Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hope, But No Future

Perhaps it was growing up seeing planetarium shows all the time at my father's planetarium. Perhaps it was being an avid "hard science fiction" fan, cutting my teeth on Heinlein and Azimov before moving on to more recent writers like Niven and Flynn. Or maybe it was that my favorite TV viewing as a child was endlessly rewatching a PBS series called Space Flight. Whatever planted the seed, I've always been a fan of the manned space program. Although it's increasingly become someone no one pays attention to, in the long run our development of space technology will probably be looked back on as one of the key inflection points in human history.

Not all people see it that way, however. I recall writing a letter in support of NASA funding to one of our state senators (Diane Feinstein, as I recall) back when I was in high school and getting back a rather huffy reply from her office saying that the senator did not believe we should be wasting money on space when we still hadn't solved all our problems here on earth.

Well, I hate to break to to those still nurturing a Rousseauian view of human nature, but all evidence suggests that we will never have "solved all our problems here on earth." We are the problem. As long as humans are around, we'll fight wars with each other and compete and deny each other food and perpetuate injustices and so on.

According to this article I ran into the other day, Senator Obama apparently thinking something along the lines of Senator Feinstein on this issue. He plans to remove most of the funding from the already rather poorly funded Moon/Mars program which Bush authorized, and plans to use the savings to fund a nationwide pre-K education program.
Why single out the space budget to cut for this program? “NASA is no longer associated with inspiration,” Obama told a campaign rally audience in March.
I doubt there are many people out there making their decisions about the presidential election based on space policy, but for me at least, theis helps fill in a little bit the image of Obama that I already had: a "hope" that not really aimed at very much beyond looking good and funding more of the same. A hope without a goal. A hope without a future.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

For once Senator Obama and I are in agreement. If I had my druthers, I'd get rid of NASA altogether.

Darwin said...

I think there's a decent argument even from a libertarian point of view that basic space infrastructure (L5 point space stations, moon station, mars station) is on the short list of things that the government _should_ be doing, just like the military and the interstate highway system. (Actually, large portions of NASA work are done directly for the military, which would be another issue with getting rid of it.)

However, if one were to get rid of NASA (which some space advocates favor) there are some things some things it would be reasonable to do first:

-Establish by international treaty (or at least by US law) that space and resources on other planetary bodies are commercially exploitable. (Congress has repeatedly occasionally to make all other planetary bodies effectively nature preserves.)

-Possibly put out some very large X Prize style awards for specific achievements relating to space.

TJR said...

I believe that re-invigorating the space program will creates jobs and inspire Americans to achieve things greater than ourselves.

And it looks like there are already other countries that are ahead of us on this.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

If one wants to justify the space program as a way of creating jobs, then the thing to do would be to hire people to blow up the shuttle every time it is about to launch, so that we'll have to rebuild it again and again. Just think of all the jobs that will create!

Darwin said...

I suppose in the simple sense of "creating jobs" one could maintain such a thing -- but if one takes the sensible interpretation of assuming that the creation of both jobs and technology is meant -- applications which are known to be futile (such as building a shuttle never intended to be launched) are obviously terrible at producing real technological advancement (and the jobs necessary for that advancement) because there's no real problem to solve.

Indeed, one of the reasons that NASA has generally been such a waste over the last 10-15 years is that it hasn't been attempting much new. In that sense, moving forward with the lunar/mars program would be the _right_ thing to do.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Justifying the space program as a means to promote technological innovation, like justifying it as a means of creating jobs, seems to me to be a fairly straightforward example of Bastiat's broken window fallacy. Space travel poses all sorts of difficulties, and overcoming those difficulties may well spur the invention of new technologies with applications beyond the space program. But the resources spent solving such problems has to come from somewhere. While the development of pens that work in zero gravity and Tang are no doubt grand accomplishments, I'm skeptical that there was no better use for the money spent on such developments either in the private sector or in other government funded research.

Darwin said...

Well, I don't think it's primary value is as a way to create jobs. I'd say that the primary value is that developing space is something which involves a long enough period of development before it becomes profitable that it generally has to be done initially through government programs. (Though there are some libertarian/free-enterprise approaches which are also very promising. I was long a -- very minor -- stockholder of SpaceDev:

But it strikes me that maintaining that the job creation benefits would be just as well achieved by blowing the shuttle up as by keeping it going commits the window fallacy in a pretty major way. The space program would produce _fewer_ ancillary benefits such as technology and jobs if it didn't actually fly any missions.

Primarily, though, I think the government should be involved in space in order to get some basic instrastructure up and running: L5 point stations, moon base, mars base. Beyond that, private enterprise will quietly take over.