that works, or the eradication of poverty and hunger in our own backyards, or cleaner energy alternatives, or affordable qulality healthcare for everyone?
posted by archimago at 8:15 AM on January 9, 2004

The idea of a moonbase is crazy. Were already overdue for a nuclear accident that would blow the satellite out of orbit and then would where we be?
posted by biffa at 8:19 AM on January 9, 2004

If it wasn't this administration that had proposed this then this discussion would be a full-on geek circle jerk.

And people say this place doesn't lean left.
posted by Mick at 8:27 AM on January 9, 2004

If it wasn't this administration that had proposed this then this discussion would be a full-on geek circle jerk.

I won't speak for everyone, but I can at least call horseshit for myself. I've yet to see any benefit to the moon landing other than a big huzzah for us/we beat the commies. In a time when the economy is still sketchy, we're encountering massive budget defecits, and there are plenty of more important things to focus on, this is nothing more than a diversion, regardless of who signs the bills.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:33 AM on January 9, 2004

No planet left behind.
posted by cairnish at 8:33 AM on January 9, 2004

Martians Furious at Halliburton Fraud - Earth Invasion Imminent
posted by stonerose at 8:36 AM on January 9, 2004

So Mars is part of the Axis of Evil? Cool. Let's get those Martians and their WMD! As noted above, this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Next Bush will announce free gold nuggets for everyone. Only mean old Congress won't fund it. I grow so weary of these tactics. Unfortunately, they seem to work.
posted by Outlawyr at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2004

relentlessly driven, they ascend. One day.....

If the Bush Administration would actually pull together the funding for this project, I'd be for it. Oddly, I know a paralyzed Vietnam Vet, an engineer who - in his spare time - is part of a nonprofit civilian effort to build a space station on the moon. I used to ask him - "Bob, why not work on all of the problems we have down here on Earth", to which he'd reply (whilst I did engine work on his handicapped-accessible aircooled VW bus) "Well, there has to be somebody up there who can come down and pick up the pieces." That shut me up.

But - bit by bit - I started to appreciate NASA, for my own idiosyncratic reasons. I learned, for example, of how appreciative the NASA folks tend to view the Earth as a biosphere. Of course! - It's obvious. The Earth as a bounded, finite system, the atmosphere generated by a complex interaction between terrestrial living systems.....the astronauts saw this, and were gripped by it. Story Musgrove, for one: " Story Musgrave who was the first physician to walk in space. It was Story who repaired
the Hubble telescope when it was damaged. It was an odd and moving juxtaposition of the end points of the human experience. The irony wasn't lost on Story. He later described for me what it was like to float in space. There he was, traveling 18,000 miles an hour, 250 miles above the planet, and the golden visor of his helmet, as he fell in perpetual free fall, was illuminated by a single sight. It was a blue planet, as he recalled, floating in the velvet void of space. And he later said that experiencing that moment and then to recall the callous way in which we sometimes treat our only home was to know the pure sensation of horror. I think that many people who feel that the vision of the earth from space – which, after all, was only brought home to us 30 years ago – will have a more profound impact on human intellectual thought than even a Copernican revolution of the sixteenth century" (Wade Davis
And it was Jim Lovelock's work for NASA , to develop instruments to test for life on Mars, which led to the formation (together with the insights of the noted Biologist Lynn Margulis) of the "Gaia" theory - out of Lovelock's thought experiments concerning the interaction of life with planetary atmospheres. Lovelock realized that Mars was unlikely to be inhabited by life - on any scale, at least - for the simple fact that life always (as far as we know, anyway) exchanges gasses with it's environment, and this pushes atmospheric gas concentrations up an unnatural gradient. atmospheric concentrations of oxygen in our Earth's atmosphere are maintained by photosynthetic activity and so - without photosynthesizers, the earth's atmospheric oxygen levels would quickly decline to negligible amounts, through simple oxidative interactions.

NASA is, in part, in the business of trying to construct little biospheres, to enable humans to live off the Earth, in space. It's a hard problem, one that Biosphere 2 is far from solving. But much has been learned along the way. I'm far more sympathetic to NASA now for the fact that - as smart as we humans claim to be - it is only with the actual perspective of viewing the earth from space that people seem to be able to grasp, and really internalize, the fact that the Earth is not an endless flat plain as it might have seemed to some primitives (though most knew better than that), that Earth is spherical and bounded, finite, and made habitable by Earthly life itself, through fantastically complicated symbiosis.

That knowledge is a relative commonplace at NASA, and so it is a great irony that a US president and a presidential administration, which seems uniquely oblivious to that reality, is proposing such a visionary space mission.
posted by troutfishing at 8:42 AM on January 9, 2004

Mick: The country doesn't have the money. My first thought was, God, that's irresponsible. It's just not the time. I don't speak for everyone either, but there's still a part of me that loves space exploration. But it's not the time for a big initiative in that area.
posted by raysmj at 8:43 AM on January 9, 2004

If it wasn't this administration that had proposed this then this discussion would be a full-on geek circle jerk.

If I thought that Bush was sincere about this, and was actually interested in funding an initiative this expensive, I'd be jerking with the best of them. As it is, I'm still waiting for him to fully fund No Child Left Behind, etc.
posted by bshort at 8:44 AM on January 9, 2004

I dunno, I kind of welcome the irony of this administration getting serious about colonizing Mars. After all, the optimal way to colonize Mars (as the prevailing theory these days goes) is to send over massive factories that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing global warming on Mars. Then, you introduce hardy plant life, which converts the CO2-heavy atmosphere into a more habitable O2/CO2 mix.

Take out the plants, and it's right up the Administration's sweet spot.

If it wasn't this administration that had proposed this then this discussion would be a full-on geek circle jerk.

I want a beautiful house in California wine country, and a Jaguar to take me there. But see, the problem is, I CAN'T AFFORD IT.
posted by mkultra at 8:47 AM on January 9, 2004

I'm completely naive about r&d on propulsion and fuel technologies but a question that has always been burning in my mind is 'would we be able to create a really cool propulsion device if we throw enough money at it?'

I don't mean something that would violate physics but even something better then a hell of a lot of explosives bungy corded to a shuttle. I've read articles about new possibilities (gravity drivers, wormhole things) but most seem really remote and just a scientist going "what-if".

If such a mission could advance nanotech, new propulsion or anything beyond what's apparently a stalemate, then I'm all for a new mission. It seems cutting edge tech has become stale in a while. Where's my fusion reactor?
posted by geoff. at 8:48 AM on January 9, 2004

it's nice to see bush make some noise about this, but, as has already been noted, it's just noise.

i'm far from an expert on the matter, but everything i've read about space and space exploration suggests to me that we shouldn't even think about leaving near earth orbit for extended periods until we can genetically engineer ourselves to withstand the detrimental effects of extended time in "zero" gravity and exposure to cosmic rays and other such nasty stuff.

guess what? most, though by no means all, conservatives are strongly against genetic engineeering. so we can pretty much give up on the idea of far-reaching manned (personned?) space exploration as long as the current conservative mindset holds the reins of power.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:48 AM on January 9, 2004

I missed one fascinating angle there - Steward Brand - "For Brand and his colleagues at The Long Now Foundation, the clock is a symbol for an entirely new way of approaching design, ecology, politics, and just about everything in between. The long now is a term conceived by foundation member and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno to describe a new way of thinking about "now," one that encapsulates eons rather than years, days, or seconds.

Brand has been a lifelong advocate of looking at the big picture, sometimes literally. In 1966, Brand distributed buttons that read, "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" Legend has it that his humble buttons encouraged NASA to take the color space snapshots of the Earth that kick-started the ecology movement in 1968.

Brand conceived, edited, and published the original "Whole Earth Catalogue" in 1968, which quickly became an ecological bible for the thoughtful '60s radical. In the 1970s, Brand was active in the emerging culture of computer science. His experience prompted him to write "Two Cybernetic Frontiers" in 1974, in which the term "personal computer" was first seen in print. In 1984, a decade before the first Web browser appeared, Brand created The Well (The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), the very first and (still) one of the finest online communities. "

Spealing of which, here's Bruce Sterling on Inhabiting Mars, in an ongoing discussion at The Well.
posted by troutfishing at 8:56 AM on January 9, 2004

As long as 99.99% of the financing is from private investors, I have no problem with this.
posted by mischief at 8:58 AM on January 9, 2004

time to face up to various truths about human space travel
The guy who found The Titanic and first dove on it, has since learned. Submerging scientist to the sea's deep sites which takes time & risks lives are a largely wasted effort. As he noticed the scientists in the submergible with him focused on the submergible's camera monitors even though they could look out the window(s) to view it. So that is why most of his missions are now robotic w/o man.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:04 AM on January 9, 2004

Judge not by what a man says, but by what he does.
posted by rushmc at 9:06 AM on January 9, 2004

Use robots to do the science, build better lift systems, and then send homo sapiens to space. Use the money we save with this approach on science that will help improve our chances of survival on our own homeworld. Environmental science, viable alternative fuels, etc. Our time is running out.
posted by moonbiter at 9:11 AM on January 9, 2004

Both environmental science and alternative fuels are techs that would hugely benefit from a push to send people to another planet.
posted by Nothing at 9:18 AM on January 9, 2004

I was solicited by the Lyndon LaRouche kids this year, and attended the few of the meetings predominantly because I believe in some of the major tenets of his campaign: the importance of the complex sciences and maths, classical music and its role in the elevation of man, the benefits of epistemology, and the concept of setting before a nation a supposedly unrealistic mission to mobilize them.

The importance of a mission to colonize Mars does involve the long-term survival of mankind (in my estimation) but not in the way you might expect. Look at it from a less expansive view: when you set a high goal before a team of scientists, there is a process. This process involves figuring out the milestones necessary to accomplishing the end goal, and then figuring out what is necessary to achieve those milestones.

Along the way, countless new technologies and ideas are created which, although originally formed for this end goal, are beneficial in other ways, in many other industries. They're called Spin-Offs. A more thorough and technical list of NASA's contributions can be found here. Fascinating, amazing stuff.

The true importance is that a nation devoted to a "lofty" common cause becomes a productive, producing nation, constantly improving itself. New jobs are created, standards of education are by necessity lifted, and the quality of living improves. You'd have a nation mobilized by hope and progress. Ideally, of course. If there is a leader who knows how to pull it off.

If someone who wasn't such a shit of a president had proposed the idea, I'd be highly enthused. As G.W. can barely spell his own name without hours of coaching, eh. Such a re-election ploy.
posted by precocious at 9:24 AM on January 9, 2004

Both environmental science and alternative fuels are techs that would hugely benefit from a push to send people to another planet.

Yeay, but, both environmental science and alternative fuels are techs that would hugely benefit from a push on environmental science and alternative fuels. And which of these strategies is going to be more cost effective for these techs?
posted by biffa at 9:25 AM on January 9, 2004

...Or uhm, what some other people said while I was posting/researching that.
posted by precocious at 9:25 AM on January 9, 2004

I'm a full on geek who thinks that this is one of the greatest things human beings can do. I'm also a bit of a romantic in the whole space issue. I honestly do believe that it is a uniquely American trait to push outward and explore.

As to perceived benefits, or lack thereof: Apollo was a great political moonshot, no doubt. But the insane amount of money that went into the program directly aided in the advancement of American science and engineering, specifically in the areas of aeronautical engineering, astrophysics, computer science/modeling, minituriazation, propulsion systems, navigation, guidance, tracking, etc. We are still reaping the benefits today that only grand missions like Apollo and major wars can provide.

To those who say "we should focus first on our problems down here on Earth", I would agree that there is a bit of legitimacy in that. However, if we use that argument, we can extrapolate it to say, "we shouldn't fund our Universities until all children in the United States have been provided a basic elementary education." or, "We shouldn't be funding elementary education until we've first provided free neo-natal care to all children." I hope I'm making my point somewhat coherently.

Finally, and back to the more romantic aspects - humans are at their natural best when provided a challenge, a set of relatively wide parameters, and a solid timeline. I think that Americans, in particular, excel under these circumstances. It is the federal government at its best: America - here's the vision. We'll give you the tools, now hit the books, start dreaming and using your minds and find out a way to get us there in 15 years. Better we spend the effort and energy on this than new weapons and aimless wars around the globe.

America is BORED today. We've had nothing to galvanize us in a romantic way - an emotional way. Humans are inherently emotional beings and given the right goal and the challenge to go above and beyond, I think we're quite capable of doing amazing things. The fact that human flight first occured in 1903 and 66 years later we were on the moon is purely incredible in my eyes. Let's take that energy and re-focus it. I firmly believe this is the way to do it.

This is why I like the idea of replacing the "State of the Union" alphabet soup speech with a "Challenge to the Union". The commmander-in-chief should look out over the horizon and say "America - this is where we should be headed." How wonderful would it be for the president to get up there and say, "America, this year's challenge is to ween yourself from foreign sources of oil. Within ten years America should be able to support itself independently and starting today, the federal government will give you to the tools to achieve that goal. Go do it."

Okay, enough dreaming and romanticizing. But I'm frightened to say that if Bush can really stick behind this program, help develop a good plan and then fund it adequately, he may just get my vote come November. This is big.
posted by tgrundke at 9:34 AM on January 9, 2004

"Every 100 years, all new people."

Space *is* idealism. It *is* the last frontier. Otherwise, humans are just grubby little mortals who sit around in armchairs pondering how "nice" it would be if everyone who couldn't afford to sit around in armchairs pondering, could.
posted by kablam at 9:48 AM on January 9, 2004

tgrundke and precocious: Do you not think any new technology would develp from a very *focused* effort to weed Americans from foreign sources of oil?
posted by raysmj at 9:50 AM on January 9, 2004

Oh jeepers. Cut off the spell check accidentally before posting there. Sorry.
posted by raysmj at 9:52 AM on January 9, 2004

I hate to be the one to say it, but don't you all remember what happened in 1999?
posted by MsVader at 9:53 AM on January 9, 2004

Remember the National Aerospace Plane (NASP)? President Reagan announced the project in his 1986 State of the Union message, calling for development of "...a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours...". To this day it is not clear whether NASP, like Reagan's 'Star Wars' SDIO, was a genuinely intended programme, a huge deception operation to force the Soviet Union into development of costly equivalents, or a cover for other classified projects. Probably it was a bit of all three, and different things to different participants. In any case it was, like SDIO, a case of sever technical over-reach.

posted by xiffix at 9:55 AM on January 9, 2004

Regarding the forthcoming Bush announcement on space policy: From the various sources reporting on the subject, here’s what the Presidents plan will look like.

1. Manned space flight will be NASAs only priority. Almost all non-manned projects will done away with or rolled into the manned program if appropriate.

2. The space shuttle fleet will be retired. Done. Finished. They will stay in service long enough to finish construction of the space station in the next few years.

3. A new space vehicle, the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) will be built and rolled into production in place of the shuttle. The era of winged spacecraft is over for nasa, the CEV is akin to a large Apollo capsule, only able to carry up to 6-8 crew. The CEV is usable in earth orbit AND lunar orbit. The shuttle was only capable of reaching earth orbit, the CEV will be able to leave earth orbit and fly to the moon!

4. Europe’s Ariane rockets and Russia’s Soyuz capsules will be used to access the space station until the CEV in finished and ready for use.

5. The hierarchy of NASA will be changed so that the Defense Department is now included in the planning and future use of future technology. Expect big stuff from this. Having the military involved is a GOOD thing.

6. The first return trip to the moon is planned for 2013 and the following missions will begin the process of building a permanent, manned presence there.

7. Also starting in 2013, NASA will end almost all involvement with the ISS. Expect this to possibly become a private venture.

8. The CEV and moon base construction will be a test-bed for the Mars missions that will follow.


10. After mars, there will be manned missions to the asteroids. NASA will become one of only 3 federal agencies to get a spending increase (5%) in its budget over the next 5 years. The other two being the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. In 2005 a lump sum of $800 Million will be awarded to NASA. If this is indeed the Presidents plan, it is nothing short of remaking NASA in the image of what it once was in the days of Apollo. Manned space flight with a purpose, the days of space truckers in orbit is *over*.

[via /.]
posted by Fupped Duck at 10:06 AM on January 9, 2004

Of all the lame reasons for manned space exploration the notion of species survival is the most lame.

Overcrowding, you say? If you took all 6 billion souls on earth and stood them up shoulder to shoulder they would fit in a square 25 miles on a side. We currently occupy only a fraction of the earth's surface. We could put condos on Mt. Everest, golf courses in the Sahara, turn Greenland into a garden of Eden, build cities on the floor of the ocean with only a fraction of the technology and effort to survive on Mars. New York City may be too crowded but living in a rabbit warren buried on Mars would be an improvement?

What about nuclear war? The radiation would be a fraction of what every square meter of the surface of Mars is exposed to every day.

Water pollution? It is trivial to filter or distill water compared to digging it out of Mars.

Global warming? Perhaps 10 degrees over the next century compared to 100 below zero on Mars right now.

Air pollution? At least the Earth has a breathable atmosphere which could be easily cleaned up compared to creating one from scratch out of rocks.

Natural resources? We could mine our garbage dumps for a fraction of the cost of bringing a pound of platinum from Mars.

The explorations of the 15th century were justified by economics in order to procure spices and precious metals. There is no economic justification for manned space exploration.

So if manned space exploration is based only on some romantic notion of higher, farther, faster or some sort of collective psychic uplift, then it should be debated on that basis, not a false premise of material improvement or security for mankind. If it is science we are interested in, then robots do just fine. If it is thrills and excitement we are looking for, then let it be privately funded.
posted by JackFlash at 10:10 AM on January 9, 2004

America is BORED today. We've had nothing to galvanize us in a romantic way - an emotional way. Humans are inherently emotional beings and given the right goal and the challenge to go above and beyond, I think we're quite capable of doing amazing things.

It'd sure be nice if the Administration were to galvanize the public into caring about the homeless, the impoverished, the malnourished, the unemployed, the illiterate, and the ill.

Want a vision? How about this one: a nation in which every single citizen can easily become a productive member of society, and that being reasonably productive results in being well-fed and well-housed.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:12 AM on January 9, 2004

Want a vision? How about this one: a nation in which every single citizen can easily become a productive member of society, and that being reasonably productive results in being well-fed and well-housed.

That's crazy talk and not very profitable in the short run for government contractors.
posted by shagoth at 10:31 AM on January 9, 2004

Define "productive," five fresh fish. Most of the people I see when I look around me are marking time, treading water, and documenting widgets—not what I would call true productivity.
posted by rushmc at 10:34 AM on January 9, 2004

Somewhere out there, an extinction-level event is laughing its ass or whatever off at us.
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:39 AM on January 9, 2004

would we be able to create a really cool propulsion device if we throw enough money at it?

We already did, but gave it up in 1972 after everyone got bored with Apollo.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:40 AM on January 9, 2004

Mars Saxman - One current thought is that the administration is going to angle for Nerva / nuclear propulsion. That would conveniently allow them to place whatever nuclear device in space that they want.
posted by bshort at 10:44 AM on January 9, 2004

raysmj: I'm confused. Wasn't that the entire gist of tgrundke's post? To answer your question: yes. But I'm not sure what your point is. I'm going to assume that you're trying to establish that the Mars thing is unnecessary.

Tgrundke put it far more eloquently than I did, I think, but the element of romanticism/idealism in space travel is what makes it a fertile source of inspiration. It's the same level of romanticism that has made every major advancement and discovery in human history possible-- ideas which usually begin with one/a few visionaries being seen as completely bonkers, and their ideas being seen as completely unrealistic, implausible, impossible.

As it stands-- introduce a sense of awe and wonder into any project, and you have a team of workers who quite willingly make sacrifices and put spirit and fire into it. Space is the universal unknown, a concept which fills the vast majority of humans (not just geeks, or scientists) with a sense of wonder and infinity. That level of symbolism is important to any given society-- it's why literature, and music, and art flourishes.

Jackflash: I'm aware that the earth isn't overpopulated. I was trying to convey that long-term survival does depend on hope, inspiration and the inevitable progress that results.

I don't think anyone is saying that we need to neglect business affairs "at home." As it stands, we're already working on all of the points being mentioned. And American morale, overall, is not only low, it's subterranean. Who here can deny that high morale is necessary to the success of any endeavor?

Point is: we need something big to fire the human spirit. People are faced with the realities of how horrible life is every day, and are already jaded, cynical and hopeless. To say we're bored is understating it-- people simply don't believe that the items mentioned in fff's post are fixable, that it's a part of life, and thus ignorable.

While the entire country wouldn't suddenly become devoted to colonizing Mars, making the attempt to (and making strides toward) would lend hope to every other element of our lives. Kudos to whatever jacknut in the Bush administration came up with stealing this concept. It plays on human emotion as potently as crashing a plane into a building.
posted by precocious at 10:45 AM on January 9, 2004

Robots can do the exploration part of the science, or at least some of it, true, but not the science that comes from figuring out how to live in space. And they do not provide the motivation for advancement of a manned space program.

To respond to some comments above: A focused effort on environmental science directly would possibly advance the field more quickly then a focused effort to get people to Mars. As well, a focus on weaning off oil as a fuel source would have myriad useful spin-offs. The problem is, you will never find as many people willing to work on (or pay for through taxes) alternative fuels or environmental science directly as you will people willing to work on and pay for going to Mars. The goal of space travel excites people, gets them involved. All things being equal, it's probably not the most efficient way to do things, but all things aren't equal, and it is just as important, more important, to have a goal that gets people involved. People aren't cogs in a big machine to be reassigned and shuffled about based on the needs of society as measured by any one ideology.

Also, it is not a case of either/or. People will still work on the oil problem. People will still work to improve education. Problems down here on earth won't get passed over just because we look up there too. It's not zero sum.
posted by Nothing at 10:47 AM on January 9, 2004

Precocious said it better than I did.
posted by Nothing at 10:50 AM on January 9, 2004

We do need a long term vision, not only for the nation, but for the human race, and space exploration should be a part of that.
But this just smacks of election year posturing to cast a dullard into the role of a visionary. There is much to be done before a manned mission to mars could or should be attempted, and that includes many domestic priorities. And if this plan calls for a halt to unmanned missions, it is with out a doubt a case of style over substance. It sounds like a directive from on high with little or no input from NASA.
posted by 2sheets at 10:52 AM on January 9, 2004

Nothing said it more succintly than I did.

2sheets> I agree. If we had a JFK or a Martin Luther King behind this, the mass excitement would have no bounds. Coming from Dubya, this close to re-election, makes it an empty gesture.
posted by precocious at 11:00 AM on January 9, 2004

tgrundke: No, his point was that getting behind a goal is good, and indicated that weening Americans from oil could be one such worthy goal. However, he said nothing about technologies that could be developed from a massive alternative-energy program. And then he went on to say that if Bush approves of the space thing, he may very well vote for the man solely for that reason. And this struck me as maddeningly shallow. We don't have a lot of money, now, really. We have record deficits, and are in the middle of a war that many thought was over months ago and that may continue indefinitely. Osama's still on the loose. But increased space exploration will possible be the determining factor in how someone votes? OK. How about a sense of priorities?
posted by raysmj at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2004

Space--think of all the terrorists and missionaries one could send there. I smell penal colony! Moonbase X-ray Alpha!
posted by y2karl at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2004


Sorry. I jerked for all it was worth when Bush I announced the same God-damned thing. At this point, I'm fucking spent.

(can't you just hear all the folks at NASA going, "Lets not completely fuck this up like last time," over and over again?)

Fupped Duck:

5. The hierarchy of NASA will be changed so that the Defense Department is now included in the planning and future use of future technology. Expect big stuff from this. Having the military involved is a GOOD thing.

FUCK! No! The military fucks NASA at every fucking turn! Look at that fucking 60'x15' cargo bay that the military forced on the shuttle, making the thing so ridiculously fucking expensive. Look at how NASA gets virtually no fucking benifit from Vandenberg. Look at how NASA is fucking lucky when they get to launch a fucking obviously needed repair mission for Hubble while the USAF gets a new fucking KH-12 every time someone in the DoD gets another fucking warboner.
posted by Ptrin at 11:28 AM on January 9, 2004

I smell another Apollo-ish politically motivated gadget fest. You know how many scientists went up on Apollo missions?

One. On Apollo 17. The last one. While the entire Apollo program was without a doubt a unifying force for the US in the 60s and 70s, once the Moon had been attained, it became superfluous - it was never about science.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 11:32 AM on January 9, 2004

Want a vision? How about this one: a nation in which every single citizen can easily become a productive member of society, and that being reasonably productive results in being well-fed and well-housed.

Why should it be easy? If it's easy, who would want it? Why would it be worth anything?
posted by kindall at 11:35 AM on January 9, 2004

You're all missing the point. Ask yourself who benefits from a plan like this. Hint: they've been deprived of a lot of cash with the shuttles grounded.
posted by norm at 12:02 PM on January 9, 2004

A couple of people have posted a link to Bruce Sterling's thoughts on colonizing Mars. I call bullshit on Sterling in my weblog - here's the post. Comparing Mars to the Gobi Desert is a facile analogy that is below his otherwise stellar writing.

I agree with Nothing and precocious: beyond the science, there are other reasons to go to Mars, and that money spent on Mars will not magically be subtracted from (say) hospitals or schools. If we are to turn our backs from space exploration, we should consider turning our backs from astrophysics, expensive concert halls and sports stadia, the Olympics and other such unproductive areas.

I don't recall reading anything about Bush wanting to colonize Mars either... that's an issue that won't be addressed for a very long time.
posted by adrianhon at 12:17 PM on January 9, 2004

you will never find as many people willing to work on (or pay for through taxes) alternative fuels or environmental science directly as you will people willing to work on and pay for going to Mars.

Can you post the results of this poll so we can all see the numbers you are using to make this assertion?

Why should it be easy? If it's easy, who would want it? Why would it be worth anything?

Yes, better to focus all of one's energy on surviving rather than flourishing. Poverty: Does a body good!!
posted by archimago at 12:31 PM on January 9, 2004

expensive concert halls and sports stadia

Which either 1) usually pay for themselves; or 2) Have their costs to the public offset at least somewhat by the contributions of individuals, corporations and foundations (and state and local governments, if federal grants are involved).
posted by raysmj at 12:35 PM on January 9, 2004

Also, the public financing of stadiums is an ongoing hot issue in some quarters, especially when connected to the location hopping of professional sports teams.
posted by raysmj at 12:36 PM on January 9, 2004

Remember the money itself doesn't go to space. It goes to researchers and industries right here on Earth who in turn use it to buy cars and food and clothes for their kids. Half the families in my high school were supported by defense and NASA grants. The stuff they create from their research also creates new products and new products create new markets and economic growth.

Velcro is the classic example of a product that has benefited many industries tremendously and came out of space research.

There are quite a few medical advances that have come out of the space race too.
posted by maggie at 12:44 PM on January 9, 2004

Sending people to another planet seems a far more constructive way to blow the money that stockpiling guns and bombs to kill each other with.

I suspect that this push to send people to the Moon and beyond is more about the weaponization of space, and less about ideals, dreams and humanity. The US military will not allow China to gain the higher ground.
posted by piskycritter at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2004

You got me Archimago, I made that statement without a formal poll to back it up. In the circles I interact with daily, it is a self evident truth (and this among people who get really, really excited about alternative fuels), but it might not be on a larger scale. I do think that far more people can identify with space travel than directly with the more abstract sciences and social problems that could benefit as a side effect of space travel research. Half the kids I went to elementary school with wanted to be astronauts, none of them wanted to be environmental engineers. Space travel provides tangible results that everyone can understand (Holy fuck, a human is standing on the Moon) and excitement, something lacking in, to continue with the examples from earlier, environmental sciences and alternative fuels. I'm not slamming either of those two fields of research, not at all. I just don't think you can get people excited about them in the same way.

However, to pick up another thread of the discussion, I don't think that this pronouncement by Bush means anything. I wish it did.
posted by Nothing at 1:31 PM on January 9, 2004

Remember the money itself doesn't go to space.

Best comment in this thread.
posted by rushmc at 1:42 PM on January 9, 2004

I think Norm made the best comment, a "follow the money" comment: "You're all missing the point. Ask yourself who benefits from a plan like this. Hint: they've been deprived of a lot of cash with the shuttles grounded."

MmmmHmmmm. Who benefits? Big defense contractors, who supply the fuel and parts and pieces. When NASA ain't flyin, they ain't buyin; if they ain't buyin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and ATK Thiokol Propulsion ain't makin money.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:22 PM on January 9, 2004

(despite his hatred of street musicians), i definitely agree with Faze and Lawrence Krauss. the best space exploration is cheap space exploration. until we do get something like a space elevator, manned missions seem like a waste of valuable resources.

i just wish people actually cared about the "rapid implementation of technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and strategies for carbon sequestration"
posted by mrgrimm at 3:19 PM on January 9, 2004

All this will change when that little robot fucker finds oil.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 3:54 PM on January 9, 2004

mrgrimm - if only the paltry humans could apply their little minds in turning space technologies towards progressive ends....

Broog would cease consuming them like popcorn.
posted by troutfishing at 11:38 PM on January 9, 2004

re: sterling's take (scrolled up)
I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the
same time I see people setting the Gobi Desert.
The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times
as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times
cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever
writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well,
it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's
no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly,
it's inhospitable and there's no way to
make it pay. Mars is just the same, really.
We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

On the other hand, there might really be some
way to make living in the Gobi Desert pay.
And if that were the case, and you really
had communities making a nice cheerful
go of daily life on arid, freezing, barren rock
and sand, then a cultural transfer to Mars
might make a certain sense.

If there were a society with enough technical
power to terraform Mars, they would
certainly do it. On the other hand.
by the time they got around to messing with Mars,
they would have been using all that power
to transform *themselves.* So by the time
they got there and started rebuilding the
Martian atmosphere wholesale, they wouldn't
look or act a whole lot like Hollywood extras.
i wrote a short story about this (for a hw assignment :) awhile ago! it's pretty crappy (i think i was reading the dispossessed or something at the time :) but still, great minds and all that!

also anne abblebaum on mars before the announcement:
Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, isn't the kind of place where you'd want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there's the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut traveling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. "Space is not 'Star Trek,' " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that."

No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner, that a manned Mars mission is next, that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible. [...]

Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak. Also somehow played down is the fact that the search for "life" on Mars — proof, as the enthusiasts have it, that we are "not alone" in the universe — is not a search for sentient beings but rather a search for evidence that billions of years ago there might possibly have been a few microbes. It's hard to see how that sort of information is going to heal our cosmic loneliness, let alone lead to the construction of condo units on Mars.

[...S]pace exploration isn't treated the way other purely academic pursuits are treated. For one, the scientists doing it have perverse incentives. Their most dangerous missions — the ones involving human beings — produce the fewest research results, yet receive the most attention, applause and funding. Their most productive missions — the ones involving robots — inspire interest largely because the public illogically believes they will lead to more manned space travel.

Worse, there is always the risk that yet another politician will seize on the idea of "sending a man to Mars," or "building a permanent manned station on the moon" as a way of sounding far-sighted or futuristic or even patriotic. President Bush is allegedly considering a new expansion of manned space travel. The Chinese are embarking on their own manned space program, since sending a man to the moon is de rigueur for would-be superpowers. The result, inevitably, will be billions of misspent dollars, more lethal crashes — and a lot more misguided rhetoric about the "inspiration of discovery," as if discoveries can only be made with human hands.
nevermind transhuman extropian ones :D like the immigration thing, i think it sounds too transparently like election year pandering, i.e. a rovian feint to liberal ideals and a ploy to populism in order to sit on the center, becuase who else are conservatives gonna vote for? they're locked up, so rove can afford to make certain concessions to consituencies that might be swayed by bones thrown towards them. democracy in action!
posted by kliuless at 8:14 AM on January 10, 2004

Is space exploration a liberal idea? I should have thought not so much.
posted by rushmc at 9:06 AM on January 10, 2004

i dunno, i was just thinking about its affinity with kennedy and pbs i guess (like troutfishing sed :) whereas conservatives (like the fiscal kind!) are more into unmanned missions and space defence and stuff? /me generalises
posted by kliuless at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2004

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