Monday, July 21, 2003

Discussion: To Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

While I'm at the FP Mag stuff, there's another one from the new issue arguing that governments should drop out of space exploration and let wealthy folks take it over. I strongly disagree with Rees's conclusions. His reasoning is largely based on the conclusion that individuals better represent humanity than nations and that nations chicken out too quickly when things go wrong. Going by historic events neither of those points appear to hold much weight. When a test of the Apollo 1 module went up in flames, killing three astronauts the program barely paused to offer condolences. Even in recent days with the media endlessly replaying footage and milking the tragedy for every sentimental, sensationalist buck they could get, there has been a strong consensus in the public that the show must go on. The general feeling is that the best way to honor the fallen is to support the cause for which they died. And who watched the first moon landing and did not feel a sense of pride for mankind?

There are other criticisms, some of space exploration in general. Rees states that putting people in space accomplishes very little, and that probes and other automated systems could do the job as well, cheaper and with less risk. He mentions the bureaucratic overhead and PR obligations of the space programs. He cites the viability of private interests to continue the mission of space exploration. In a sense these are all good criticisms. It is true that the manned missions to space have been of little value for a good 20 years now. It is true that NASA has developed serious bureaucratic problems, and that it needs to keep up the manned missions just to retain their profile and bring in funding. It is true that private groups will soon be able to put people in space (check this out for some details on that).

I agree with those criticisms. But I don't see private pursuit of space exploration as the answer. Many of the ills that have befallen NASA are not inevitable (as NASA's accomplishments of the 60's and 70's would attest), but are symptomatic of the program being discarded and maligned by political leaders of both parties for the past two and a half decades. This is corrected not by closing down NASA, but by reprioritizing and revitalizing it.

My feeling is that space exploration is a tremendous opportunity for mankind, and scientific research is only one facet of that. Space is mankind's new manifest destiny and has been for 50 years now. Progress in space transcends the petty politics that bedevil us on the ground. It can help change our perspective on the whole mess of humanity. It puts on proud display the most noble aspects of man: courage, teamwork, creativity, intelligence, curosity, devotion. Ultimately, learning about our universe is most useful for what it teaches us about ourselves.

And I supremely doubt the viability of private explorers and adventurers to do this on their own. They will reach space soon, but then what? By current estimates the X Prize groups will likely succeed for a cost of a few times the prize money ($50m or less). Something on this scale can likely be funded by philanthropy and space tourism. And the placing of probes and satellites in orbit is already funded by private enterprise. But to establish a real permanent presence in space (and the pathetic space station they have now does not count) or to go to Mars will cost many billions of dollars. No adventurer will foot that cost. There is no viable reason for industry to do it either. Will the cost some day come down to where rich adventurers can do it? Maybe, maybe not. Do we want to wait many decades to find out. Certainly not. When the US went to the moon the program spun off innumerable new technologies that went into consumer and industry use. Why did they produce these things when industry did not? They had the brainpower, the funding, and the will to do it. Private industry may have developed some of these technologies eventually, some they probably would never have come up with. The space program gave scientists and engineers the freedom to imagine and the resources to make their dreams into reality. If we waited private industry to develop all of the things needed to make a moon trip, we'd probably still be waiting.

And when a worthy permanent space station is created, will it better represent mankind as a club for rich adventurers or as a public enterprise open to anyone who works their way up through the space program? Contrary to Rees, my contention is the latter. In either case few people will probably make the trip, but I would feel better to know that those are selected by merit, not by riches.

It still blows my mind every time that I think about the fact that we made it to the moon with 1960's technology. Were it not a fact, I would swear it impossible. What could we accomplish now if governments around the world (but especially here in the US) dedicated 10% or 20% of their military budgets to space exploration? The mind boggles.

No comments: