The Forever Frontier

There is one reason and one reason only for my country’s government-run space program to exist: to beat the Russkies to the Moon. And we met our goal, and then the USSR fell apart some years later, and we were stuck with a government body that was a Cold War relic, based on a situation that no longer exists. NASA was not structured to further vague, cloudy sentiments like “scientific discovery for the good of mankind.” Despite what they might say in public, people feel instinctively that their taxes should not be used to pay for things that have no concrete goal.

No one could say definitely what the space shuttle was for, only that the concept certainly didn’t seem to live up to the romantic vision of space exploration. As a matter of fact, the word “shuttle” implies public transportation. In other words, it was a bus. If there’s one thing I know about my fellow Americans, it’s that we don’t like the bus. We’ll take the bus — we’ll put up with them — but we don’t like them. Also, the space shuttle was barely a “space” anything. Going no further than the satellite that bounces your HBO signal to your tv isn’t going “into outer space.”

Perhaps science fiction is to blame. As long as outer space shows us a pretty but empty face, we’ll be content with using our imagination to populate the stars while we stay right here on Earth. In space no one can hear your sigh of disappointment. As for future exploration and colonization of “outer space,” leave that to some eccentric with more money than sense. It’s how most of us ended up here and why I’m not writing this in a cottage in England. Dammit.

18 thoughts on “The Forever Frontier

  1. mysterian1729

    > Going no further than the satellite that bounces your HBO signal to your tv isn’t going “into outer space.”
    The shuttle can’t go that high. Its demonstrated max altitude is 385 miles to place the HST. The HBO satellite is geosynchronous at 22,300 miles high.

  2. Mike Walsh

    The myth of human space exploration is an example of the fallacy of false transcendence, one particularly appealing to Americans prone to look for technological solutions to what are not technological problems, often spiritual ones. There is no “destination in space that offers great rewards for the risks to achieve it” (to quote Buzz Aldrin) and there never will be. For all practical purposes, there is no “there” there, as Gertrude Stein observed of Oakland. Space offers nothing that repays investment apart from a few satellites in earth orbit. Admittedly there are some efforts (like Hubble) that have cultural value that cannot be measured in strictly monetary terms. But these must be measured against the value of any other scientific enterprise. As for the human exploration of space, one must ask: what El Dorado awaits us that would ever repay the still more titanic costs of such an endeavor? A trip to Mars, as touted by the fanboys, would very likely be a suicide mission; a little careful thought reveals the greater absurdity of colonizing a place that makes Antarctica look like Eden. And if you enjoy international flights in economy class, then you might find space travel Romantic. At the very best a future colony in space will resemble –and be about as important as– a colony in the aforementioned Antarctica, that hardship post.

    1. Andrea Harris Post author

      Well actually, these aren’t things you can actually say are true, since no one has actually been to Mars, for example. On the other hand, I agree that we shouldn’t look for technological problems to solve spiritual problems — or at least, we shouldn’t have taxes taken out of our paycheck for feelgood projects. If someone wants to use their own money and resources to finance exploration of the outer planets, or to attempt to build a starship with an FTL drive, or to colonize some other planet, I say go for it. It’s not my business to tell someone what to do with their own money and time.

    2. Lynn

      1. Everything the government does costs several times what it would cost if private corporations did it.

      2. Everything new is much more expensive that it will be later on.

      The way to make space travel affordable and practical is to 1. get the government out of the business and 2. just do it.

    3. aelfheld

      Apparently none of you realise that the United States space program is the only government program to return more than was spent on it. The transistors making up the microchips in the computers you use were developed largely in response to the need for something more reliable than vacuum tubes in a spacecraft. Almost every advance in miniaturisation for three decades was driven, in whole or in part, by the U.S. space program.

      As for space offering nothing that “repays investment apart from a few satellites in earth orbit”, I have to ask how you came to that conclusion. Certainly you have no empirical data to prove your assertion. Nor are your assertions regarding the value of extra-terrestrial colonies valid in light of historical precedent.

      This isn’t to say that NASA hasn’t degenerated into another self-serving bureaucracy but the blame for that can be laid at the feet of the Congress and the executive; with no goals beyond planting a flag on the Moon there was nothing to maintain focus on. Much of the reason that there has been little to no private investment in space excepting a satellite or two is NASA’s deliberate sabotage of private efforts.

    4. Andrea Harris Post author

      I do think the argument that “we would have discovered all those things anyway” is the wrong argument to make. I mean, we didn’t — we discovered those things via the space program. You can argue that if “such and such a thing hadn’t been done desirable outcome X would have happened in another way” until the cows come home, but you have to deal with reality the way it has occurred.

      That being said, NASA is now more of an obstacle than a help to new scientific and technological breakthroughs. You can’t discover anything with a giant bureaucracy sitting on you. NASA should be disbanded just for the way it’s controlled the whole space exploration field. They need to be told that they aren’t the owner of all of space and time just because they got some people on the Moon forty years ago.

  3. Annoying Old Guy

    I must say that I consider Mr. Walsh’ claim complete nonsense. There is an entire solar system of very valuable resources waiting out there for us, primarily metals and energy. Solar power, for instance, works wonderfully in space where there’s no weather and no night. A single good sized planetoid has more metals than entire nations. That’s an El Dorado for you. For any one concerned about the terran environment it would seem an excellent idea to off-planet all of our dirty manufacturing processes. Colonization of Antartica would be going far differently if, for instance, massive petroleum deposits were found there.

    Of course, we’ll never do that sort of thing while NASA exists. For obvious reasons NASA culturally can’t tolerate private industry in space. IMHO we would be much further along in exploiting non-terrestrial resources if NASA had been disbanded around 1970.

    1. Mike Walsh

      No, the notion that natural resources in outer space could be mined economically is what’s nonsense, and has driven fanboy fantasy for generations. Do the math.

    2. Annoying Old Guy

      I have done the math actually (specifically with regard to solar power and how big a station you’d need to supply power to the USA). Other people, much smarter and more knowledgeable than, I have also done the math. It seems quite doable. For instance, you could bring an asteroid back to Earth orbit using solar power mass launchers on the asteroid. Almost all the costs are capital, once it’s running it’s quite cheap. The only real impediment at this point is launch costs, but that’s being worked on very aggressively by companies like SpaceX.

  4. The Laughing Man

    I never thought of scientific research and astrophysics as fanboy-ism, I guess all those polymers in my car or the technology in that CAT scan my Mom got a few years ago are just the products of a deranged imagination in Orlando.

    I find it very interesting in that most people who object nosily to the human exploration of space tend to be greenies who get all upset over the possibility of a technocratic future. They tend to parrot two arguments; 1) it’ll never be economical, or 2) we can’t go and disposal the universe until we fix every problem on Earth. The second one is obviously hopelessly naive and stupid, but distressingly popular. The first argument makes much more sense however, but even coming to America was not immediately profitable for the Europeans. As Andrea pointed out, that changed, and courtesy of Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, it has just changed for space exploration as well. Additionally, research conducted in space has already yielded highly marketable products (both “end-stage” and components), as I alluded to previously.

    And in any case, if space is the death trap that one makes it out to be, then why is there a 2-3% fatality rate among space-borne personnel?

    Of course I will concede however that as of this month NASA itself is no longer relevant. Instead of trying to do something useful, it employs fools like James Hansen and is content to while its days away as international ambassadors rather than trying to go up against the burgeoning Chinese program. It’s a shame, but thanks to the Democratic Party (ironically, it is supposed to be the “pro-science” one) we can now get on to less important things. Like installing ugly white windmills all over the Great Plains. Which are only on about 33% of the time.

    1. Andrea Harris Post author

      Wouldn’t it have been funny of the space shuttle on one of its landings had crashed into a government windmill farm. Oh okay not funny. Hilarious.

      Seriously, I just want to make sure everyone knows I’m not against human exploration of space. I’m just against putting space exploration into the hands of a government bureaucracy. Look what we got when we did: Space Amtrak.

      Yeah, that whole “space is dangerous!” meme just shows how pathetically wimpy the human race has become. How can space be dangerous. The entire Earth floats around in it.

  5. Mike Walsh

    Andrea: you’re right –”Do the math” is dismissive. I should have chosen a better cliche, i.e. “Show me the money.”

    The economic arguments basically all boil down to variations on the ham-sandwich fallacy, i.e., if we had some ham, we could make a ham sandwich, if we had some bread. I do not deny the intelligence of the techs nor the courage of astronauts. But I’ll begin to respect the economical possibilities of human spaceflight when someone Rutan actually turns a profit by going up there. Meanwhile, imagine a dingy Antarctic research station. Now imagine it without any air outside: that is the future of human space exploration. The other scenarios are religion.

    1. Andrea Harris Post author

      Yeah, that’s number 18, and with that I need to say that you’re going to have to stop now, because you’ve gone off the topic of my post. If you want to argue that space exploration is teh stoopid and no one should do it even with their own money, time, and effort, all because you don’t think it’s worth doing, you’re going to have to get your own blog (I recommend for its lovely free blogs) and argue it there.

  6. Larry the Geek

    Nasa has needed a new mission for a long time. The shuttles have been around for 30 years now, a lot older than most of our cars.

    You might say the space station is great, well ok, what have they been studying? How to grow things in zero gravity? Nice and all but where’s the factory up there spewing out the advanced products? From what I’ve read they spend most of their time studying the best ways to use duct tape and baling wire to hold the thing together.

    If we’re going to do things in space, let’s do things, set huge goals, go to Mars and start a colony, for sure a one way trip, they better bring a lot of books to read. They were actually planning that one, with Nasa shutting down the trip might be gone too. Last I heard they only need $10,998,900,000 more and they’re off.

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