Mars: Bots or Men?


OK, now that we know Mars is way weirder than expected, what next? The debate starts on how best to follow up, with manned trips or more robots. Team Bush is already down with spending the cash for manned missions, but does that make sense?

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  1. “It is not easy to privatize scientific research because it is very difficult to turn basic scientific discoveries into a form of transferable property.”

    Many scientists have, in fact, turned their ideas into profitable enterprises. Much of our economic development is a result of turning scientific ideas into commercial products. The transistor was developed by the commercial sector.

    What’s your point?

  2. “It is not easy to privatize scientific research because it is very difficult to turn basic scientific discoveries into a form of transferable property.”

    And yet, private basic research thrives, and is much larger than government-funded research. There are plenty of companies spending huge amounts of money doing basic research. This is getting more and more true as our manufacturing capability nears theoretical limits of current technologies. The dividing line between basic research and exploitable product is getting smaller. Genetics, nanotech, biotech, shrinking semiconductor sizes… All of these things push research into basic science.

    And Libertarians of all people should be supporting Bush’s new space vision. It doesn’t grow the absolute size of NASA very much. What it does do is get NASA out of the business of flying a truck into near earth orbit and crowding out private space launch. If you buy the argument that government should only do what private industry can not, then the new vision for NASA makes perfect sense. Private industry can not build interplanetary nuclear rockets at this stage of its evolution. NASA can. Private industry can’t launch huge telescope arrays into the Lagrange points around Earth – NASA can. Private industry can’t build bases on the moon. NASA can.

    So let’s end this boondoggle of flying a huge elephant of a space truck up to a space station that has been compromised to the point where it’s not much good for anything. That’s a giant sinkhole for money. Let NASA blaze new trails, and let private industry pick up the technological fallout and start exploiting space in NASA’s wake. That’s what this new initiative is really about. The decision to go to Mars or anywhere else isn’t even set in stone – the whole point is to get NASA off its perpetual hamster wheel of shuttle-to-LEO-and-back, and get it doing visionary exploration again. Meanwhile, the heavy lift gap created by the retirement of the shuttle will hopefully spur all kinds of new innovations in space launch in the private sector. Sounds good to me.

  3. And yet, as a long time, 100% libertarian, I won’t back Bush’s space vision. I don’t buy the assrtion that private industry can’t get us into space, and why should they even bother if the government will do it for them?
    Just because the government CAN do something doesn’t mean it’s the right time to do it. We don’t need interpanetary ships at this time, we need economical access to space. If there’s one thing you won’t get from government it’s economical anything.

  4. The five million space program is a foot in the door
    to some little military useful research and advantage
    to offset the loss of the shuttle program
    and the rise of the Chinese space program.
    Takes something new to get the people interested.

  5. “And yet, as a long time, 100% libertarian, I won’t back Bush’s space vision. I don’t buy the assrtion that private industry can’t get us into space, and why should they even bother if the government will do it for them?”

    Of course private industry can get us into space. That’s what I’m advocating. Specifically, private industry could very quickly gear up to do things like move people to the ISS and back. Right now, the Shuttle does that. Kill the shuttle, and opportunities open up.

    Once private industry is comfortable and competant at routinely moving people into space, it will be in a great position to do things like open hotels or research labs independent of ISS (and for probably 1/100 the cost).

    What private industry can NOT do today is send people to other planets. There is simply no will or business case for doing that. If you leave planetary exploration and telescope arrays to private business, we will not see them in our lifetime, barring some major breakthrough or discovery that creates a compelling business need.

    Therefore, it makes sense to get NASA out of the business that private industry can do (shuttle and ISS), and let it do something private industry can’t.

    “Just because the government CAN do something doesn’t mean it’s the right time to do it. We don’t need interpanetary ships at this time, we need economical access to space. If there’s one thing you won’t get from government it’s economical anything.”

    The alternative to the Bush plan is not the dismantling of NASA. That will never happen, and everyone knows it. The alternative is more of what we’ve had for the last twenty years – plodding along without a vision, doing things just for the sake of doing them or because they funnel money to some congressman’s district, losing more engineers, and essentially being just another moribund useless bureaucracy. Along the way, another shuttle will crash, and endless billions will be spent on designs for shuttle replacements. Eventually, we’ll build Shuttle2, which will be another bloated behemoth because it will be designed to do everything instead of being tasked with one optimized goal. And the thing will be so bloody expensive that no one will dare kill it, and so new jobs will be invented for it and NASA will throw roadblocks in front of private alternatives to it.

    Apollo succeeded because it had a narrow focus. Shuttle and ISS failed because they were government pork projects that had a little of everything in them. The Bush plan narrows the focus of NASA again and allows them to develop projects with tight specifications. This is a good thing.

    See, this is what bugs me about some hardcore libertarians. They see the ‘perfect’ solution (Get rid of NASA!), and therefore oppose anything else. It would be much better to look at realistic alternatives and choose the one that moves society in the direction you want to go. So let’s examine the realistic alternatives – Bush’s new plan, or the status quo.

    As for ‘not needing’ to explore farther out, I strongly disagree. Societies that stop exploring and expanding their horizons go soft. They turn inward, and start navel gazing and voting themselves bread and circuses. We need a frontier. It’s part of our culture. We haven’t had one for a long time, and the result shows.

  6. Note my qualifier “at this time”.

    All things in due time. There is no point in exploring other planets with manned missions at this time. The only reason the government went to the moon was merely to show it could be done.
    Meanwhile, the federal budget has soaked up a lot of the resources the commercial sector could have used to expand the commercial potential of near earth orbit. Hotels, scopes for lease, manufacturing, whatever.
    Getting rid of NASA is not the same as opposing anything else. Get rid of NASA and a lot of other stuff the government should not be wasting our resources on and we can invest our resources into profitable expansion into space, starting in earth orbits and expanding outward. Trying to leapfrog with government programs merely wastes resources that can be used to get US into space instead of government employees.

  7. Given the presumed one time presence of water and therefor possibly life on Mars, I don’t think we will ever send humans there unless we are absolutely sure that all the Martians are dead. Sending humans inevitably means sending all our symbiotic and parasitic microbes as well. If any escape into an existing Martian ecosystem (even a subterranean microbial one) it runs the risk of wiping the Martian microbes.

    All Science Fiction traditions to the contrary, in the future when we suspect life exist on another planet we quarantine the planet from any organic contact. All our explorers in those cases will be robotic.

  8. Shannon Love,

    Not to mention the notion of bringing back a Martian virus or other pathogen to the Earth that has deleterious effects on humans, etc.

  9. It doesn’t make any sense at all. Politicians are keen to show off the capacity of government to do things that don’t make sense. It would take years to send a manned mission to Mars and years (if even possible) to return. Any volunteers for a suicide mission? If we are to occupy space, it will be done organically.
    And we must eventually occupy space in order to secure the safety of our home planet and the perpetuation of our species. I know there are those who would take issue with that last, but I don’t pay much heed to human haters.

  10. I totally agree. But is it moral to leave our robotic litter on Mars? Don’t the Martians have a moral right not have their surface littered with robots designed by the military-industrial complex?

    And what is up with humans even leaving the African plains? How dare humankind disrupt eco-systems around the world? As if we can claim real estate for homo sapians where ever we want?

    See how it begins. The right-wing gaia-hating human-imperialists claim the rest of Africa, N. America, S. America, Eurasia, Australia for the human species…then they want MARS! They must be stoped.

  11. Apparently NASA has discovered money on Mars. Now it’s just question of bringing it back. You can’t spend it up there.

  12. I still can’t believe that the U.S. is destroying one of the few useful and interesting NASA programs – the hubble. That seems so short-sighted.

  13. Scientists can be myopic about things. Government grants must seem like such easy money.
    They can focus on their projects without having to worry about making money to support their research. yet, if scientists got together with savvy business managers, they could retain ownership of the fantastic stuff they produce and use the profits to pursue other avenues of interest without having to worry about political tides which can leave them high and dry.

  14. The decision to cancel the Hubble mission was directly related to the cost and safety issues of sending a shuttle orbiter up to work on it.

    Sean O’Keefe has recently directed that NASA reconsider the decision and look into robotic alternatives to move Hubble’s orbit to that of the ISS. This can be accomplished through the use of solar electric powered ion thrusters which have been well-proven in space. This would allow servicing of Hubble via inexpensive and less hazardous missions without requiring the use of a shuttle and all the costs entailed. (A Russian Soyuz or U.S. CEV could deliver the crew, while a special cargo unit could bring up the parts separately)

    Interestingly enough, a private start-up company looks to be the best positioned to provide the orbital-transfer equipment to NASA, and was instrumental in getting NASA to reconsider in the first place.

    As far as the cost goes, NASA is attempting to change its entire focus to a more exploring/prospecting nature. Reducing costs and expediting retirement of the expensive shuttle program are necessary to the new paradigm.

    NASA, for the first time in decades, is being asked to expand its horizons, with the eventual effect of opening up space to private enterprise and investment, and libertarians are still going on about the same old “why are we spending public money on this?”

    I agree wholeheartedly that NASA needs to get out of the way and allow private concerns to dominate in space, but I strongly feel that a good way to accomplish that is for NASA to blaze the trail, then step aside, not simply to quit. I identify myself as a libertarian, but I am not so blind as to ignore the benefits to our technological economy that Apollo brought to us. Similarly, I can see that a medium-term limited government presence in space can help seed the space industries of the future.

    The recent exploration initiative is a step in the right direction. It offers a hopeful look at the future, while keeping the budget reasonable. As many here are fond of saying in the general context of government spending, the solution is to trim spending in some areas to provide funding for new projects. Similarly, NASA must give up some older programs to let the new ones take root.

  15. db,

    That all sounds good in theory; but as everyone knows, the idea of a government agency purposefully killing itself is rather rare. I suspect that this “new vision” will be dust within a year or two.

  16. Jean Bart,

    Perhaps. If that’s the case, then NASA will be dust in five to ten years, and then, maybe, the Russians will be able to start making money off the ISS commercially without hindrance from NASA. Then, hopefully, space exploration will take off.

    I’d just prefer if we didn’t have to throw away all the great achievements of NASA first.

  17. BTW, I like Sam’s suggestion that scientists try to get some private funding to save Hubble. Unfortunately, when a government owns the asset, it can shut them down even after leasing them to private concerns, as we saw with the short-sighted decision to not only abandon, but destroy, Mir.

  18. db,

    I gotta go with Jean Bart on this one. The odds of NASA transitioning itself out of existence are virtually zero. In the best case scenario we would just see the ongoing shift in the ratio between public versus private space exploration. NASA might eventually evolve into some type of regulatory agency.

  19. “I totally agree. But is it moral to leave our robotic litter on Mars? Don’t the Martians have a moral right not have their surface littered with robots designed by the military-industrial complex?”


  20. Shannon,

    I wasn’t really arguing that NASA will ever allow itself to evaporate (when did a government bureaucracy ever sit idly by while being eviscerated), and I think your “regulatory agency” take may be right. However, if NASA were forced to get out of the way after each incremental step of opening a “new frontier,” it would be beneficial.

    I think NASA could be convinced or coerced into this, simply because it would have a new job on which to focus. But to avoid it growing into an unmanageable self perpetuation machine, you would require it to drop its old jobs while taking on new ones.

    Let NASA blaze the trail for private enterprise and then move on to the next exciting problem when the previous one is old hat and no longer striclty interesting.

    In a very important way this is similar to the basic traits of engineers and some scientists–always looking for a new problem to solve. Fostering a true R&D culture at NASA could go a long way toward making it a progressive driver of technology, rather than a stagnant navel-starer.

  21. In addition, keeping NASA’s budget relatively constant would simply require that it abandon old concentrations as new projects were mandated. Of course, all of this requires firm direction from either Congress or the Executive branch, which is where it may well break down.

    I sitll think it’s better to at least try to get something out of our investment in NASA than to abandon it altogether. But I always call on the river in “hold ’em”, too.

    So, what? Completely privatize NASA? Don’t think it would happen. Delete NASA? Don’t think it would happen. Ignore NASA? Maybe if private enterprise does an end-around and does something impressive first, NASA will lose relevance.

    I’d pay about $1,000 for a sample (at least 50g in mass) of Mars rock for my desk. Anybody want to get in on that action?

  22. Sam and db,

    There is a very large and profitable private space industry but it relies on a form of physical property rights. Communication satellites are big business and largely private these days. The satellites, however, aren’t the real property. The real property is the right to position a satellite in a particular orbit. (Right now, the right to position a satellite is political/regulatory decision like the rights to broadcast spectrum but in principle they could be allocated by auction.)

    It is not easy to privatize scientific research because it is very difficult to turn basic scientific discoveries into a form of transferable property. The free market must have transferable property in order to function. Without property, the link between effort and reward is severed and the market can no longer efficiently allocate resources. Without property the free rider problem destroys the system.

    To my mind, the puzzle of how to sell information is the central economic issue of our era. It takes considerable resources to create informational goods, from scientific data to Bluegrass Rap music, yet don’t have a good mechanism for allocating those resources in the free market because we can’t easily turn information into property.

  23. Shannon:

    Agreed on property rights. However, one of the great benefits of the open style of scientific discourse that we have today is that the scientific data become part of the public domain at some point (well before a conventional copyright would run out). Indeed, the data gathered from such programs as Hubble are reserved for a time to the scientists who requested the particular observations. After their conclusions are published, the data are released. This establishes, if not a property right, at least an exclusive lease for a time.

    They way the intellectual property debate has been going in this country recently, it appears as if the original intent of copyright law to release works to the public domain after a time may be permanently stifled.

    Without having experimental and observational data available freely to many scientists, researchers are unfortunately doomed to reinvent the wheel in terms of sending up their own space telescopes, etc. This will decrease the overall efficiency of the scientific process.

    As far as physical property rights in space go, it will be a necessity for individuals and corporations to establish ownership of resources in space for commercial operations to be profitable.

  24. Look, people, this isn’t rocket science–

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