Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why Colonize Space? Part 1 of 2

This is a tough question. It’s one that I’ve been sort of sliding around as well in terms of my posting so far on this blog. But it’s also a very important one.

There are some halfway decent arguments against spending resources on a space program of any sort, much less one that puts the resources to sustain humans into the works – what with the endless list of requirements to keep them alive, to sustain them in the space environment, to subject them to the extraordinary dangers of space-flight. Several questions are posed regularly by those of this camp.

1. Couldn’t these resources be spent elsewhere on better things?

Space is expensive. It requires a lot to build rockets, and it requires a lot of rocket to get a small bit of matter where you want it to go in space. There are still people starving in Africa. People still die of malaria and bacteriological illnesses.

If we pose the question which should we be spending our resources on, space, or saving starving people? – the expected answer is saving starving people. But there’s a serious assumption there – that spending resources on “starving people” is actually going to alleviate starvation. There are many countries in the world that still have starvation, malnutrition, rampant disease, and that have populations that die like flies. They usually also receive upwards of 30% of their GDP in terms of resources designed to keep them from these very ills. They also usually have one other element in common: They are ruled by tribal or authoritarian despotisms which take that aid money and either burn it, leave piles of food to rot, or buy weapons with our charity and use them to terrorize their populations. The problem has never been one of “resources”. People who are free – who have their able bodies at their own disposal, usually never starve. There are instances where natural disaster or infirmity occasionally prevails. But they, under normal circumstances, never fail to at least feed themselves. Taiwan is a resource-less rock in the middle of the ocean – the Taiwanese don’t starve. South Korea is a harsh piece of terrain, yet South Koreans don’t starve. North Koreans do.

If we posed this question another way – would you rather, given circumstances favorable to doing so, spend your resources on either space colonization, or liberating people from tyrannies - I’d cheerfully divert the funding from my lifelong dream and spend my engineering talents, for part of my life, designing the new and improved despot-seeking-missile. (In fact, that’s what I hope to do). What mankind stands to gain, medium term, from eradicating tyranny is much greater than from a space program.

But there’s another problem with this question – it’s a false dichotomy. We spend $16 billion on NASA per year. We spend $2.5 trillion dollars on everything else. NASA is only 0.1% of our total federal spending. In contrast, we spend $400 billion per year in interest on our national debt! If we were going to trim something, there’s no shortage of places to start. Why cut the space program? Why challenge increases in the space program with starving children in Africa, but not federal highway maintenance pork? ($35 billion, most of which is probably pork, unleashed and running wild. BTW, we’re spending more to maintain the highways than we did to build them – figure that one out).

If we were the United States of NASA, and we spent 80% of our federal budget on space exploration, I’d want to cut the space program back down to a reasonable size too. I’d probably be blogging my discontent from an internet café on Mars, but even so – then starving children in Africa would be a valid point to raise.

2. Wait for Technology to Develop

The second argument that’s often raised against it is that we don’t have the technology to colonize space. We should wait until we have the ability to do it before making any serious efforts at climbing this mountain.

This argument is in error for the following reason: It assumes that Technology Just Happens, that men have a passive role to play in the development of technology, and that they do what they can when it becomes possible to do it. That’s not how it works. Capital T Technology doesn’t solve problems for us. Men develop technology to solve problems. I believe that our greatest technological advancements happened, not while we were waiting for them to happen, but when we were striving to overcome an obstacle. The oceangoing technology of our millennia of sailing was not invented, refined, or developed by abstract theorists in a land-locked university. Conversely, our knowledge of fluid dynamics came first to the Romans and the ancient Persians, who had to plumb their cities and irrigate their deserts. The steam engine wasn’t built for amusement. James Watt’s efforts to regulate the device were not born of abstractions, but practical experience and experimentation. Our greatest bursts of applied invention and innovation, of technological advancement, came first when we had the world to explore and understand, second when we had the continents to tame, and more recently when we needed to fight our wars and overcome the enemy.

To make no effort towards conquering space means that we will develop no technology making it any easier to do so. Our expertise in other fields may advance arbitrarily. But we will remain precisely in the position we are in now in terms of being able to put humans on other planets and moons and enabling them to live there. Having made no efforts to make this work, we will have no technology to help them. We can see the outlines of this in the frustrated question that many space-enthusiasts have asked of late: “Why could send men to the moon in the 70s, and yet can’t send men reliably into orbit today?” The answer is that we haven’t been pushing ourselves to go the distance. The Saturn V was developed by engineers who had practical experience pushing the boundary of our aerospace knowledge. They had designed rockets, rocket planes, and innovative supersonic airplanes before. They had practical experience building the things. The Saturn V wasn’t just a rocket – it was a culture that enabled it to exist. Today, the blueprints to build that rocket are in storage somewhere, the engineers are retired or deceased, and the companies that built the parts are out of business. Even the people who engineered the shuttle are spending their efforts holding the fleet together, and retiring. Most of the engineers in charge today have never had the opportunity to design and build a new rocket.

It ultimately doesn’t matter when we start – the technology won’t happen until we do. If we develop a moral paradigm now to put this off to a future generation, then as long as the paradigm persists, we will make no progress towards accomplishing the goal.


Anonymous Bryce said...

The 'cost' of space exploration is only half the matter. What is really being asked is whether the benenfits meet or exceed costs, which makes the entire issue one of investment rather than expense. This is not just semantics, but real-world issues. I don't blame anyone for questioning a 17 billion dollar a year expenditure on the increasingly quixotic serach for life in space (read Mars), particularly when they learn that the United Statres Government, in 1967, sold out their natural right to pursue a gainful living in space. They're told they can't go,so wghy should they be made to pay for someone else to go?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 8:37:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin James Daniels said...

You are right when you say that the choice of exploring space or improving our lot on earth is a false dichotomy. One could make the argument (and I do) that we must take a holistic view and understand that space exploration proceeds naturally from improving our lot here on earth. If we value life, we must fight against despots AND fight hunger AND invest in the technology that will allow us to identify and inhabit other worlds. The only place where I disagree with you is in the assumption that governments must fund the latter. I think by and large they are no longer capable of it. That is why some of us are working to build the organizations that will simply take it out of their hands. When there are enough of us, we will go.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 7:12:00 PM  

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