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In December 2008, the MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group issued a report: The Future of Human Spaceflight (it's a pdf) which claims to be an examination of the fundamental premises of human spaceflight:

The United States stands at the threshold of a new era of human spaceflight. In its first term, the new administration will make the most important decisions in a generation about this endeavor. What are those decisions, and how should they be made in the best interests of the country?

* * *

Ultimately, these decisions derive from the larger question: Why fly people into space?

To answer these questions we rethink the rationales government-funded human spaceflight and then address current policy questions in light of those rationales.

In addition to these most fundamental of questions - Why fly people into space? - I propose raising two additional questions:

  1. Who should fly people into space?
  1. How should flying people into space be paid for?

I will also propose five principles I believe should guide us in thinking about how to answer these three questions.

In my personal opinion, the MIT Study is one of the more clear-eyed and reality based examinations of space policy issues I have recently encountered. That said, I also deny that it constitutes the final word on this topic.

The MIT report is limited in scope to the subject of government-funded human spaceflight apparently excluding from the outset consideration of a governmental role in promoting and facilitating the funding of human spaceflight by non-governmental parties. The MIT report simply assumes that governmental expenditures funded with tax revenues shall remain the only meaningful mechanism to pay the costs of flying people into space.

The MIT report further accepts without examination the notion that the United States should "reaffirm its long standing policy of international leadership in human spaceflight" however little consideration appears to have been given to whether the United States should support or oppose efforts by other spacefaring nations that might eclipse the perception of US leadership.

Might the United States better realize the soft power benefits of doing space exploration by working to enhance and facilitate the space exploration achievements of other nations? Just as Project Apollo advanced American geo-political interests by demonstrating our technological superiority over the Soviet Union, might we now better advance our geo-political interests by demonstrating a willingness to be a "team player" willing to encourage and support other nations as they seek to claim a share of the spotlight that comes from achievements in space exploration?

I also assert that consideration of the following five principles will provide a framework or foundation to better facilitate policy discussion:

1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;

2. Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;  

3. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration;

4. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;

5. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

Before delving into the details, I advocate reading and keeping in mind a few observations made by William Langewiesche in January 2004, written after the Columbia disaster but before George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, found in a short essay in the January/February 2004 edition of The Atlantic Monthly:

In the aftermath of the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia an important debate on the purpose and future of the U.S. human-space-flight program is under way, though perhaps not as forthrightly as it should be. The issue at stake is not space exploration in itself but the necessity of launching manned (versus robotic) vehicles. Because articles of faith are involved, the arguments tend to be manipulative and hyperbolic. If the debate is to be productive, that needs to change.

In my opinion, arguments concerning space exploration are too often manipulative and hyperbolic and I agree with Langewiesche's call for an honest national debate concerning human space exploration. I also agree with Langewiesche's 2004 observation that

Such a debate would almost certainly lead to the conclusion that the United States has for thirty years followed human-space-flight policies that are directionless and deeply flawed, and that those policies must now be radically changed, with whatever regret about the historical costs.

I also believe that our current space policy debates are too often hardware oriented rather than objectives oriented.

For example, we see robust debates between advocates of the Direct 2.0 architecture and NASA's current ESAS architecture while others tout all EELV solutions.

Still others (such as the Space Access Society) advocate an aggressive push for smaller, fully reusable launch vehicles that shall allegedly significantly reduce the cost of access to low Earth orbit.

We believe that radically cheaper access is possible in the near term with current technology, by operating reusable rockets with sufficiently lean organizations at sufficiently high flight rates. Rocketry has become more medium-tech than high, as witness (among other things) growing third-world missile proliferation.  At the same time, modern lightweight materials and electronics greatly ease combining the necessary high performance, ability to abort intact in case of problems, and fast-turnaround small-ground crew reusability. This lets us break away from the traditional expendable-missile "ammunition" design and "standing army" operations mindsets, with potential huge benefits to cost and reliability.

For the record I am personally unpersuaded that the foregoing assertions are true, at least with respect to radically cheaper access in part because of a lack of identifiable demand for large numbers of launches, something which returns us to the original question:

Why fly people in space, at all?

Form must follow function and until we can answer questions such as

  1. Why fly people into space; and,
  1. Who should be paying to fly people into space,

It shall be difficult to resolve what technologies, rockets and space flight architectures best accomplish those objectives.

It is interesting to note that the Space Access Society itself proposes to take this all on faith:

Market studies do strongly indicate that somewhere around one-tenth of current US launch costs, the market for space launch will reach a tipping point where demand for launches starts expanding fast enough to more than make up for reduced per-launch revenue. The overall launch market will start growing rapidly at that point, as investment in further launch cost reductions changes from a leap of faith to a sure thing. Further cost reductions will drive further market expansion, to the point where the space transport market will rapidly begin to approach the air transport market in economic importance. (At least two such new markets, tourism and post revolution-in-military-affairs defense, are already growing steadily less speculative. The chief thing we can predict about the other new markets that will appear as costs drop is that they'll surprise us. Who would have predicted in 1952 that, say, fresh flowers would be profitably air freighted across oceans?)

* * *

Much depends on a leap of faith - faith in the studies that show large new markets emerging at lower launch costs to support the necessary higher flight rates - "if you build it, they will come".

" . . . if you build it, they will come . . ."

Well, maybe and maybe not. The MIT Study (page 7) cited above offers this conclusion:

There are presently no known natural resources in space that can be profitably exploited. Even were such resources and an efficient extraction scheme to be discovered, it is unlikely that human presence would be required. Human presence will always be more expensive than remote operations, so any genuine space-based extractive business is likely to be heavily based on remote presence. Therefore technology and economic development are secondary objectives of human spaceflight.

But therefore, we must make the effort to take a clear-eyed, reality based look at questions such as "Why fly humans in space?" and "Which humans should fly in space" and "How should such flights paid for" perhaps we can better evaluate a sensible route forward for the United States government and begin to formulate a truly progressive vision for space exploration.

Tomorrow, Part Two of my series shall address why the Obama Administration cannot, indeed dare not cancel US taxpayer funded human spaceflight;

Thereafter, Part Three shall address in greater detail the five principles suggested above;

Part Four shall propose an international lunar race similar to what Vladislaw proposed a day or two ago in his Daily Kos diary; and

Part Five shall propose that a real life "Babylon 5" space station & propellant depot be built with US support and encouragement but owned by an entity not under the direct control of any of the current spacefaring nations of the world.

So, stay tuned space fans!

Originally posted to Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 01:45 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip jar and some questions (16+ / 0-)

    Do you agree or disagree with one or more of these five assertions:

       1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;

       2. Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;  

       3. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration;

       4. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;

       5. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

    Why?

    Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

    by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 01:46:09 PM PST

    •  Heh! -- I already wish to edit #2 & #3 (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, p gorden lippy
      1. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful, sufficient and sustainable program of human space exploration;
      1. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful, sufficient and sustainable program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 01:55:09 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Strongly agree with #5... (9+ / 0-)

      ...which isn't a surprise, since the idea that we need to become a multi-planet, spacefaring species is one that has held currency with many science fiction writers and readers for literally decades. The only thing is...if we're going to move on to new planets, we really do need to take better care of those planets than we have of the one that we're currently living on.

      Political Compass: -6.75, -3.08

      by TexasTom on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:03:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Well, ok.... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill White, C Barr, Vladislaw

            1.  Right.

            2. It had better.  

            3. A lot of metals and minerals on the moon, this is where the next resources boom starts, corporations are going to love it. And they will pay for it.

            4. Uh yeah, I thought thats why its called the International Space Station. And some day we'll be building one the size of a city.
      >wink<</p>

            5. Its about the only alternative I can see.

      FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:57:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Answers (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FeloniousMonk

        1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;

      No. I think that there is a trade-off between having a human on site and handling things by (effectively) remote control. A human at the point of work has a much greater ability to sense things than someone working through telemetry. At the same time, the work gets done a lot faster when decisions don't have a time delay. For routine things, like a space telescope pointing in a direction and taking a measurement, no human is required. For setting up a new structure in space, even in LEO, probably the human better be there.

        2. Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;  

      It already has. But is that necessary? The problems are really staring us in the face for anyone who will look. For those who don't, do they have the imagination to see the issues come up in space exploration and then apply them back to earth? It's not a profound motivator, but it's a nice extra bene.

        3. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration;

      That depends on what makes it meaningful. I think it can help on at least two fronts where we really cannot solve the problem with earth-based solutions. I believe that (1) "killer asteroids" and (2) global warming are not problems that can be solved without space exploration, and both of these problems are life-or-death matters for the human race. If we get smashed flat by an asteroid, none of the other "utilitarian" considerations (peace on earth, poverty, hunger, disease, you name it) will matter. Likewise, if we don't solve global warming, our goose is cooked (and our polar bears and our pandas and all the other warm-fuzzy creatures of the earth, including humans). The polar ice will be gone at the north pole in a few years. Santa will drown. The only feasible way to prevent this is with some kind of sun shield.

      If our goals are to prevent earth-flattening events, no private enterprise is going to fund it. Why should they?

        4. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;

      Agreed. A real program is too expensive. It's also a waste of money for countries to go it alone. At $10K a kilogram, duplication of efforts are nonsensical.

      However, the U.S. should maintain its leadership because there will be a significant technological advantage to doing so. We are not going to remain a super player due to our population size or manufacturing prowess. We have to do it through technology. Being on the forefront of pure research and the critical first steps of development is a strategic matter.

        5. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

      Maybe, but it doesn't warm my heart. I want to go personally or see the results myself. Just knowing that humans will survive as a species doesn't matter to me. Seeing them do well does.

      At some point the human race will expire. That's baked into the laws of thermodynamics. One of those is, "You can't win." So, trying to make the human race eternal is a fool's errand.

      (IMHO)

    •  Answering Your Questions (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill White

      I'm quite late to this game, but I've been thinking along very similar lines, though I've been approaching it from a pretty different angle. To start, here are my answers to your questions:

      1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;

      Disagree. While the return on investment from space spending won't appear tomorrow, I think the argument can and should still be made within the frame of making a concrete investment that will produce a concrete return at some point in the future. Existential arguments work to a certain degree for a certain segment of the population, but they haven't been convincing enough for the kind of broad and deep public support that is really necessary for sustained progress. For that, we need more airtight economic arguments.

      1. Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;

      Agree. One of the arguments we have to make is that to live the right way here on Earth, we have to figure out the right way to live in space. The most widespread argument against space exploration is, "There are problems here on Earth we should be figuring out." We have to convince people that by living in space, we go a long way towards solving problems here on Earth.

      1. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration;

      Agree. This is my main angle of attack I've been thinking about lately. Meaningfully expanding into space is a project with a scope so large it requires the combined effort of a significant part of humanity, not just any single nation state. So in order to accomplish a lasting agenda, we have to accomplish real cooperation between all sorts of entities, from friendly and not so friendly nations to all sorts of private enterprises. This, undoubtedly, will be the most difficult proposition facing any immediate progress.

      1. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;

      Agree, see above. Meaningful progress will require real cooperation between all the entities of the world. But to make real progress, there will have to be one agreed upon agenda that everyone is willing to subscribe to - something with end goals and means to getting to them that everyone is willing to subscribe to. That's the only way tasks can be meaningfully divvied up.

      1. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

      Agree. Humanity requires growth. Progress requires growth. We've already grown beyond the limits that this planet can sustain and even with drastic conservation, we will still be growing past what this planet can sustain. There's nowhere for us to go but up.

      If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

      by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:32:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Space must be used for peace not war... (5+ / 0-)

    we must demand that space will never be used as a platform for weaponry because that way lies madness.

    •  you are, of course correct, but history shows (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ORDem

      that every technology is used for war.

      Fire comes to mind. Great stuff, useful, make pottery, cook food, stay warm, make metal.

      Make flaming arrows, burn out your neighbor's village, torch their fields, burn witches.

      Every technology is two-edged. Even the stone ax and spear (no pun intended). Many, many technological developments have the potential to end life as it has been known and lived.

      Space is going to be used for war, as it already is - think spy satellites and guiding ground activities, not just ICBM's.

      The challenge people face in every era and with every technology is how to manage events such that the threats and misuses of technology are held in check to whatever extent possible while the benefits are extracted. On balance, despite our terrible shortcomings, we're still here and still thinking the thoughts you just expressed.

      Fear is the mind-killer - Frank Herbert, Dune

      by p gorden lippy on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:23:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  terms of resolutions... (4+ / 0-)

    ...what is forseeable future?  One can forsee a future where human presence becomes cheaper than telepresence, with a different infrastructure and level of risk.

    ...what is world leader?  The Russians seem to be the hands down world leader for reliable human space transport right now.  Perhaps there is a case to be made that human, rather than nationalistic aspirations would indicate we support that endeavor to some degree...

    ...what is support by taxpayers?  Contract for launch capacity?  Underwriting development of capacity?  Outright NASA style projects?

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:03:12 PM PST

    •  I agree about Russia being the world leader (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      eeff, jessical, C Barr, Vladislaw

      in human spaceflight, however as with the story about the emperor and his new clothes that is a difficult thing to say in public in America.

      My opinion (a stated above) is that promoting multi-national efforts will better advance US geo-political interests as I believe that building a new reputation for the ability to cooperate rather than dominate is mission critical for our well being as the bubble of American supremacy continues to deflate.

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:24:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  we have already supported it . (0+ / 0-)

      we have already paid almost a billion dollars for rides. That 719 million dollar contract cost the US taxpayers 41 million a seat, even though at the same time they were selling those seats to tourists for 20-25 million.

      Once the shuttle is retired, how much do you think Russia is going to ask then? 50-60 million a seat?

      We also had to pay for parts or the sections of the International space station. Russia has still not sent any of the modules they were supposed to build and launch.

      Neil Armstrong: President Elect Obama join in the wild debate, pros and cons for space spending.

      by Vladislaw on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:09:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I agree with this one for sure (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    eeff, Bill White, jessical, C Barr
    1. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

    Thanks for your diary.

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:03:16 PM PST

    •  Luna and LaGrange first, as stepping (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill White, cfk, C Barr

      stones. They're close enough to be accessable in emergencies. LaGrange installations could be spun up and used as medical 'heavy time' to prevent bone loss in those off planet for extended periods, as well as food production that doesn't have to boost out of the gravity well. I love the thought of Mars, but there's still so much we don't know and Murphy isn't planet bound by any means. I think Mars should remain remotely explored for a while yet. But later...

      Not so much for planetary as for species survival, we do need to keep going out, the NEO issue is eventually going to come up for real and we'll need to have a workable technology and infrastructure to deal with it as early as possible on detection of approach.

      Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

      by FarWestGirl on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:46:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Home, home on LaGrange (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Simplify, cfk, Vladislaw

        Home, home on Lagrange,
        Where the space debris always collects,
        We possess, so it seems, two of Man's greatest dreams:
        Solar power and zero-gee sex.

        LaGrange, Illinois is not far from where I live and while they have several nice restaurants, it's not space. ;-)

        We also pronounce "LaGrange" wrong.

        Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

        by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 08:22:51 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Just As Soon As We Have World Peace... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ORDem, Bill White

    ..there is no more hunger or poverty and we all have sufficient access to health care I'm with you.

    "But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." Barack Obama

    by Sam James on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:15:52 PM PST

    •  Actually, I believe modest expenditures (8+ / 0-)

      on space exploration can help achieve the goals you describe.

      For example, if done right, cooperative space exploration with the other nations of the world can help ratchet down international tensions; and

      If done right, cooperative space ventures can help teach us to think ecologically and to accomplish the green energy revolution we shall need to even survive.  

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:19:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I would settle for access to health care... (6+ / 0-)

      if we wait for world peace then we ain't going anywhere.

    •  Eh... (4+ / 0-)

      The total space exploration budget is not enough to fix any of those things, and the effort gives us what many people find to be a compelling vision.  

      Unfortunately we've all been fed visions of jut-jawed majors reading the bible from space.  But there are two difficult to define advantages which I think are important.

      The first I'd call the "Scott Expedition" argument.  Like the recent images of earthrise on the web, which is something which not have caught imagination of there were not people to tell it, as it happend to them, but contains elements which inform feeding people, taking care of people, ecology.  A variation of it happens via blogging.  Real people telling a story.  When we put people in a place, they are uniquely situated to make of that very personal discovery a gift.  While Scott failed, his story is the one we often tell or turn to, in thinking about Antarctica.  There are ways he...gave it to us, made it real.  And human space exploration does much the same thing.

      The second argument is serendipity.  Maybe solar powersats don't work out.  Maybe monetary plan a, b, or c turns out to be nonsense.  But pretty much everything interesting in science -- the same science which lets us exceed planetary carrying capacity -- came from serendipity.  From messing with it and going "oh wow, never thought of that."  Human space exploration offers many of those opprotunities.

      I'd also argue that this is a centuries long, longitudinal resource effort...which is something the diarist doesn't touch on, really.  We're probably way too primitive in our technology at this point to do much that's remunerative.  But the technology we build now will inform and provide the basis for future efforts.  

      ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

      by jessical on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 03:17:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Ah, the old either/or argument (4+ / 0-)

      which assumes that money not spent on space exploration will be devoted to ending poverty.  It doesn't seem to work out that way though.

      moderation in everything ... including moderation

      by C Barr on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:41:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Another world peace answer via (4+ / 0-)

      Tad Daley, co-founder of Progressive Democrats of America, in this AlterNet piece

      "The first day or so we all pointed to our countries," said the Saudi astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud. "The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth." "The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone," said the Russian astronaut Aleksei Leonov, "our home that must be defended like a holy relic." "From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty," said Edgar Mitchell, one of only 12 humans to have walked on the surface of another world. "You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"

      This is why the late Carl Sagan claimed that spaceflight was actually subversive.
      Although governments have ventured into space, Sagan observed, largely for nationalistic reasons, "it was a small irony that almost everyone who entered space received a startling glimpse of a transnational perspective, of the Earth as one world."

      Seeing our planet as a whole, apparently, enables one to see our planet as a whole.

      Finally, space may someday deliver to us arguably the greatest progressive value of all. The ethic of human unity that space seems inevitably to engender may, down the road, ultimately engender permanent human peace as well.

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:00:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  "Saudi astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud" (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Bill White

        I was going to ask if we've had a Muslim in space yet.  Way cool post.

        moderation in everything ... including moderation

        by C Barr on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:09:31 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That AlterNet piece has plenty of good quotes (0+ / 0-)

          and Tad Daley is a Kucinich guy -- which certainly provides "leftie" cred.

          I need to figure out how to best "sig" this one:

          Seeing our planet as a whole, apparently, enables one to see our planet as a whole.

          Only from space can we best appreciate the beauty and fragility of Earth and by attempting to build the closed ecology habitats needed to survive for extended periods on Mars, we can better understand ecology on Earth.

          Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

          by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:13:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  Farmer brown, that's a nice strawman you have (0+ / 0-)

      there.  Your argument boils down to this:

      "I would rather have an end to poverty than not have it, and I would rather end world hunger than not end it, and have universal access to health care than not have it.  And spending a tiny fraction of the money that we spend on healthcare in the US on space, is equivalent to denying health, wealth, and sustenance to all mankind"

      This would be far less ironic if space technologies were not some of the most promising areas for actually reducing the ills that you describe.

      NASA already uses space technology to combat malaria.

      Space technologies have had a huge impact on medical technology already.

      But that's in the past, right?  What can space do for me tomorrow?

      Let's try poverty.  The causes of poverty can be summarized thus:  Lack of Power, Lack of Sanitation, Lack of roads.  and you can make a good case for lack of Power being the root cause, since once you have power that can be converted into work, you quickly get the ability to produce sanitation and roads.  There are strong correlatives between the amount of energy expended by a society per capita and quality of life.

      Space solar power would actually be a very elegant and inexpensive option for providing power to the 2.4 billion people now living in poverty, for the reason that it would avoid having to build massive overland power distribution networks that do not currently exist, and would be required for any kind of traditional power generation technology, most especially green ones.

      On the other hand, spending that money on earth in the normal ways that Governments and NGO's do it when they 'fight poverty' would get you a couple of years worth of grain, medicines, and board-feet of lumber, and at the end of it you would have the same poverty that you had before because you had not changed the situation on the ground, just ameliorated some of the symptoms for a while.

    •  A wise investment (0+ / 0-)

      in science and space can go a long way towards solving those problems.

      The mistake is thinking that these are separate, unrelated problems, when they're not.

      If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

      by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:36:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I strongly disagree with #1: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jessical, Vladislaw

    To begin with, it has to be said that all science is an existential expression of human life and the fundamentally human act of wondering.

    Now, I submit that there's no essentially greater "existential" value to strapping people in cans and launching themselves into orbit than curing disease, studying alternative means of energy production or smashing subatomic particles into each other.

    And moreover, I think when we get into making "existential" arguments part of our public policy rationales we are on very thin ice: money from a finite budget that could otherwise go to fix a school, build a highway, or fund someone's college education should not be channelled towards purposes that we call "existential."

    In fact, given the choice between space exploration and education, with the only rationales for space exploration being existential, I would much prefer we channel our funds into subsidizing future innovation by making education more accessible.

    But this does not mean I think that space exploration is unworthy of our funding or untenable in our current fiscal politics. The tragic wrongheadedness of the "existential rationale" is belied by the very real possibilities offered by space solar power.

    If we plow money into developing the technology to create orbiting solar arrays, build the megascale technological projects to bring the cost of launches down (specifically, I'm thinking launch loops), and create the industrial base necessary to undertake this project, the United States could essentially power itself and the world. And in the process of our doing so, we would develop the depth of activity in space that would allow real interplanetary human exploration to go forward.

    Of course, all this is a bit visionary and far off. But that's the point of bold technological transformation, isn't it? And by creating the technologies to make this happen, we undertake to satisfy real human needs on this planet.

    Repeat after me: no vanity projects; no billion dollar photo ops; no money sinks that we do just for the sake of doing it, or site-seeing trips that we take for the sake of saying we we went there.

    If we do space, let's do it for real. If we can't, let's put the money into innovation on earth.

    "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

    by andydoubtless on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:27:10 PM PST

    •  If space solar power were economically viable (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jessical, Roger Fox, Vladislaw

      why aren't Halliburton and Bechtel salivating at the prospects of owning a string of solar power satellites? I have seen no evidence that anyone intends to invest significant sums in funding space solar power, even as lots of people are eager to persuade Congress to fund their vision on this.

      Personally, I find Gerard K. O'Neill's vision for orbiting solar power stations to be brilliant and elegant to the point of genius. Sadly, I am unpersuaded that the numbers work out as hoped for.

      Anyway, here is what the MIT Study says about the value of space exploration:

      Exploration is an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.

      . . .

      Human spaceflight, and its attendant risk, turns a spaceflight into a story that is compelling to large numbers of people. Exploration also has a moral dimension because it is in effect a cultural conversation on the nature and meaning of human life.

      Of course, this is not the only road to existential "value" and I agree with you here:

      Now, I submit that there's no essentially greater "existential" value to strapping people in cans and launching themselves into orbit than curing disease, studying alternative means of energy production or smashing subatomic particles into each other.

      I'll be back tomorrow with an extended list of political and cynical reasons why NASA human spaceflight shall remain funded, despite this observation:

      And moreover, I think when we get into making "existential" arguments part of our public policy rationales we are on very thin ice: money from a finite budget that could otherwise go to fix a school, build a highway, or fund someone's college education should not be channelled towards purposes that we call "existential."

      And therefore, finding non-taxpayer sources of funding is mission critical to the long term viability of human spaceflight.

      If space solar power closes its business case, problem solved, but if not, where does the money come from?

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 02:40:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Logically, you're begging the question. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Bill White

        Let's say space solar, or lunar mining, or zero-gravity manufacturing, or these other ideas, all fail to make a successful case for their own feasibility, not just with current technology or with the technology on the horizon, but period.

        At that point I don't see how the expense is justified. There's a lot of cheaper science that can be funded on earth, and some of it (for instance energy research) might eventually make space exploitation feasible.

        We can't go about things by presupposing that we're going to fund space and look for reasons to make us feel good about doing it. Science is sometimes going to be about accepting dead ends when they present themselves.

        The quoted passage from the MIT Report about space travel and the narratives of human life to me is just not sufficient to justify the investment. I think we disagree about that.

        Finally, the economics of space solar are I think a pretty complicated issue, but the basic point for me right now is that the market economics of energy is in a very basic way out of sync from where it needs to be. Fossil fuels are cheap, many clean and green fuels are prohibitively expensive, and the incentives in the current market-based energy economy do not line up with the long-term sustainability interests of human beings. Halliburton, etc. of course line up behind the market, not a more enlightened program of self-interest. In a reformed energy economics that properly values sustainability, all solar power is more economical than in the current regime, and space solar power is for scientific reasons a better long term investment than earthbound. But essentially the first step is to make sure we get the incentives right so that carbon emissions are not excluded.

        "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

        by andydoubtless on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 03:45:28 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Utilitarian versus existential . . . (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NellaSelim

          You write

          Let's say space solar, or lunar mining, or zero-gravity manufacturing, or these other ideas, all fail to make a successful case for their own feasibility, not just with current technology or with the technology on the horizon, but period.

          and this

          The quoted passage from the MIT Report about space travel and the narratives of human life to me is just not sufficient to justify the investment. I think we disagree about that.

          There is nothing wrong with disagreement.

          Actually, this disagreement raises the question William Langewiesche says we should be asking.

          Suppose we ascertain that very little of immediate tangible value (utilitarian value) can be obtained by sending humans into space, in that instance, he writes:

          This would not mean, however, that the opponents of human space flight had won. Indeed, it may be that a pause to regroup is precisely what a vigorous human-space-flight program now needs. One thing for sure is that the American public is more sophisticated than the space community has given it credit for. In the event of a grounding the public might well be presented with a question now asked only of insiders—not whether there are immediate benefits to be gleaned from a human presence in space but, more fundamentally, whether we are to be a two-planet species. If upon due consideration the public's answer is "yes," as it probably should be, the solutions will be centuries in coming. Compared with the scale of such an ambition, a pause of a few decades now to rethink and rebuild will seem like nothing at all.

          Is the prospect of becoming a multi-planet species "worth it" or not?

          I cannot even begin to answer that question except in existential terms even as I freely admit that sensible people can readily disagree. Thus, this becomes a political question, resolved through the political process.

          Here is another take on this same precise issue, written two decades ago (June 1996) in the aftermath the Challenger disaster. Frederick Turner - Worlds Without Ends, What's the Point of Going into Space?

          Apologists for space exploration have often added to their list of practical reasons to go to space a half-apologetic reference to the adventure and aspiration of it. It is as if they were ashamed of their true motivations and had to relegate them to the position of an afterthought. But a cold analysis of the direction of the world's economic future leaves such motivations as the only reliable source of good old-fashioned profit, once every automatable and replicable industry has, by improvements in efficiency and competitive reduction of costs, priced itself into economic insignificance. The nations and corporations that get in on the ground floor of the emerging charm economy will control the pipelines of economic value. Terraforming is art, adventure, history, travel: Invest in these and watch your money grow.

          There are vast untapped carbon free energy sources here on Earth we can tap. Tidal energy for example, which is a form of lunar mining if you think about it -- tidal electric power harvests the Moon's momentum.

          The essence of point #1 is that if space advocates limit themselves to reasons that require practical benefits, perhaps we will talk ourselves out of space advocacy altogether.

          Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

          by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 04:26:03 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  PS -- Logically, I am begging the question (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NellaSelim

          but in some ways that is the point.

          How can we discuss and decide (as a species) whether or not to attempt to become a two planet or multi-planet species without "question begging" on both sides of that issue, pro and con?

          Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

          by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 04:31:16 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  And you can't (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Bill White

            ask those sorts of questions (which you will inevitably end up asking) without getting into the existential and to "What's the point of doing anything?"

            Yes, logically, even if we become a 2 planet species or N planet species, the Second Law of Thermodynamics will still do us in.

            But this question comes at us regardless of the human endeavor, it's just not as obvious with anything except space exploration.

            So if somebody asks, "Why go to all the trouble of becoming a two planet species when we're just going to die anyway?" the logical response is, "Why do anything if we're going to die anyway?"

            And if they don't commit suicide then and there, then it invalidates their argument.

            If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

            by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:49:47 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  I take exception with this point. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          alizard

          "or lunar mining, or zero-gravity manufacturing, or these other ideas, all fail to make a successful case for their own feasibility, not just with current technology or with the technology on the horizon, but period."

          We may not like to discuss this but the moon is a 9 BILLION acre UNCLAIMED asset just waiting to happen.

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for gold for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for silver for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for copper for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for titanium for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for zinc for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for iron for those 9 billion acres?

          What is the worth for the mineral rights for regolith oxygen for those 9 billion acres?

          This list could go on for quite a while. In my state of North Dakota coal mineral rights have been bought and sold on certain claims for almost 100 years and not a ton of coal ever mined.

          That is what has to happen on the moon first. The speculation phase, where you obtain an asset, a mineral mining right claim, and you use that as collateral to try and raise investment funding. Some will never be exercised just held as an asset on the books.

          And this does not even get into the value of the land itself.

          Neil Armstrong: President Elect Obama join in the wild debate, pros and cons for space spending.

          by Vladislaw on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:25:15 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Launch capacity for orbiting solar power stations (0+ / 0-)

        Lotta rockets needed to put that much stuff up there. But in the long run you can make a lot of electricity.

        Something like Bussards QED version of a pollywell fusion reactor in a rocketship would give you the launch capacity, but...

        I hope the good news we've heard about the recent peer review of the last polywell fusion reactor is one in a long line of successes.

        FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

        by Roger Fox on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:46:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  You're making the assumption (0+ / 0-)

        That all business opportunities that are profitable will automatically be exploited by corporations.  This is not the case.  Corporations in the western capitalist system make decisions based on what they believe will bring them the most profit next quarter, and are really good at externalizing costs, so they have a skewed vision of what is profitable.  Every enterprise that is based on making money by doing nothing but moving money around in interesting ways is a tremendous example of this.  this would include the recent experiments with mortgage-backed securities.  In other words, sometimes the 'invisible hand' is just masturbating.

        If you want to get beyond next quarter, or at most next year, public-private systems are the way to go it seems to me.  the public sector can more easily look at costs and benefits that do not show up on the EBITDA line on a balance sheet, and create incentives for industry to accomplish these larger goals.

    •  The National Worth (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      alizard

      This hints at the value to the U.S. as a country. We got our leadership in space at a dear cost. We are on the verge of throwing it away, maybe for lack of vision. Having leadership in this area may be key to creating jobs in the U.S. that would otherwise go to other countries, along with all the subsidiary profits and other benefits.

      So, even if there are no existential or utilitarian motivations, there could still be a substantial national interest in maintaining leadership.

    •  Wholeheartedly agree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      andydoubtless

      Repeat after me: no vanity projects; no billion dollar photo ops; no money sinks that we do just for the sake of doing it, or site-seeing trips that we take for the sake of saying we we went there.

      If we do space, let's do it for real. If we can't, let's put the money into innovation on earth.

      This is what we're not doing now and what we need to be doing.

      If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

      by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:40:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Let's build a space elevator (3+ / 0-)

    The problem with rockets is that they require enormous emounts of fuel, which requires even more fuel to get the heavy fuel off the ground, which requires even more fuel, etc.  A space elevator would be a carbon nanotube cable connecting a spaceport on the equator to a space station beyond geosynchronous orbit.  A powerful laser at the spaceport would propel solar-powered climbing machines up the cable, thus avoiding the fuel problem.

    A space elevator would reduce launch costs by about 95% and allow us to send up thousands of people plus life support and manufacturing equipment.  Building the space elevator is an essential first step in establishing the kind of self-sufficient offworld presence needed to ensure the survival of our species.  You know that sooner or later the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will get the apocalypse they are itching for.

    The space elevator cost is quoted in the low billions, which is surely a gross underestimate, but I would be surprised if it cost more than 1% of the $8.4 trillion spent on the bailouts so far.  Heck, for %8.4T we could send about 450 people to the Moon using only 1960s technology.  It would be nice to have a species-wide life insurance policy, but we had to blow it to feed Wall Street's insatiable crap habit.

    •  Not currently feasible, unfortunately (5+ / 0-)

      Carbon nanotube technology is not sufficiently developed and the markets needed to sufficiently use such as elevator do not exist yet.

      That said, I agree that a commitment to establish permanent settlements "out there" with settlers going one way to stay, survive and thrive would require the level of Earth to LEO access that could help make a space elevator feasible, someday.

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 04:29:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I have agree with Bill, technology for space... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Vladislaw

        elevator is at least 50 years in the future.

      •  Sadly True (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Simplify, Bill White

        However, we could probably shorten the difficulty with a hybrid concept, where we brought the cable down to a platform, say, 10 miles up and used some kind of reusable space plane to get there. Anything that will bring down the costs should be looked at.

        And, if NASA did the work to get the lift from that level, then private companies could provide flights to the platform. It's a very attainable goal for them.

        •  Interesting idea (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Liberal Thinking

          Don't think I've ever seen that before.

          BBQ Chicken Madness was just telling me about an idea he came across where a spaceship would dip a tether into the atmosphere and gain energy from that that could then be used for orbit stabilization.

          If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

          by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:52:23 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thanks (0+ / 0-)

            I'm not sure about the dynamics, but it seems like it would take less tension to drop a platform to a high altitude than to go all the way down. I have not had the time to really look into that, but someone who is working on the tether concept probably has explored that option. (If not, I think they should do at least a rough calculation.)

            One advantage, from my point of view, is that it would set up a stable goal for private firms to work on, and that could lead to a lot of development. I'm sure Virgin Galactic could reach a platform at 10 miles!

            Your reference makes me think that using the platform to pick up orbital energy might be feasible if they dipped it into the jet stream or other high-altitude winds. I was thinking that they'd need another way to keep the energy level up, which might involve ion drives or something with suitable efficiency. (Also, if you had your counterweight out far enough, then perhaps you could make the dynamics work without needing too much additional thrust.)

        •  I am a big fan of momentum exchange tethers (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Liberal Thinking, Simplify

          For example, rather than aerobraking payloads returning to Earth from the Moon, snag a tether in a lower energy orbit thereby accelerating the tether and slowing the spacecraft.

          Repeat a few times, then re-enter the atmosphere and land.

          Later on, use those same tethers to accelerate outbound payloads. Especially cargo-only with some variety of electric propulsion (solar ion or nuclear ion) to finish the journey.

          "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

          by Bill White on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 02:33:33 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  We'll have polywells supplying electricity (0+ / 0-)

      to half the planet before we can get around to an elevator.

      FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:48:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Fuel is cheap (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill White, Vladislaw

      fuel only constitutes something like 1 percent of the cost of launch

  •  Maybe you plan to address this (4+ / 0-)

    in your next diaries ...

    to become a two planet or multi-planet species.

    but you seem to be leaving out the logical first step of a lunar colony.  With the advantages of a solid suface with raw building materials, unlimited use of solar and ability to build underground for shielding from radiation, and low gravity for ease of launching space-craft ...  Fully developing our Earth/Moon system would seem to be a prerequisite for becoming a spacefaring species.

    moderation in everything ... including moderation

    by C Barr on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:34:18 PM PST

    •  Yes, we must start with the Moon (5+ / 0-)

      and I believe lunar extracted oxygen can be very beneficial for propelling payloads beyond cis-luanr space.

      I recall a quip (I'll mangle it, I'm sure) that more or less asserted that if God intended us to remain solely on Earth, She wouldn't have given us such a large Moon, so close at hand.

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:47:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  who exactly owns those raw materials (0+ / 0-)

      and how much do you have to pay for them. If you set up a gemstone processing site and I see you hitting it big, can I dig in the same hole you are?

      Neil Armstrong: President Elect Obama join in the wild debate, pros and cons for space spending.

      by Vladislaw on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:32:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Liberal Thinking, Vladislaw

        you cannot come close enough to me or my operation to pose a danger.

        I like to use catching fish in the ocean as an analogy. A swordfish boat cannot "claim" exclusive fishing rights but a 2nd boat cannot maneuver in a close manner and thereby cause a danger.

        Even if de jure property rights cannot be claimed using this provision of the OST, operations can be set up in such a manner as to prevent competitors from moving your equipment out of the way.  

        Details such as potential analogies to slant drilling remain very unclear, however.

        "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

        by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:44:29 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Next Step (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Vladislaw

          My guess is that beyond the treaty we would see an evolution of property rights similar to what happened here. Basically, in England, land was owned by the king and generally grants were made to specific persons to run specific areas in return for helping the king defend the country. The land was used in common under the direction of these lords. (They, in turn, extracted food and other supplies from serfs, who were allowed to work the land in exchange for protection.)

          As time went on, some people were granted rights to land that they had "improved". The symbol of this improvement was a fence. People who had the means would fence off areas, and the property was then provided to these people without the need to provide service in times of war. This system evolved into what we see in the U.S. where people are given rights to use a plot of land (a deed), without the requirement to provide military services but with the requirement to pay taxes. In the U.S. the land is actually owned by the people of the country (the people having taken sovereignty from the king during the American Revolution).

          I would expect to see claims of land property rights on other planets along the same model, where someone claims that they have "improved" a section of ground and it therefore "belongs" to them.

  •  Hopfully Polywell fusion just might (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Liberal Thinking, Bill White

    make to need for propellent depots somewhat moot.

    Saturn in 76 days.

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:37:55 PM PST

  •  So Bill what criteria do we use to determine... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alizard, Bill White, Vladislaw

    what technologies are suitable for reducing LEO access?  Sounds like to me that you recognize that commercialization of space, particularly LEO, depends on reducing launch costs. Or am I wrong?

    •  I believe lower launch costs shall emerge (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roger Fox, NellaSelim

      once there is greater demand to access low Earth orbit. Which technologies? I dunno and I assert no one else does, either.

      But also, launch costs are already low for purposes of commercial satellite operators, if they use Russian carrier rockets. Short term, we Americans need to think a little more like the Russians do (IMHO) and there is an argument to be made that Elon Musk (SpaceX) is doing exactly that.

      Actually, BOTH of the recent COTS winners can be seen as doing space the Russian way, although Orbital's Taurus II actually is a derivation of the Ukrainian Zenit (wikipedia):

      The first stage will be a kerosene/oxygen rocket, powered by two NK-33s (remarketed by Aerojet as the AJ-26). As Orbital has little experience with large liquid stages and LOX propellant, some amount of work will be contracted to NPO Yuzhnoye, designers of the Zenit series. One source claims that the amount will include "main-stage fuel tanks and associated plumbing".[6] It appears at this time that the vehicle will share the 3.9 meter diameter of Zenit.

      Both COTS winners use kerosene / LOX rockets.

      Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 06:55:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Here is where I am getting confused. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Liberal Thinking, Bill White, C Barr

        How will there be demand for LEO if there is nothing there?  Remember, there was no demand for the microwave before it was invented.  Maybe a better example, there was no demand for passenger air travel before the plane was invented and even after. The demand for air travel rose after the USPS began a program to reward air mail service contracts when they included passenger space on their airplanes. Consequently, airplane manufacturers began making passenger airplanes.  The demand followed the development of passenger airliners.  

        •  To preview my upcoming arguments, (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Vladislaw

          There is indeed little out there of "utilitarian value" if we think narrowly.

          But this Frederick Turner piece (cited in another comment and the subject of a future diary on Point 1) helped me move beyond thinking narrowly (if my approach has merit):

          What's the point of going into space?

          It was written in 1996 in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and here are some quotes - first paragraph:

          The disappointing progress of the U.S. space program was not primarily the result of the technical difficulties it faced, nor the dangers to which we were alerted by the Challenger disaster, nor its great expense, nor the sense that there were pressing social and ecological problems to be solved at home, nor the fact that the leaders of the program were World War II-era people with World War II attitudes and style who had not replaced themselves with fresh blood. All these were factors, certainly, but they are symptoms of a larger problem: We will only begin to develop a truly spacefaring civilization when we feel it is in our interest to do so.

          Last paragraph:

          Apologists for space exploration have often added to their list of practical reasons to go to space a half-apologetic reference to the adventure and aspiration of it. It is as if they were ashamed of their true motivations and had to relegate them to the position of an afterthought. But a cold analysis of the direction of the world's economic future leaves such motivations as the only reliable source of good old-fashioned profit, once every automatable and replicable industry has, by improvements in efficiency and competitive reduction of costs, priced itself into economic insignificance. The nations and corporations that get in on the ground floor of the emerging charm economy will control the pipelines of economic value. Terraforming is art, adventure, history, travel: Invest in these and watch your money grow.

          From the MIT Study cited in the main diary:

          Human spaceflight, and its attendant risk, turns a spaceflight into a story that is compelling to large numbers of people. Exploration also has a moral dimension because it is in effect a cultural conversation on the nature and meaning of human life.

          * * *

          Exploration is an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.

          Americans sell stories all the time via media, marketing and brand value promotion.

          Here is an essay of mine from a few years ago on a plan to inflate the price of lunar mined platinum by adding intangible "numanistic" value

          Given the potential importance of platinum as a strategic metal and the US dependence on imports, perhaps taxpayer derived funding can and should be used to "prime the pump" for subsequent commercial mining operations. However, in an era of growing budget deficits, perhaps we need more creative sources to help finance the infrastructure needed to begin finding and extracting lunar platinum.

          It might also be possible to substantially increase the short-term price for lunar platinum by adding an intangible value to the initial shipments of PGMs sent from the lunar surface. In the long term, the global commodity price of platinum will invariably fall once humanity locates an abundant lunar supply of PGM (perhaps offset by rising demand from innovative new uses), however, it may be possible to enhance temporarily the market value of initial shipments of lunar metals by fusing intangible value to an otherwise tangible asset.

          Many small diners or retail shops across America have a 20 dollar bill taped to the wall behind the cash register. Why? The first dollar earned has emotional significance far beyond the actual value of the currency. Wouldn’t the first kilogram of lunar platinum ever mined by our species belong in the Smithsonian? Collectors and speculators will surely wish to share in the history and cachet associated with the first lunar materials returned to Earth for commercial purposes.

          Mint coins from lunar metals and sell 'em like baseball cards for their collector's value.

          Suppose we become a spacefaring species. In 500 years what would the first coins minted from lunar metals be worth?

          Where does that enhanced value come from? It's entirely intangible just like the enhanced value some people infuse into Beanie Baby stuffed toys.

          Snake oil? Perhaps. But try and justify Coca Cola's market capitalization based solely on tangible assets.

          Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

          by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:25:17 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  But (0+ / 0-)

            those models aren't working out to well for us, as we are now really starting to find out.

            They were always a Wile E. Coyote method of profitability - as long as you don't look down, you won't fall into the immense chasm you're actually over. But when you do look down, you realize what you thought was solid ground is just thin, insubstantial air.

            That's not a model I want to base the expansion and future of the human race on.

            If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

            by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:58:01 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  A Wile E. Coyote method of profitability? (0+ / 0-)

              (a) True

              (b) What do you propose, instead?

              In Robert Heinlein's novel "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" the Moon grew food for Earth - wheat, rice and so on - but that novel was written long ago. Today the idea that we can export food from the Moon to the Earth at a profit is ludicrous (unless people are willing to pay $10,000 per slice of bread for the novelty or cache of lunar grown wheat)

              I recall reading a cyber-punk novel (I forget the title at the moment) which included a scene where the super-chic super-rich use ice harvested from the lunar poles to cool their drinks, at several thousand dollars per cube.

              (c) Personally, I do not like the idea of relying on brand value, media, marketing and so forth but unless rely on tax dollars, what else is there?

              "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

              by Bill White on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 02:29:23 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  The problem with those possibilities (0+ / 0-)

                is that those are only even remotely plausible as a business model in boom times, when there's a whole lot of extra cash floating around and nothing to spend it on. And probably boom times greater than we'll ever see, at least without already being a space faring civilization.

                How much more excessive would the 80's have had to have been to make the model your proposing possible? When will that be the case again? Would we even want to live in such a world?

                What's the alternative? It's not a perfect answer, but I think the best one at the moment is a return of real assets - namely metals and materials we're running out of on terra firma and - if it proves feasible - space solar power.

                This isn't to say that's the end all be all of the reasons. Tourism will play a large and vital role and pure science and exploration is and should remain a key part of a suite of reasons for space spending.

                But there has to be a component that argues for a concrete economic return. High priced ice cubes don't meet that.

                If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

                by HamillianActor on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 08:05:40 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  I've never been an "either /or" person (0+ / 0-)

                  I believe it will likely take an "all of the above" approach in order to cobble together sufficient levels of funding.

                  And yet there is a whole lot of "priming the pump" that must be paid for without immediate financial return before solar power or asteroidal metals can start coming back to Earth.

                  Now, if one or another a subset of humanity decided it was imperative to establish a colony and they chose a few hundred representatives and everyone else pitched in . . .

                  "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

                  by Bill White on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 09:48:39 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I don't mean to imply (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Bill White

                    that you're not looking at all of the above like the rest of us. But I think you're suggesting that the trinket market comes first, followed by the more substantial markets. And it won't ever happen that way. The trinkets come after the gold rush.

                    If God hadn't wanted us to fly, he wouldn't have given us Bernoulli's Principle.

                    by HamillianActor on Mon Dec 29, 2008 at 04:53:48 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  The trinkets come after the gold rush, only if (0+ / 0-)

                      we can find some genuine gold to harvest, at profit. But are there any substantial markets out there in the first place?

                      I find myself in agreement with Frederick Turner:

                      [I]t is hard to imagine anything worth the transportation costs into and out of the Earth's gravity well; one mines and manufactures to be able to afford the luxury of going into space, one does not go into space to afford the luxury of mining and manufacturing. There is valuable information to be gained out there, but it can be obtained efficiently by robots, which is not the same as actually being there.

                      We cannot return enough material to Earth to offset a failure to harvest or recycle efficiently what we already have and if we extract and recycle what we have efficiently, we don't need to bring very much back to Earth, other than a few rare metals such as the PGMs and rare-earth metals.

                      For example, the annual global production of platinum totals about ~$10 billion; a trivial amount in terms of space exploration. Space solar power? We can mine the Moon's momentum without leaving Earth by building giant tidal power plants. The engineering would be daunting but so is the engineering needed to deploy hundreds of thousands of solar power satellites. The amount of unharnessed energy to be found in the rising and falling of oceans is staggering.

                      And, most historical "gold rushes" were themselves fundamentally irrational with the vast majority of participants losing their shirts, even if a small handful became very very wealthy. Too often, the gold rush itself is a Wily E Coyote enterprise even if we never get to the trinkets.

                      Here is what Turner says about Spain and our most recent "New World"

                      The first European explorers of the Americas in fact misunderstood their own interests: They were looking for precious metals (which, though abundant, were never as plentiful as their seekers wished) when the real riches of the New World were the great pre-Columbian food and stimulant crops, and the fertile land and rich base metal resources of the western continents.

                      The gold and silver brought back by the Spanish monarchy had the complex economic effect of impoverishing and depopulating Spain and enriching its enemies, England and Holland. In Iberia profitable farming, with the dense population it supports, was priced out of the social market, to be replaced by flocks of voracious goats that ate the vegetation, damaged the soil, and dried out the climate. Bankers along the Rhine, the Danube, the Po, and the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic grew rich on high-interest loans taken out by Hapsburg monarchs to finance the defenses of their far-flung empires; the accumulation of capital fueled the Northern European industrial revolution, whose raw materials were the mundane bulk commodities the Hidalgos had scorned. The true beneficiaries of the Columbian discovery were not the aristocrats, sailors, and warriors but the farmers and planters who followed them, and the businessmen and industrial entrepreneurs who followed them.

                      Mars offers the resources that a hardy and highly motivated people could use to found a new branch of permanent human civilization but they'd need to go one way to stay and wealth would need to flow from Earth to Mars to get them started.

                      The payback would be very long term, as in our being Britain's natural ally against Hitler gave return for English investment in their North American colonies centuries earlier.

                      "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

                      by Bill White on Mon Dec 29, 2008 at 06:58:08 AM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                    •  PS -- Thank you for the sustained exchange! (0+ / 0-)

                      It's not easy to find people willing to talk about these things except quickly and in passing.

                      I've argued this before (a few years ago) over at the NewMars web forum and yes at first I too was appalled at the notion of selling space exploration as a mechanism to enhance the sales of consumer products.

                      I just don't see a financially viable alternative.

                      Prove me wrong and I will be both pleased, and grateful. ;-)  

                      "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

                      by Bill White on Mon Dec 29, 2008 at 07:02:43 AM PST

                      [ Parent ]

        •  "How will there be demand for LEO if there is ... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NellaSelim

          nothing there?"  At least the airplanes you speak of had a purpose in transporting goods and people from one place to another.  But what is the "there" in Low Earth Orbit?  Launching satellites of course, but what else?  What is the "there" in having the International Space Station in orbit other than practicing how to live in space?  I've really never understood that one.  Seems we could actually do something on the moon, but humans in LEO is just practice for the next step, which actually we took thirty nine years ago.

          moderation in everything ... including moderation

          by C Barr on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:28:36 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  When I said 'nothing is there I was talking in... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            C Barr

            terms of human spaceflight.  The ISS is the only destination in LEO that exist currently.  As Bill has said above, Space X and Orbital have done a tremendous job with reducing cost associated with space launchers, but there is a limit to how much launch cost can be reduced for expendable launch vehicles.  LEO is the stepping stone to developing greater, less costly human spaceflight. Yes, we can go to the Moon now, but it is and will continue to be cost prohibitive, or expensive if you will, until we have a bigger LEO infrastructure supporting human spaceflight.

          •  I say LEO2GEO (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Liberal Thinking, C Barr

            We have billions of assets in GEO and thousands of pieces of space junk.

            Nasa should be building LEO2GEO in space ships. Leave the earth to LEO launches for commercial firms. We have a space station and another soon to be launched private sector station.

            A LEO fuel station and ships to start down the development trail of commercial space.

            Neil Armstrong: President Elect Obama join in the wild debate, pros and cons for space spending.

            by Vladislaw on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:39:12 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  A 2nd answer -- space tourism has been (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NellaSelim, Vladislaw

          impeded by the US government to avoid empowering Russian space capabilities.

          Have you heard or MirCorp or Orphans of Apollo?

          Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

          by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:29:20 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  And I agree that the US definitely has impeded... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Bill White, Vladislaw

            development of passenger space travel by the Russians.  

            •  As I wrote in the diary itself (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              NellaSelim, Vladislaw

              Might the United States better realize the soft power benefits of doing space exploration by working to enhance and facilitate the space exploration achievements of other nations? Just as Project Apollo advanced American geo-political interests by demonstrating our technological superiority over the Soviet Union, might we now better advance our geo-political interests by demonstrating a willingness to be a "team player" willing to encourage and support other nations as they seek to claim a share of the spotlight that comes from achievements in space exploration?

              Facilitating and supporting efforts like MirCorp proposed purchase of Mir (although Walt Anderson's tax issues adds a few wrinkles here) also can help bring private sector money to the table.

              But even so, tourism is inherently an aspirational industry (Turner would call it a charm industry) that requires wealthy people who have made their money in other ways.

              Health care crisis in a nutshell: Too much is expended on "managing" & too little on "caregiving"

              by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 07:43:42 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  excellent article. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bill White
    1. "1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;"

    I can see pretty far, define "foreseeable" 10-20-30 years?

    1. "Might the United States better realize the soft power benefits of doing space exploration by working to enhance and facilitate the space exploration achievements of other nations? "

    I agree, I believe we both can agree that a fuel depot that international space launch companies can launch fuel to would provide just such a market.

    1. "4. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;"

    I feel that a combined American private enterprise and government space program/project has not taken place yet. I would feel better about this question that America couldn't have significant progress without a global effort if the combined combination has been tried.

    Great paper Mr, White. Gave me a lot of ideas to chew over.

    Neil Armstrong: President Elect Obama join in the wild debate, pros and cons for space spending.

    by Vladislaw on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:01:15 PM PST

    •  Foreseeable? Lets say 30 years (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Vladislaw

      But remember this, I claim "tourism" for the existential category rather than the utilitarian category. ;-)

      Riddle me this: WHY would a space tourist desire to spend $100 million for a Soyuz ride around the Moon? Except for reasons of personal development and satisfaction?

      Lunar metals, with sales supercharged by being made into coins? What am I truly proposing to sell with that idea? I say what is being sold is the "idea" of spaceflight rather than any tangible, fungible product.

      "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

      by Bill White on Sat Dec 27, 2008 at 10:11:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Long and Short of It (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify

    The 0 question is, "Why be in space at all?" There are two motivations, as the report says, existential and utilitarian ones. (To these, I would add human curiosity, which underlies astronomy and space sciences, as well as what we can get of earth science from space.)

    If by "existential" we mean ones that relate to human existence, then I'm not sure that you could convince many people to support that. A two or three habitable planet scenario is fine, but it doesn't mean any specific person here gets to live off-world. The costs to lift a human are prohibitive for that, so no significant proportion of the human race is going to move off world at current prices. If you can't get the average person to cut back on energy use enough to save the planet from global warming, then it's clear that they don't care about survival of humanity. They would only back this if it saved their own personal skins.

    Utilitarian motivations are never going to go much beyond LEO. What are we going to get from this? Other than earth studies, we could use a program to post hardware out far enough to warn us of a strike from a minor body. Even a large meteor hitting in the right spot would be a huge problem, and we ought to have an early warning system and the means to deflect this kind of rock. So, earth studies and a planet protection program, I would claim, are very utilitarian.

    But, none of that is going to really motivate humans in space. You need humans in space for utilitarian reasons when the time lag gets too hard for robot devices to be directed from Earth. So, devices in LEO or even at the Moon probably don't require humans to make them work. (However, if it shortens the Boyd Cycle enough because of time delays or the quality of observation, then there is a trade-off where for certain things a human on-site would make the operation more efficient.) You can really do fine imaging and other earth studies without humans in space, and you could probably protect the planet from major impacts with robot devices.

    There’s one other program that I think is extremely utilitarian and that we ought to have, and that one will probably require humans in space, simply because of its complexity. That would be a sun shield in LEO. We should investigate putting up some kind of sun shield to slow down global warming. At current lift costs that would be very expensive (in the range of $100 to $400 trillion for full protection; for scale, think of the U.S. economy as $15 trillion GDP per year), but as the Space Access report shows the costs for that could come down radically. Also, we don’t need to build it out to completion; we only need to build it out to gain time to reduce the use of fossil fuels here to the level necessary to stop significant further climate change. To the degree renewable energy comes on line, less of a shield would be needed.

    Right now, the cheapest operating heavy lift rocket is probably the Russian Proton at around $4300 per kg. The Saturn V was on the order of $20,000-30,000 per kg to LEO. The Space Shuttle is coming in at about $61K/kg. (I personally attribute this high cost-to-orbit to cost cutting following the War in Vietnam, which resulted in dropping the re-usable first stage, as well as subsequent mindless wandering by NASA when they should have been working on upgrades to the STS. I fear that cost cutting following the War in Iraq will have the same effect.)

    However, rockets on the drawing boards are listed in the $100s per kg. I would say that a reasonable target for the next generation would be something like $1000/kg, which is about 1/4 the Proton's cost. If there were a good reason to fly them often (as with a solar shield in LEO), then the costs would probably go down. If the cost of fuel is as Space Access says, then they could go down into the $100s. (Consider Sea Dragon and Avatar.) The $100 trillion figure for an LEO sun shield assumes lift costs in the range of $1000/kg.

    I haven't seen figures for the Ares rocket on the drawing boards, but I'd like to. If you know where to get a realistic estimate....

    Frankly, we need something that would really jumpstart the whole thing. I think a reasonable goal would be a planetary ring. There are estimates that blocking 1% of sunlight would compensate for all the greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the industrial revolution. A ring to do that would be about 100 km wide.

    Some have proposed putting a shield at L1, a stable point in space between the earth and sun. My intuition is that this would be more expensive because it is much further away. Of course, the most expensive part of lifting materials is getting them into LEO, but that still would be quite a feat. Nevertheless, that deserves study, too.

    The reaction to this is sometimes fearful and even a little irrational. And, certainly, a shield will not halt all the problems. For example, fossil fuels are destroying the pH of the oceans and a shield will not directly help with that. (Nothing short of getting human population down will really relieve the oceans of their burdens, and I'm not sure what will be left of them or the land after human population peaks.)

    But we are in a situation where the earth will be very significantly damaged by overheating, and we can reasonably do something about it. If we do, we can also motivate the whole space program, including human space flight. I seriously doubt we are going to put up any significant shield without humans on the job in some capacity.

    Tying the space program to a utilitarian goal, I believe, is the only way to give it stable funding and lasting success. Other programs, such as interplanetary flights (human or robot) can live off a robust program. Without that, they will always be at the mercy of budget cuts and earthly priorities. Put up a program that’s going to lift, say, a hundred billion kilograms into orbit, and you radically change the economics. Good space programs could hitch a ride at a fraction of today’s costs.

    If you don’t like my vision, then what’s yours? A robust space program will only happen with a vision big enough for space. Space exploration needs a vision on a grand scale.

    •  if we're going to build in space (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Liberal Thinking

      on that scale, why not go straight to a solar power satellite system? Replacing fossil fuel completely is the long-term solution.

      What should NASA do about this right now? A proof-of-concept solar power satellite in the 1-10Mw range.

      Looking for intelligent energy policy alternatives? Try here.

      by alizard on Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 03:26:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good Question (0+ / 0-)

        I don't think solar power satellites are the answer, but I think they should be studied just like the rest. My suspicion is that solar cells on earth are better because there are no transmission costs for most homes if the panels are co-located there. The efficiency in space would have to be radically better to overcome the costs of transmission.

        Especially at $1000/kg, doing power sats seems like going the long way around to get the short way across. Also, new developments are dropping the cost for solar here, including better efficiency and integration of the panels into roofing tiles. For large scale solar, solar thermal is a good option, one that Google is looking into.

        You can find a number of articles on my website, www.essentialquality.com in the "On the Horizon" section. (Click through to the archives and look for the related articles.)

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