Posted by: spacewritinguy | November 11, 2008

What’s the Moon FOR, Anyway?

I’ve been reading a lot of space literature and blogishness lately, and quite frankly I’m bordering between uninspired and depressed. NASA likes to sell space as a means of enhancing our national technological capabilities or inspiring the youths of America. I have no objection to either goal, and I wish NASA well. However, I’ve also watched, with great pain, NASA TV, and I’m not inspired.

We’re heading into unknown or at least unfamiliar economic territory. The bail-out will only be paid by inflating the currency, taxing the hell out of everything and everybody, or cutting spending elsewhere. And what’s the biggest budget target for an incoming Obama administration, besides the Department of Defense? Naturally: NASA. It’s the most visible and impressive demonstration of the power of the U.S. government, and it receives something like half a cent of every tax dollar. Yes, by damn, let’s cut THAT part of the budget, because there’s nothing else worth slicing and dicing…

So what good is our space program if we don’t even know why we have it? Do we need it to keep our technological edge over other countries? Not our OVERALL advantage, to be sure (we could rest on our laurels or focus on Earth-based technologies like computers and biotech), but at least our advantage in aerospace, which is about the only part of our economy with a trade surplus.

Why should we go back to the Moon? Why travel to the asteroids? Why build a base on Mars or send someone to Europa? Some dreamy, unlikely suggestions for a Tuesday evening:

  • To search for other forms of life. To see if we really ARE alone in the universe. And if we aren’t, what other forms of life are there, and what are the implications of that life for life on Earth?
  • To learn more about our home planet. We learned about the “runaway greenhouse effect” by studying Venus. What might we learn about global cooling by continuing our studies of the planet Mars? And while we’re on the subject of the environment, long-term, high-efficiency life support systems to survive on other worlds could teach us new and more efficient ways to use power and food here on Earth.
  • To protect our planet. There are nights in the wilderness or in farm country, where you can see the sky raining rocks in the form of meteorites. Their much bigger cousins could make very nasty bangs in our atmosphere, or worse, hit the grounds or the ocean, sending up dust and tsunamis. Our civilization, our very existence could be threatened. Certainly planetary defense is worth a few billion dollars…and the money would almost certainly reap more and better returns than bailing out AIG.
  • To expand our economy. I realize capitalism is in one of its punch-drunk phases right now, but Americans have a 200+ year history of capitalistic behavior. We like to make money. I find it hard to believe that all of us would willingly give up the chance for personal gain over government-funded “security.” I could be wrong, of course. But think on this: the only way our government is going to be able to afford all of the lavish gifts, relief efforts, and promises it has made is to have a rich civilian economy providing it with a tax base. Space solar power, helium-3, and gosh knows what else would provide untold benefits for our society. Massive profits could be made on the patents alone.
  • To provide another home for humanity and expand our civilization. This sounds a bit wacky, but there are people who wouldn’t mind getting away from the noise and bureaucracy here and hiding themselves away in a few dozen tin cans or caves on the Moon or Mars. The mere idea of escape can provide an important social safety valve.
  • To provide more resources and reduce the threat of conflict on Earth. If we keep upping our numbers and decreasing our available resources, including real estate, eventually our wars for resources will become even nastier than they have been before. And yes, things can get much worse. Take a look back at history circa 1942-1945. If we are able to provide cheap power from space and cheap resources in the form of abundant metals from intercepted nickel-iron asteroids, fewer and fewer people would be fighting over “one world.” The best way to eliminate poverty is not to tear down the rich, but to make the poor wealthy. And that can only be done through mass distribution of power, resources, goods, and services.
  • To expand the domain of life. This is a slightly bigger aspiration than simply expanding industrial Western Civilization. We owe it to our ancestors to stay alive. That means spreading ourselves everywhere, even out to the planets. Those aforementioned asteroids are still out there.

These are all lofty notions, bordering perhaps on the edge of wishful thinking or megalomania, but heck, it couldn’t hurt to make the investments. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear a politician use lofty phrases for something that actually mattered? Space is there, waiting to be used. It will be our fault if we fail to take advantage of it.

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Responses

  1. We have made many scientific advances through NASA research, an I respect that. But there is so much waste through an agency like this. Couldn’t we transfer all of these funds (or even half) to a general science fund and get the same results. I see art in space. I understand the appeal of the unknown. But we have a certain amount reality to face and we should find a way to get all the earthly benefits we can through means that do not require highly risky and expensive space projects. When we are flush, or have a practical need to further space exploration, I am all for it. For now, save the taxpayers some cash or spend it in more pressing areas.

    I am all for science. I don’t think the solution to overpopulation is space. We can’t study everything, why not concentrate on the infinitely small with nanotech rather than the infinitely spacey space. Medicine, sea-water purification, global warming, proven inexhaustible energy supplies, all of these need funding. The massive amount of money we spend on space could probably be put to more good. It just isn’t a priority with all these other things on our plate.

  2. >>The massive amount of money we spend on space could probably be put to more good. <<

    It’s always interesting to see this argument. Again, compared to the massive amounts of government money being spent to bail out this or that industry ($85 billion–five times NASA’s budget–for the AIG bailout alone), I find the notion of spending too much on space a bit strange.

    Space exploration is one of the few things that government spends money on that actually produces something worthwhile. It pays for scientist and engineer salaries, for one thing–scientists and engineers who might otherwise be developing something mundane and Earthbound or something violent and dangerous for our armed forces.

    Space exploration is an investment in our future. It’s a concrete example of America aiming for something higher and better–the things conservatives have been lectured about all during the Bush years. Exploration is about adventure, space science is about learning about the universe. The two combined–exploration of new places fuelling further knowledge of our universe–demonstrate that we are a forward-thinking people, focused on looking beyond our current horizons.

    There is also this rather ugly, pragmatic, but nevertheless true fact: other nations are doing it. They are pursuing space technologies hard, because even when they too have other, more pressing concerns (think of the poverty in India or China or the crumbling infrastructure and collapsing birth rates in Russia), they continue to push into space because they have seen the benefits it has given us.

    If we accepted the premise of a temporary hold on space spending, two things will happen: first, the “temporary” hold on that progress will become permanent; and second, other nations will inevitably use that pause to get ahead of us.

    Re: energy supplies

    Look again at my comments on space solar power and helium-3 fusion, both of which can only be developed in space.

    Taking from a tiny part of the budget to address larger issues is short-sighted. There are mega-billion-dollar programs (DoD, HHS, Medicare, Medicaid, earmarks, bank/industry bailouts) with all sorts of waste and fraud that could be eliminated. I find it incredible that with a three-trillion-dollar budget draining this economy that so many people think that cutting a little more off of one microthin pie slice that actually produces worthwhile jobs and technologies will matter.

    I understand your viewpoint, but I respectfully and strenuously disagree.

    /b

  3. I really feel bad badmouthing NASA. I totally understand that NASA is a drop in our budget bucket when compared to these bailouts. And I completely agree that waste and fraud are a major problem. But i need a concrete reason to send people to the moon or mars. I must admit I don’t know anything about space-based energy ideas. Are we close to putting these to practical use? If so, i could understand studying that. But i don’t know where NASA has to fit into that.

    kind of related: I live in West Philly and our Mayor Nutter just announced major cuts including a Library in my neighborhood. I don’t want that library to close. I know there are a lot of other ways they could save money but i also know that if it’s not mine it’s yours. The girl with the petition told me that if they didn’t use the Postal Service to deliver mail WITHIN CITY HALL we could save the equivalent of a police officers salary. I am going to be walking a lot further to the Library come January. And there won’t be an extra cop on the street.

    I don’t want to lose these things, but we gotta tighten our belts wherever we can.

    I also don’t think that those countries you mentioned should be doing it. That’s their decision though. In those cases you mentioned it is really kind of offensive that they spend their money on space missions considering the problems they face. But I think they do it to prove they can, as a point of pride.

    unrelated: I saw a child dressed as an astronaut this halloween. Always a classic.

    cheers.

  4. >>i need a concrete reason to send people to the moon or mars. <<

    Jobs. High-paying, high-education jobs for people who create new technologies that lead to new businesses that grow the economy. A growing economy can afford taxes to feed the poor or whatever other things you think are more worthy.

    Government spending going toward relief programs gets used/consumed once, and is gone. Government spending going toward science and technology research keeps people employed doing useful things that benefit the country. Space technologies led to microminiaturization of electronic circuitry, which led to these marvelous machines we use to babble with on the internet. Space technologies provide communication, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and other vital services all over the world, including to people who are not citizens of the U.S. (Check out the SERVIR project for an example of the goodwill that generates on a shoestring!)

    When you decide to tighten your belt, you don’t cut back on one of the few things capable of making you rich–in the near term or down the line.


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