Hit & Run

Lost in Space

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NASA has been bumbling around without much of a goal ever since they stopped sending people to the moon. Huge costs with small results, crash-landed failures, and the like have made most people lose interest in space. Bush, with his talk of a moonbase and men on Mars, is trying to bring a new grand goal to the space program. Charles Rousseaux writes:

In a sense, the president's vision marks the continuation of the Apollo missions, but there will be no more one- (or multiple Moon) shot wonders, no more marking time in low earth orbit. Instead, there will be a step-by-step move outwards. When humans reach the moon, they won't just grab a bite of green cheese and go. Instead, they'll survey, explore and begin building the infrastructure -- shelters, machinery, fuel and water depots -- for the next step outwards. They'll do the same when they reach Mars, the asteroid belt, the icy moons of Jupiter, and beyond.

I'm sympathetic - we should be out there in the solar system, working towards making sure our entire species and genetic history isn't wiped out by one apocalyptic asteroid. But I doubt the government can do this efficiently, no matter how bright the stars in their eyes are shining.

NEXT: Hell No! Country Joe Still Won't Go!

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  1. Tech Central Station is a shill for industry. I'd take anything they say with a grain of salt. Chances are, the biggest supporters of deep space exploration are Boeing, Northrup-Grumman and General Dynamics.

  2. This one reason that I am against private investment in agraculture (ever hear of United Fruit Co.?)

    I also hear that the backers and staff of Reason Magazine hold positions in corporations and consume products made by corporations.

    In conclusion, both TCS and Reason support corporate rule.

  3. This one reason that I am against private investment in agraculture (ever hear of United Fruit Co.?). Watch out for intersteller death squads.

    I also hear that the backers and staff of Reason Magazine hold positions in corporations and consume products made by corporations.

    In conclusion, both TCS and Reason support corporate rule.

  4. This one reason that I am against private investment in agraculture (ever hear of United Fruit Co.?). Watch out for intersteller death squads.

    I also hear that the backers and staff of Reason Magazine hold positions in corporations and consume products made by corporations.

    In conclusion, both TCS and Reason support corporate rule.

  5. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to go into space.

    Sadly, I didn't have the temperment for the military or the grades to become a scientist, so my dreams of become the first man on Mars were soon dashed. These days, I follow space exploration quite closely and I have to sit and grumble as NASA rolled their promises of moon/mars exploration forward another 20 years. It made me sick that they'd contintue to putter around in Low Earth Orbit, dropping satelittes in orbit (Don't we have cheaper, unmanned lift vehicles that can do that?), and conducting PR Susie Fisher's 4th grade science fair project on how bean sprouts grow in zero G.

    If this was "Space exploration" where was the "exploration?" Yeah we got a lot of cool, life improving, technologies out of NASA (more than just Tang), but where are the lunar hotels, space elevators, asteroid miners, martian terraforming operations, power transmission satellites, and all the other wonders that were always just "twenty to thirty years from now?"

    "Come on," I would say. "GO SOMEWHERE!"

    It's just like midnight, Jan 1, 2000 when we all realized that there were no flying cars, household robots, and video phones like we were promised. Dissapointingly, the future turned out to be just slightly different than yesterday.

    I said that I couldn't become an astronaut because I couldn't become an fighter pilot or a scientist. That's what is wrong with NASA: Yeah, it went into space with air force majors and Ph Ds in astrophyics, but they forgot to take the rest of us along. They got to have all the fun, while we sat in front of the TV and wondered what they were so excited about. No wonder the American people have lost insterest in space.

  6. One of Reason's regular contributors began a thread a number of months ago with the suggestion that colonizing the Gobi Desert makes more sense than colonizing Mars. There are a number of factors that favor the Gobi Desert, the atmosphere of the Gobi Desert is breathable, for instance, and you don't need to escape the Earth's atmosphere to get there. No one wants to live in the Gobi Desert, though, because it's barren. Although Mars is one of the more hospitable planets we could colonize, I've seen the pictures, and it?s even more barren than the Gobi Desert. If anyone wants to go to the Gobi desert out of a sense of adventure, then I suggest they finance the trip themselves; I?m not willing to help pay for it, and if anyone wants to go to Mars because they're afraid of an asteroid, then I suggest they seek the help of a psychiatrist.

  7. "No one wants to live in the Gobi Desert, though,
    because it's barren. "

    If the Gobi Desert had anything like the plethora of the resources that solar system objects like Mars and the asteroids have, you'd be able to pay people to go there.

    Space exploration isn't about building some great utopia on a pleasure planet. It will only work if it's about the generation of wealth. There are unimaginable mountains of wealth in space. The trick is making them economically accessible.

    NASA's proper function (and they are definitely headed in that direction, as will be seen with the unveiling of the Aldridge report tomorrow) is to blaze the trail and then hand the keys over to those who can make money off of the newly-found access. NASA then moves on to the next frontier and opens it up for exploitation. The new prize based system that NASA is beginning will help involve private industry to the maximum while ensuring that what gets worked on will eventually be profitable.

  8. It's extra sad because it is common knowledge among both NASA and the contractors that the "Big Space Announcement" was nothing more than a political "look, a baby wolf!" maneuver to cover up the killing of the space shuttle.

    George's announcement was the END, not the beginning, of NASA involvement in human space flight. The only programs running on normal footing right now are unmanned exploration.

    Now, can we all see what it's like if the FAA and the private industry "work together" to get the FAA out of the way of private space?

  9. Ken: I don't expect you to pay for it. Despite my maudlin sentiments for Friendship 7 and Apollo 11, I agree that NASA has clearly become a failed boondoggle. I believe that private enterprise should start picking up where NASA left off--that is if the government doesn't come in and regulate it out of business first.

    The Gobi Desert? Been there, done that. Some of us expect greater ambitions from humanity than wallowing about on Mother Mud.

  10. 1. Some people - OK, Richard C. Hoagland - say we shouldn't bring people back from Mars for fear that they would bring back molds or the like with them that would be extremely hardy and could wipe us all out...

    2. Until the last or last two spacecraft we sent to Mars, none of them were sterilized...

  11. "...involve private industry to the maximum while ensuring that what gets worked on will eventually be profitable."

    Like the airlines here on terra firma? Face it, after a hundred years they haven't turned a nickle in profit. What makes you think space travel is a better market?

  12. I don't care if you sit down and write to a million or dig a hole to the Gobi Desert or, if you're from the Trekkie Contingent, build Deep Space 9. Just don't expect my eyes to fill with wonder as you explain that it's all in my best interest even as you flush the fruit of my labor down the toilet.

  13. "...begin building the infrastructure -- shelters, machinery, fuel and water depots..."

    Any bets on how long it will be before the tree-huggers start whelping about the rape of the pristine lunar environment?

    I forsee the creation of the radical "Moon First!" collective, the founding of the "Lunar Defense League", and a new political movement: the "Gray Party".

  14. "Like the airlines here on terra firma? Face it, after a hundred years they haven't turned a nickle in profit. What makes you think space travel is a better market?"

    As I wrote before, this is not simply about tourism and sending people to neat places, but about creating wealth. Is there something scarce on Earth that can less expensively be recovered from asteroids, or the moon, or Mars? Then get some capital together and go mine it. Bring it back and sell it at a profit.

    While I'd love to spend a week in a lunar hotel, I acknowledge that there's got to be a reason for going there. Tourism can only take you so far.

    Airlines take people where they want to go. That's nice, but I'm not thinking along the lines of "spacelines," I'm talking about finding scarce resources in space and meeting an Earthly demand.

  15. db managed to give an example of precisely what's wrong with American conservatives. He seems to think it's government's job to show industry how to make money, or do all their legwork for them.

    If there is wealth in the heavens, then presumably the profit motive will drive people to access it. Government "assistance" is not necessary and is more likely to generate government interference. Remember Justice Brandeis' observation that it is not unreasonable to expect government to regulate that which it subsidizes.

    I'm not interested in spending my money to send someone else to Mars, any more than I'm willing to spend my money to send my neighbor on a long vacation to the Bahamas. I would, however, be perfectly willing to move to the Gobi Desert, at my own expense, if only I might escape the loving embrace of government and the duty of financing someone else's starry-eyed fantasies.

  16. Oh, and by the way, I'd like to see the facts backing up the claim that airlines haven't turned a nickel in profit. I'd really like to see a full accounting, including government subsidies, which should be subtracted from real income to get a true picture.

  17. db,

    What resource is so scarce on Earth that bringing it from space would be less expensive?

  18. "db managed to give an example of precisely what's wrong with American conservatives. "

    So glad I just "managed."

    I like to think of myself as more of a realistic libertarian. I won't get into the depths of what constitute my political beliefs; suffice it to say that I am more or less rabidly libertarian on most topics.

    I 100% back the idea that it is none of the government's business whether space industries exist or flourish. However, I feel it is imperative that such industries do so. I'm willing to pitch in some capital to see that it's done.

    There are very strong arguments against government involvement in space. We all know that the government will be there, short of a libertarian utopia materializing in our lifetime. I'm willing to acknowledge that that won't happen, and to advocate a policy of the government getting out of the way as quickly as possible.

    That way, the gov. can feel like it did some good and move onto the next project. Would you rather have NASA spend $15,000,000 per year flying in circles around the Earth, or spend $15,000,000 per year going somewhere and expanding economic horizons. It's obvious that the money will be spent; I'd like to see it not be totally thrown away.

  19. "db,

    What resource is so scarce on Earth that bringing it from space would be less expensive?"

    Hmm, that's a nice little trap, since the answer to that question right now is obviously "none." Why? Because access to space is so expensive. However, like it or not, there will come a time when bringing resources in from the solar system will be competitive with extracting them from the earth. Energy may be one of them. Either through true scarcity or stifling regulations, prices will rise to that point.

    Ever hear of an enforceable environmental regulation prohibiting pollution in the asteroid belt? Any laws out there requiring clean-up of sites on Mars or any government capable of inspecting places across the solar system and effectively levying fines for bad behavior?

  20. not that should be $15,000,000,000 in the post above, not $15,000,000

  21. I've heard a plausible theory that underground oil on earth might be abiogenic, meaning that the hydrocarbons came from outer space or were formed with the earth, as opposed to being the decomposed remains of dead dinosaurs.

    It isn't the most likely or accepted theory out there, but it has some intelligent proponents. I wouldn't be on its success, but I wouldn't be shocked if somebody validated the theory either.

    Anyway, on the off chance that oil is abiogenic, there would be an excellent chance that oil might be found on other planets.

    Not the most likely theory, but one can dream...

    Oh, incidentally, if the theory were true it would explain Bush's enthusiasm for Mars 🙂

  22. "db,

    What resource is so scarce on Earth that bringing it from space would be less expensive?"

    I should point out that, once a more or less permanent presence in space is established, it's extremely cheap in terms of fuel to deliver goods from outside the Earth's orbit to Earth, since the trip is all down hill, as far as the Sun's gravity is concerned. You just need to kick the payload in the ass to get it into a transfer orbit. Part of the reason space travel is so expensive right now is because we have to ship all the fuel we use up from the earth's surface. That's an enormous expense, since you have to get it all moving at about 11 km/s to escape Earth's gravitational pull (somewhat less to simply orbit it). If you get the fuel (in the form of water) from the moon or Mars or other places, it's a lot cheaper.

    However, we still haven't solved the argument of whether we should be doing this in the first place, so why bother with the calculations? It's more productive to stare at our civilizations' collective navel anyway.

  23. "There are unimaginable mountains of wealth in space. The trick is making them economically accessible."

    Could you give me an example? With our current technology, we'll be lucky to bring back something from Mars at any less than 1 million dollars a pound. The distribution of elements on Mars is likely to be similar to Earth. Know of any easily mined elements worth mining on Mars?

    And yeah, our technology for space travel will improve. But my bet is not dramatically, and not soon. It's a -hard- problem.

  24. "I've heard a plausible theory that underground oil on earth might be abiogenic, meaning that the hydrocarbons came from outer space or were formed with the earth, as opposed to being the decomposed remains of dead dinosaurs."

    Yeah, Thomas Gold of Cornell University (http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/) has put forth that theory. He's been right about a few weird ideas in the past, but the jury is still way out there on his "Deep, Hot Biosphere" hypothesis.

  25. "With our current technology, we'll be lucky to bring back something from Mars at any less than 1 million dollars a pound. The distribution of elements on Mars is likely to be similar to Earth. Know of any easily mined elements worth mining on Mars?"

    Please refer to my post above yours. I probably hadn't posted it before you wrote yours.

  26. db,

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that passenger planes wouldn't be profitable at all without government intervention. But there wouldn't be any jumbo jets, and the total passenger volume would be a lot lower.

    The following isn't by any means an attempt at an exhaustive examination of the balance sheet; but you still might be interested:

    According to David Noble, in America by Design, the large passenger jets wouldn't have been feasible without government spending on heavy bombers. The production runs for the civilian jets wouldn't have been long enough to pay for the expensive machine tools required for building them. In fact, all the major aircraft firms were spiralling into red ink during the demobilization after WWII, until Harry Truman pulled them out of it with the aircraft production spurred by the war scare of the late '40s (see Frank Kofsky, Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948).

    In addition, there are forms of government intervention that can't be addressed in purely quantitative terms. For example, if local airport promoters had to buy land only from willing sellers at a price agreeable to them, instead of relying on eminent domain, airports would be a lot smaller and more expensive--which would, it seems to me, have a big bearing on the profitability of airlines.

  27. If delivering energy to Earth from space in an efficient manner ever becomes feasible, the market won't need government funding to spring into action. But how many life improving discoveries will be delayed for decades because the government squandered the market's resources on Star Trek inspired pipe dreams?

  28. "I've heard a plausible theory that underground oil on earth might be abiogenic..."
    "It isn't the most likely or accepted theory out there, but it has some intelligent proponents."

    Thoreau:
    I know you didn't really put much faith in this theory, so I'm not picking on you.
    I just wanted to remind you that "cold fusion" had (has?) some very intelligent proponents. 😉

  29. "If delivering energy to Earth from space in an efficient manner ever becomes feasible, the market won't need government funding to spring into action. But how many life improving discoveries will be delayed for decades because the government squandered the market's resources on Star Trek inspired pipe dreams?"

    If you've ever watched Star Trek, you should know that "profit" is a word in that universe that is respected by only the lowest, nastiest types. Star Trek is an unfortunate (but fun to watch) attempt to visualize a future communistic utopia. There's no money (except to the aforementioned lowlifes), the government takes care of everything, and everyone's happy.

    If you read my post above, you'd realize that this is not my hope for the human race. Again, I say, the gov't will be stealing your money anyway for the rest of your life; might as well have it go toward something more useful than running around in circles.

  30. I particularly like...

    "and if anyone wants to go to Mars because they're afraid of an asteroid, then I suggest they seek the help of a psychiatrist."

    What a well-reasoned, well-supported argument against space colonization! Now that you've made it, I'll conveniently forget the mountain of data that suggests such an event is not only possible, but probable. Thank you for clearing my head of all those useless rationally-grounded concerns, and replacing them with an empty ad hominem attack!

  31. on the off chance that oil is abiogenic, there would be an excellent chance that oil might be found on other planets.

    thoreau, you're a cynical malcontent. you go, dude!

  32. NASA privatization is old news. For *real* news in the privatization of space, I recommend checking out the Scaled Composites website at http://www.scaled.com which has details on its invitation to the public to attend the world's first private manned spaceflight on Monday, 21 June. Now THAT is news!

  33. "NASA privatization is old news. For *real* news in the privatization of space, I recommend checking out the Scaled Composites website at http://www.scaled.com which has details on its invitation to the public to attend the world's first private manned spaceflight on Monday, 21 June. Now THAT is news!"

    Agreed. This is where it's at. If Rutan can show that access to space need not be done by hyper-expensive gov't-funded rockets, we'll be a lot closer to at least the space tourism idea. There's a big difference between suborbital flight and true orbital flight, but take it in small steps.

  34. As a rational person, how should I respond to the argument that my money should be taken from me, by force, and used to finance the colonization of space because the alternative includes the possibility of the annihilation of humanity by way of an asteroid?

    Ridicule is a rational response to the ridiculous.

  35. "Ridicule is a rational response to the ridiculous."

    If you do not acknowledge that there is an existential threat from near earth objects that cross our orbit, I don't know what to say to you.

    My argument for space travel relies less on the NEO threat than on the more optimistic profitability of such endeavors, but you simply cannot ignore the fact that it remains a possibility that severe damage to the earth and civilization could be done by a random strike by a large NEO. It's a simple fact that large strikes have happened in the past, and will continue to happen, and we have no way of predicting them short of searching the sky endlessly for them, and even if we had warning, with our current technology level, we would have absolutely no way of preventing such a collision (appallingly inaccurate films like "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" notwithstanding).

  36. Notwithstanding that I never said anything about 'taking money from you' -- and it seems as though most of the posters in this thread have argued for private space travel -- I have to say:

    "Ridicule is a rational response to the ridiculous."

    Is it comfortable there under the sand? Don't your eyes get gritty?

  37. So you guys want me to concede that the fear of asteroids is perfectly rational? Okay, for the sake of argument, I'll concede that point for the moment. Will you, at least, agree that people who aren't afraid of asteroids shouldn't be forced to finance a plan to attempt to assuage the fear of people who are afraid of asteroids?

    ...if anyone at NASA is suggesting that we should colonize space as a precaution against total annihilation by an asteroid, that is.

  38. "and if anyone wants to go to Mars because they're afraid of an asteroid, then I suggest they seek the help of a psychiatrist."

    What a well-reasoned, well-supported argument against space colonization! Now that you've made it, I'll conveniently forget the mountain of data that suggests such an event is not only possible, but probable.

    You might as well. After all, you've already conveniently forgotten the mountain of data which suggests that Mars will never be capable of supporting, on its own, a viable human population.

    Just because a threat really DOES exist does not mean that every possible suggested response to that threat qualifies as intelligent and rational. Big rocks are a threat, but reacting to them by attempting to "colonize" a frozen rock with a thin, poisonous atmosphere is just... silly.

    And yes, we can hypothesize some future terraforming technology that will make Mars livable. But we can also hypothesize some future big-rock-deflecting technology, too.

  39. The lack of (hard) money (and the drive to acquire it) in Star Trek's 23rd century came not out of communist ideology, but from two technological advances: replicator technology and cheap, plentiful energy.

    By ST:DS9 hard money had made a comeback, in the form of "gold-pressed latinum," accepted by the big-lobed everywhere.

    In the universe of Star Trek Latinum is a major currency. Latinum's dominance as a form of currency is a result of its popularity with the Ferengi. Latinum is a liquid with the unique property that its molecular structure cannot be replicated or synthesized, providing the condition of scarcity necessary for a substance to be used as currency. As it is difficult to properly measure liquid for currency transations, premeasured amounts of latinum are inserted into hollow cores of gold bullion of various sizes, leading to the standard units of gold-pressed latinum: slip, strip, bar, and brick.

    http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Latinum

    We've also seen Federation officials trade information or technology with new species that they encounter, especially in the Voyager series.

    /bjavt vaatub/
    Kevin

  40. Let's send Jesuits to Jupiter!

  41. "if anyone wants to go to Mars because they're afraid of an asteroid, then I suggest they seek the help of a psychiatrist."

    All the psychiatrists, along with everyone else, is going to be flatten by the Big Rock. Unless, of course, Bruce Willis is around to save us.

    "I don't think that Roddenberry or his vision was communist at the core. Take a deeper look."

    I've looked pretty hard over many years. STNG is about as left as it gets. They had a psychologist as a bridge officer, and a daycare center on the fucking flagship of the Federation!!

  42. Mr. Nice Guy says, "I've looked pretty hard [at Star Trek] over many years. STNG is about as left as it gets. They had a psychologist as a bridge officer, and a daycare center on the ... flagship of the Federation!!"

    As I said, lots of things LOOK leftie, but not everything was as it seems. The day-care center, for example, was a consequence of Picard's Enterprise being primarily a ship of exploration (and, on occasion, colonization), not primarily a military vessel (ala Kirk's or Archer's Enterprises); also because the ship itself was large enough to be considered a traveling "city" in space. Instead of a carrier or battleship, think of the Enterprise as, say, San Antonio with warp drive: military people and civilians living in close proximity amidst a large variety of economic activity. Of course there would be day-care centers on board. Since space is a dangerous place, of course, the ship needed a means of defense. Roddenberry and crew hypothesized that the civialian "San Antonio" part of the ship was in the saucer, and that the severable lower part of the ship would contain most of the military armament, crew quarters, and battle bridge -- essentially the equivalent of the military base areas in San Antonio. There is nothing ideological about any of this.

    The psychologist/counselor as bridge officer, however, is too close to a "political officer" for me, especially after reading Thomas Szasz. I don't think that position is practical without postulating a race of empaths to fill it, as the TNG people did. Perhaps Troi on the bridge was an example of 24th century affirmative action (toward "alien" races).

  43. Hanah,

    Sorry, I couldn't be bothered to read the previous 43 posts, but I want to tell you to keep on dreaming of space exploration. Don't forget to make Cassini-Huygens photos a recurring wallpaper theme on your desktop.

    Men will walk on Mars before I'm dead. That's my latest t-shirt. ;>

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