Space haters vs. lovers on heading to Mars
"Mission Worth It? - Space haters vs. lovers on heading to Mars"
: President Bush wants to put a manned base on the moon, then send a
: manned mission to Mars. What are the pros and cons?
: There are two main camps in the space debate. Space is a waste of
: money, say those who believe government can solve our earthly woes.
: But the space haters aren't just hankering for NASA's money. Many
: believe space exploration serves no useful purpose. So we find a
: fossilized microbe on Mars, they ask. So what?
: Space lovers, in contrast, are a hopeful lot. They seek to conquer
: space for sheer glory's sake. And space-o-philes don't just crave
: evidence of life; they intend the colonization of space to remake
: human society. Space lovers even expect to save the world — by
: giving humans a new home in case a stray asteroid, or ecological
: disaster, threaten Earth. Dreams like this keep the space lovers
: In the middle sits the public, fascinated by space travel, yet
: easily bored, discouraged by failure, and concerned about costs. I'm
: in that middle. Yes, space conquest is inspiring and worthwhile. I
: support the president's intentions. Yet I'm skeptical of the space
: lovers' bolder plans and claims. Unfortunately, this middle ground
: is poorly represented in public debate. Instead we generally find
: heated polemics between know-nothing space haters and know-it-all
: space lovers.
: Anne Applebaum's recent Washington Post op-ed, "Mission to Nowhere,"
: packed a powerful space-hating punch. Why, Applebaum asks, would
: anyone want to travel to a hostile, lifeless environment like Mars?
: You wouldn't want to raise your kids there.
: Applebaum's anti-space screed drew quick replies from space-loving
: bloggers Rand Simberg and Mark Whittington. Didn't Senator Daniel
: Webster sneer at the desolate desert that became California and the
: American southwest, asks Whittington? Would you want to raise your
: kids in the Arctic? Explorers went there anyway, says Simberg. And
: Inuit do raise their kids at high latitudes. Like adaptive Eskimo,
: we'll learn how to live on Mars. Is the space station leaking? Then
: spaceships will carry repair tools, says Simberg, like the whaling
: ships of old.
: As for practicality, says Whittington, how about expanded
: opportunities for commerce, not to mention saving the human race
: from an Earthly apocalypse. On human versus robotic science, Simberg
: says Applebaum is just plain wrong. Robots may cost less, but men
: deliver far more science. So there you have it. Space lovers versus
: space haters.
: Space haters often get it wrong. In 1926, British scientist, A. W.
: Bickerton, noting how much power it would take to escape Earth's
: gravity, assured us that space travel was impossible. Days before
: Apollo 11 carried the first men to the moon, demonstrators decried
: the waste of money. Still, there's something troubling about the
: space lovers' use of analogies for answers.
: Space lovers take it for granted that space conquest can be
: understood on the model of earthly exploration. But while
: terrestrial analogies may illuminate, they prove nothing. If Mars is
: like Everest, we'll get glory — but little practical benefit, much
: expense, and great danger. If Mars is more like the American
: frontier, we'll get a fundamental transformation of the human
: environment, massive practical benefits — and great danger. Space
: lovers look up and see California. I see something between Pasadena
: and Mt. Everest — but ultimately, a great deal closer to Everest.
: Some space lovers seem to know this. Take Adam Keiper, whose
: thoughtful piece, "A New Vision for NASA," is a space-debate
: must-read (see also his NRO piece). Keiper dismisses many of the
: justifications for space travel. Space mining is unlikely to be
: cost-effective. The economics of space tourism are questionable.
: Years of science on the space shuttle and space station have yielded
: little of practical use. Since human extinction isn't looming, we
: don't need to invest in a second home. The real reason to send men
: into space, says Keiper, is sheer inspiration. Man's first steps on
: the moon, the flags, the golf balls — that's what we remember, and
: that's what's important. There's truth here. Yet Keiper's
: inspirational justification for manned space travel raises
: questions. Having conceded much of the space haters' case, Keiper
: leaves us with a justification impervious to argument. Either you're
: compelled to challenge the void, or you're not.
: There's another problem with a purely inspirational rationale for
: space exploration. If nothing beyond the thrill of conquest pushes
: us into space, we'll lose heart after failure — and lose interest
: after success. The European explorers were out to discover a
: lucrative trade route East. They settled for colonies in the New
: World. Was discovery driven by the quest for glory and adventure?
: Sure. But the drive for glory was bound up with the thirst for
: money, resources, territory, and military advantage. That's why the
: deaths of adventurous young men didn't spell the end of the
: enterprise. Something beyond glory was driving them on. That's what
: kept those royal subsidies coming.
: Space lovers complain about America's lack of will — about a public
: that has lost the taste for risk and adventure. Cultural changes
: since the Sixties may in some respects have weakened our national
: will. Yet something else is at work in our on again, off again love
: affair with space.
: The most famous example of space ennui is the cancellation of the
: final Apollo moon landings. The near disaster of Apollo 13 almost
: finished the program. Apollo 14's success brought reprieve. Yet the
: public lost interest, and the program was canceled after Apollo 17.
: Even the loss of three robotic Mars probes at the end of the
: nineties came close to ending the space program.
: This easy public discouragement exasperates space lovers. We didn't
: discover the New World, win the West, or conquer Everest by backing
: down after a few failures or deaths. Yet the situations aren't
: comparable. Mountain climbers don't depend on massive government
: subsidies when they put their lives at risk. When we collectively
: invest in a venture whose only real payoff is glory, failure is
: discouraging. Even success is a turnoff. Fly me to the moon with
: conquest as my only goal, and I'll be out the door after I've got
: what I want.
: This is the real weakness of the space lovers' case. Space lovers
: rest an awful lot on visionary inspiration. What the space program
: lacks, say the lovers, is vision. The shuttle is a useless link in a
: nonexistent chain of vehicles and settlements that is supposed to
: point us to the moon and Mars. Like the shuttle, the space station
: lacks any real purpose, and is consequently plagued by cost
: overruns, delays, and technological promises that don't pan out. Set
: a bold goal for the space program, we're assured, and the purpose
: and efficiency of the original NASA will return.
: The administration has bought this argument. And up to a point, I
: think it's correct. The shuttle and the space station have no clear
: purpose. A difficult, inspiring goal will attract new blood and
: reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies. Still, I wonder if "the vision
: thing" fully explains NASA's post-Apollo blues.
: It's possible that persistent problems with cost overruns, delays,
: and disappointing technology means that manned space travel is
: simply not cost-effective. The demands of space travel may be of
: such a different order than sea faring was during the age of
: discovery that our technology simply cannot keep pace without a
: prohibitive level of public investment. Of course,
: cost-effectiveness must be measured against some goal. By choosing a
: bold and intangible goal like the glory of Martian conquest, we
: disguise the cost problem for a time (although the Earthly protests
: continue all the while). But as soon as we get the glory, the price
: of further exploration becomes unacceptable.
: But what if the dyed-in-the-wool space lovers are right? What if
: private companies can compete to open up space, relieving the
: government of the need for massive subsidies, and putting
: individuals into space at their own risk — climbers on Everest? I
: suspect the threshold costs are too high for private businesses to
: play a serious role in getting us to Mars or the moon. And I don't
: think prizes or tax breaks will change this.
: As for the idea of a clean Martian slate, where human society can be
: freed of its chronic conflicts, this is utopianism at its most
: naive. If Martian settlements are controlled enough to be free of
: crime and conflict, they'll be too small to matter. If settlements
: are big enough to accommodate a significant population, they'll be
: troubled by Earthly conflicts. And I doubt large settlements will
: ever be cost-effective — at least in any time frame that matters.
: Does all this mean we should abandon the idea of a moon base or a
: manned mission to Mars? Not at all. If the moon and Mars are less
: than California, they're more than Everest. The commercial
: spin-offs, the medical and scientific knowledge that come out of
: these missions — and yes, the glory of discovery and renewed
: national purpose — are real and important benefits.
: But the risks and limitations of this project are real. Even with an
: inspiring vision to organize our efforts, the challenge may prove
: beyond our current technological or financial capacity. And
: astronauts could die, perhaps discouraging the public before the
: goal is achieved. If we do reach Mars, boredom may set in quickly.
: My guess is that there is no permanent space age in the offing — no
: colonization, no commercial playground, and certainly no social
: utopia. The fitful progress of the past will repeat itself well into
: the future. Yet that progress was real. We went to the moon. That
: was the right thing to do, as is this new quest. But mankind is
: slowly discovering that the challenge of space is not strictly
: analogous to anything we've encountered before. So much the more
: reason to go.
Mark Reiff <markreiff@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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