Government Spending

The Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere

Saying goodbye to the space program

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Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

Friday marked the space shuttle's swan song, as the Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center for the program's 135th and final flight.

It was President George W. Bush who announced the shuttle's retirement with his 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration," which included a moon base and "human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond." But it was President Obama who put the kibosh on that vision, canceling the moon project and leaving "worlds beyond" in doubt.

"We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing," Michael Griffin, Bush's NASA administrator, wailed to The Washington Post recently.

Here, as usual, "nothing" gets a bad rap. I'll be "in favor of nothing" until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn't make me spray coffee out my nose.

NASA's Griffin failed that test in 2005, when he gave an interview to The Washington Post insisting it was essential that "Western values" accompany those who eventually "colonize the solar system," because "we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you're looking for?"

Well … is it, punk?

Outside of avoiding the hypothetical horror of Martian gulags, what does the ordinary taxpayer get from the space program?

Not much, says Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economist and research associate at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute: The benefits are "mostly like the pyramids—national prestige and being part of history."

Space partisans often point to the alleged technological breakthroughs that come from solving hard problems like keeping humans alive in an environment never meant to sustain them.

But, as Hanson points out, you could get similar technological boons from any ambitious project you convince the feds to spray money at—whether it's robot butlers or floating cities. If we wanted to, we could surely "find other projects with larger direct payoffs."

The argument for federally funded spaceflight ultimately boils down to "spacecraft as soulcraft," the quasi-religious notion that, as Post columnist Charles Krauthammer puts it, we go "not for practicality," but "for the wonder and the glory of it."

Space must be an alluring muse indeed, given that it makes Krauthammer, normally a hardheaded neoconservative, sound like a yoga instructor gone lightheaded during a juice fast.

He calls space skeptics "Earth Firsters," deaf to "the music of the spheres." Apparently there's nothing more "isolationist" than wanting to stay on your own planet.

Krauthammer's obsession makes sense, in a way, since federally funded spaceflight is the quintessential neoconservative project: a giant, wasteful crusade designed to fill Americans' supposedly empty lives with meaning.

Sorry, Charlie: The public's not buying it. A 2010 Rasmussen poll showed that more Americans think private enterprise should pay for space exploration than think government should fund it.

By nearly 2-to-1 margins, they also oppose sending federally funded astronauts to the moon or Mars. As far as Americans are concerned, space is the ultimate "bridge to nowhere."

It's true that, with a $1.5 trillion deficit, NASA's $18 billion isn't what stands between us and our fiscal day of reckoning. But every little bit counts, and this is the rare cut that won't make the public squeal.

Moreover, there's a matter of principle at stake here. The threat of force lies behind every tax dollar the government collects. You might demand that your neighbor help defend us against a foreign invader—but would really you hold a gun to his head to help him appreciate "the music of the spheres"?

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.

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  1. The Space Shuttle? That’s the ship that made the Kessel run.

  2. IRAPED THE SPACE ORGRAM IN THE ASSHOLELEEE!!!!!!!!!1Q!!!!!!!!!!

    1. IN THE ASSHOLELEEE

      That is a bit redundent isn’t it STEVE. It is like saying I breathe air.

      1. ILVOE TO WATHC THE PORGRAM CRY IT WITTLE EYESS OUT. IT THINK ITTORE SOMETHING.

  3. If we were making intergalactic vessels I’d be less opposed to NASA. Not because of any principle, but just because at least it’d be cool.

    1. This is one of the few areas that I struggle with, politically.

      The future of our species relies unquestionably on space colonization. Worse still, we don’t even know how much time we have on the clock, given that an entire cosmic mystery-bag full of instant extinction events ranging from gamma ray bursts to solar eruptions to interstellar black holes could wipe us out tonight.

      Therefore, I think that mastery of space, along with national defense, may be one of the very, very few places government belongs. I don’t think it’s out of bounds to take resources from each citizen if those resources are being used to break the species’ dependancy on Earth, and later on Sol, and much later, on the Milky Way.

      Obviously, I do not think Gov’t should have a monoply on the industry. In fact, all they need to do to spark a space technology revolution is prove to the private sector that space exploitation can be profitable.

      A web comic I frequent summed it up better than I ever could, though. Be sure and read the mouse-over!

      http://xkcd.com/893/

      1. And so you want to trust something this important to government?

        1. Yes. Scientific research and national defense in space are delicate and best handled by the government rather than…Haliburton (maybe we could have our first space rape)?

          Obama is correct to change direction of the space program. The shuttle design is outdated. Mars is the next frontier and colony on the moon requires a different shuttle design. To get to Mars a radical change in equipment is necessary. The technology to do this would be a major concern for national defense. Private sector should not be anywhere near a Mars mission.

          Commercial space flight is possible and will be regulated like a nuclear power plant.

      2. Sorry if this sounds narcissistic, but I don’t give a shit about the “future of our species”.

        I have come to accept the (possible) mortality of species just like I have come to accept my own mortality.

  4. It was all downhill when we stopped sailing to Vinland and Greenland.

  5. The argument for federally funded spaceflight ultimately boils down to “spacecraft as soulcraft,” the quasi-religious notion that, as Post columnist Charles Krauthammer puts it, we go “not for practicality,” but “for the wonder and the glory of it.”

    I’ll throw money into the hat if we are talking about strapping rockets to Krauthammers ass and launching him into space!

    1. Re: Tony,

      I’ll throw money into the hat if we are talking about strapping rockets to Krauthammers ass and launching him into space!

      You’re on! I will bring the hat!

      1. Can we strap Krugman onto that rig, Tony?

        If so, I’m in for twenty bucks.

  6. I’ll be “in favor of nothing” until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn’t make me spray coffee out my nose.

    That is a really inefficient configuration for generating specific impulse, especially as the coffee has cooled considerably by the time it leaves your nostril.

    1. Proper nozzle design is key.

    2. Dv = ve ln (m0/m1)

  7. I’ll throw money into the hat if we are talking about strapping rockets to Krauthammers ass and launching him into space!

    Wow…that’s twice in the same year that I find myself in agreement with you.

    I’m going to buy a lottery ticket.

  8. If only the program had provided poon-tang, instead of merely tang…

    1. Going to spoil this for you: tang was invented before NASA was established. Kraft Foods, 1957.

      1. Keep fighting the good fight. Just remember that historical lies and inaccuracies never die. They just get repeated on blogs. Forever.

        1. can you see the label, just add water and stir.
          don’t forget to try all the flavors, strawberry poon-tang, chocolate, and the new banana poon-tang…

  9. NASA’s Griffin failed that test in 2005, when he gave an interview to The Washington Post insisting it was essential that “Western values” accompany those who eventually “colonize the solar system,” because “we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you’re looking for?”

    Maybe they want to colonize because they don’t want a Guantanamo Bay.

    1. Or…maybe they want to subsidize Venus Motors and fuck the bond holders, or…maybe they want to look the other way whilst Martians slip over the Mercury fence and fuck up their school system, or…maybe they want to flood Pluto with printed and thus inflated paper money, or…maybe they want to strengthen the public unions currently crippling Saturn, or….who knows??

  10. C’mon–pulling some goofy quotes then knocking them down and declaring victory? The writer whiffed on this one. Robert Heinlein, as libertarian as they come, is digging himself out of his grave with a nasty look in his eyes as you read this.

    I agree–the shuttle and ISS are dead ends. But space exploration is huge. There’s lots of stuff the Earth will need in the solar system, including metals, rare gases like Helium 3, and unlimited solar power.

    Sure, put the private sector in charge of the stuff to get us there, but the US can certainly spare some money to support the effort.

    And the more we know about our solar system, the better off we are. There are some nasty rocks and icebergs out there just waiting to wipe us out.

    1. Yep. The thing is, the first wave is really expensive. Getting production outside of the major gravity wells will cost a couple trillion dollars. Many small asteroids have that much iron in them.

      I do strongly suggest that anyone moving asteroids aim for Trojan points. We don’t want to drop a dinosaur killer by accident if a thruster fails.

      1. Hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a good idea. Since the L-points would be good for space colonies, any leftovers could be used for that.

      2. If it’s small enough to push around the Solar System, it’s small enough to deflect away from Earth in case of an accident, no?

        1. I think we’re talking about moving one of them with Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. Read: save the DoE from having to deconstruct those nukes.

          I think I just found a way to cut the Department of Energy budget significantly.

        2. You want to buy the insurance on that?

    2. Well, all those things can be done with unmanned spacecraft. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, Healy seems to be attacking manned missions (like the shuttle, ISS, and proposed moon base) rather than space exploration in general.

      Nothing humans have done in space even compares to the discoveries made possible by the Voyagers, Vikings, and Pioneers.

      1. Nothing humans have done in space even compares to the discoveries made possible by the Voyagers, Vikings, and Pioneers.

        I’d counter that the moon landing trumps that–the Rangers didn’t return any rocks, for one.

        And this is a weak argument because, simply, we haven’t yet sent humans to where robot craft have gone (except the moon). Send a human to Mars and she’ll be able to make all sorts of decisions that an unmanned probe with controllers millions of miles away can’t.

        We need humans out there.

        1. I dunno — AI and machine learning have advanced to the point where we really don’t. You don’t need to be able to analyze the collected works of Shakespeare to find water or avoid bumping into things.

          At the very least we’re much closer to having sufficiently advanced AI to trust a machine to make decisions while fluttering about on Titan, than we are to having the capability of safely sending humans there.

          1. I disagree. People making decision in real time on Mars would be much greater than a small R/C car with a few sensors that is operated by people on earth. Communications lag make the entire operation slow and inefficient.
            As as AIs are concerned, we’re no where near what we need them to do. We can barely get an AI to drive a car through an urban setting, you expect them to explore the cosmos for us?

            1. It’s a lot easier to drive around on Mars since you don’t have to worry about hitting people or damaging property. And there are a lot fewer obstacles.

              The point isn’t that we have the tech to do it with unmanned probes right now — the point is that we’re much closer on that front than we are to being able to provide food, water, heat, atmospheric pressure, and oxygen for humans on a trip to Titan and back.

              1. there are plenty of obstacles that are unpassable for those dinky little toycars on Mars including the largest volcano (inactive) in the solar system.
                You’re right though that Titan is a perfect place for an unmanned mission. Mars though is ripe for human exploration.

              2. And really, what would be the point of sending people to Titan? Instead of that, take the money you were going to spend there, and set up a permanent presence on the Moon, which is the first step towards all of the great commericial things and capabilities albo already mentioned. Take something like the ISS, get rid of our ridiculous prohibition on utilizing nuclear power technology, and start figuring out what it takes to sustainably keep people alive off a planet.

                But just shipping a couple of people to Mars and back, just to say we did: what’s the point of that?

                1. But GG, you can’t put nukes in space, think of all the radiation that would leak out and kill bunnies!

          2. At the very least we’re much closer to having sufficiently advanced AI to trust a machine to make decisions while fluttering about on Titan, than we are to having the capability of safely sending humans there.

            I agree. It appears we’re closer to a breakthrough in AI than a breakthrough in heavy lift, so space-based manufacturing will be the key to getting significant numbers of humans off this planet, and AI is the enabling technology. Unfortunately, it could take a century for an automated space-based mining and manufacturing industry to develop.

            The question then becomes: how do we get the ball rolling? Suppose a private venture sends machines to collect water on the moon, or iron from an asteroid. They must have an initial customer, and in the American experience that initial customer has usually been the government, specifically, the Defense (or War) Department. Think how much American civil aviation was seeded by the government and accelerated by war efforts.

            That’s about as close as I can come to squaring a government space program with my minarchist principles. Otherwise, I must reluctantly agree with the author that we’re just building pyramids.

            Man I like these geeky threads.

            1. The question then becomes: how do we get the ball rolling? Suppose a private venture sends machines to collect water on the moon, or iron from an asteroid. They must have an initial customer, and in the American experience that initial customer has usually been the government, specifically, the Defense (or War) Department. Think how much American civil aviation was seeded by the government and accelerated by war efforts.

              Then look at things like the OTRAG rocket, and consider that not only is Gov’t not helping your private rocketry endeavor; they’re doing everything they can to kill it with red tape. I will believe SpaceX’s claims when I see them repeatedly placing payloads in LEO, and I will be overjoyed when that happens.

              I cynically think this nation won’t get back to space in earnest until we get our asses kicked by another nation or group of them, that does fully exploit and support space development.

              1. I cynically think this nation won’t get back to space in earnest until we get our asses kicked by another nation or group of them, that does fully exploit and support space development.

                That’s not cynical, it’s prophetic.

                Right now, given the choice between a manned orbital or lunar presence and another squadron of F-22’s, the Air Force would quite rightly choose the latter. Maybe we just have to wait for the priorities to change.

        2. It wouldn’t be hard to have an unmanned lunar probe return rocks — an accomplishment of questionable scientific value. It would be far more cost effective to have the probe itself run tests on the rocks on the moon and transmit the results back to earth (similar to what Viking did with Martian soil), and you’d be able to get a lot more samples.

          1. I think one of the Soviet Luna probes actually was a sample return.

        3. The Russians landed moon probes that returned samples to earth. 40 years ago. No need at all to send humans.

    3. Agreed. To ignore space exploration would be foolishly short-sighted. However, there has to be a more efficient way than what we’ve been doing. I’m thinking contracting with the likes of Richard Branson is the best way.

      1. Contracting? As in the gov replaces NASA w/ him? And that would reduce spending how? How about we just let him take money from rich idiots, plow that ground and then follow after he’s worked out the bugs.

        1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_Heavy

          Carries more than a Delta IV at a lower cost.

          1. I love me some SpaceX, but right now this is no more real than the NASA Orion rocket. Although if I were investing, I’d invest in the Falcon X and not the Orion.

            1. It’s more real than Orion, because there’s at least Falcon 9.

              1. Oh, yeah. Okay. I was thinking this was the Falcon X Heavy we were discussing.

    4. “albo can certainly spare some money to support the effort.”

      FIFY

      1. Sure. I’ll put up a hundie out of my beer and tail fund. You?

    5. This sums up my view very well. We cannot abandon US manned spaceflight. There are other, less productive government agencies that could be completely eliminated.

      NASA’s 2011 budget is just under $19B. The Dept. of Education is a much worse ROI and had a 2010 budget of $59B.
      Kill of the DOE, give half to NASA, and snort cocaine with the other half.

    6. Sure, put the private sector in charge of the stuff to get us there, but the US can certainly spare some money to support the effort.

      Okay Albo….I’ll bite….how much money do they need to do muslim outreach?

    7. the US can certainly spare some money to support the effort
      In case you haven’t noticed the US is broke.

  11. Conservatives in my family are moaning this cancellation cost jobs. WTF? Why the reverse? B/c O did it? It hurts the “national greatness”?

    1. Maybe they’ve been taking Michael Savage too seriously. He’s been pissing blood that OUR astronauts are going to be riding on RUSSKY rockets.

      1. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good idea for us to be totally dependent on a foreign country for access to orbit. Particularly one as intermittently hostile as Russia is.

        Hopefully the private rocketry sector will fluourish in the US.

        1. The Russians need the money. They’re not going to flake on us anytime soon. And they are experts at putting people in low earth orbit. So they’ll serve for now.

          1. You know who else was put in a position of power because they didn’t think he would flake out?

            1. Greg Stillson!

              Plus, never give Binzer the keys to the T-Bird.

          2. They only need the money when oil and arms prices sink.

          3. …and I’m sure they’ll charge us a fair price to do so. Monopolies are funny that way.

            1. There’s always China!

        2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CCDev

          With a bit of luck, we won’t be dependent on Russia for too long. This gets us US orbital capability, and helps private sector companies.

          1. Oh yeah, it’s much better to be at the mercy of the corporations instead of the Russians.

            I won’t settle for anything but the American people having a voice in the rocket industry. No substitutes.

            1. Oh yeah, I had a voice. NASA used to call me all the time.

              Here’s a clue: buy enough of the stock when they go public and get the voice you pay for.

            2. Interesting, I don’t recall ever seeing a NASA budget on my ballot in any national election. How do I, as an American citizen get a voice in the rocket industry?

              1. Vote for politicians who share your view on NASA. Are you entirely unfamiliar with representative democracy?

  12. scrooge

  13. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

  14. Also, I found myself trying to apply the rocket equation to those star destroyers. Those things must be 99.9% super high impulse fuel and just that tiny little bridge on top manned.

    Damn. I’m going to smell like geek for weeks after this.

    1. Star Destroyer subsidies are at the heart of the Empire’s economic plan.

    2. They don’t use rocket propulsion, the things in the back are just floodlights to blind anyone who comes up behind them.

      Though it probably does take a lot of energy to fill space with enough gas so you can hear the engines.

      1. Don’t even get me started on why they only armed one quadrant and flew in formations. The Empire deserved to lose if they can’t even build capital ships based Ender’s First Rule of Space Combat.

    3. Since Star Wars is just a thinly veiled re-write of Lord of the Rings, my guess is that each engine has a Wizard or a Balrog in it. No need for fuel when there’s magic handy.

      1. What? Krieg der Sterne is all sorts of derivative, but I don’t see it being a Lord of the Rings knock-off. To begin with, where’s the Ring analogue?

        It’s got lots of Hidden Fortress, chunks of Dune, plenty of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and characters based on archetypes straight out of Joseph Campbell. And it ripped off plenty of other things.

        1. Read the Gray Lensman series if you can find them. Highly derivative. Triplanetary (the first book) includes inertialess thrust, energy shields, a tractor beam, and an evil gray man who has his own planetoid.

          1. And was written by Doc EE Smith just after WWII.

            1. I’ve heard that Star Trek has been acknowledged to have roots in that and in Horatio Hornblower.

              1. The Lensmen were drafted from many races to resist the forces of evil using what was essentially magic and mind tricks. The Green Lantern universe also owes much to Doc Smith.

        2. What? Krieg der Sterne is all sorts of derivative, but I don’t see it being a Lord of the Rings knock-off. To begin with, where’s the Ring analogue?

          The “dark side of the force” is abstracted away from a ring of power, but Luke carries the burden in a blending of Aragorn’s and Frodo’s relationship with the one ring.

          1. Um, no, I don’t see it. What the stories do have in common, I think, is that Lucas looked to Campbell’s mythological archetypes, and Tolkien brought his own mythological expertise to the table. Obviously, there are some similarities.

            LOTR, of course, is a far richer and more complex story than Star Wars was ever even intended to be.

            1. Lucas is too much of a hack for it to work at much depth…but the burden of evil theme that is pervasive in Star Wars comes from Tolkien. You know Lucas read him.

              Heck Endor is Tolkien’s name for Middle Earth. And Ewoks are just lame hairy hobbits. (~_^)

              1. I don’t doubt there are elements from the books, but I don’t think the story was lifted. Like it was, say, in The Sword of Shannara.

                The Ewoks aren’t based on anything other than the idea of selling cute furry toys to kids.

                1. Ragtag coalition fighting the magical dark lord against overwhelming odds, main character carrying burden of evil, struggle between easy power through evil and the harder path through good, sage very old teacher who appears feeble but is actually incredibly powerful,…lots of plot elements…but I agree it is mostly plot themes that are lifted, rather than storyline.

        3. but it aint got tits…

      2. I thought Lucas just stole the plot from a Kurosawa flick.

      3. Take a look at Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’. It’s not far off Star Wars.

  15. No, we shut down Apollo and replaced it with nothing. Now we’re shutting down the expensive nothing that spent three decades, fourteen lives, and billions of dollars going not even a whole four hundred miles from Earth’s surface.

    Seriously, if we were buying any glory and wonder, there might actually be some damn point to NASA’s manned spaceflight program. But there is no glory or wonder in repeating a fifty-year-old accomplishment (low Earth orbit human spaceflight) over and over at a massive cost.

    And why doesn’t NASA have a replacement for the Shuttle? Because it drove every single Shuttle replacement program into the ground, from the bureaucratic sabotage of the DC-X program to the engineering cock-up that was Orion.

    1. The only currently useful part of space is low orbit. The Shuttle wasn’t supposed to be a mission of discovery itself, it was intended to support other missions (such as the Hubble telescope) that did discover new things.

      Plus, it did break new ground as the first reusable spacecraft. (Yes, I know someone’s going to cite the ridiculously long turnaround between flights and need for extensive heat tile replacement, but the frame and most of the internal equipment was reusable)

      1. So what if it’s reusable. The point wasn’t re-usability per se, it was always cost: by being reusable launch costs were lower and turnaround times were shorter. Over the 30 year life-time of the project it has cost close to $1 billion per launch and there have been 135 launches. It was sold on the basis of $20 million per launch and one launch per month per vehicle. Reuse all you want but it’s still too expensive by a factor of 50 and short on launches by a factor of 10. If NASA was a day late and a dollar short we’d be on our way to Mars but they can’t even meet that standard.

      2. While the Shuttle was indeed supposed to be the things you say, in practice it wasn’t, and it was already clear it wasn’t back 25 years ago. Adjusted for constant dollars, we could have built a new Hubble and launched it on a Titan IV every year for the annul cost of operating the Shuttle program.

        As far a breaking new ground, that ground was thoroughly broken as of 25 years ago. That’s why the only argument left for continuing it was the “glory and wonder” stuff. Which is why I was busy knocking that over. None was left in NASA’s manned flight program.

  16. We built all that shit for Apollo and then just scrapped it overnight. Except for skylab which got a slow lingering death as she fell from orbit.

    1. The Hubble is going to have a similar fate, which is unconscionable. It should have been brought back to the surface after its last gyroscope failed (probably quite soon) and put in the Air & Space Museum but the pantspissers at NASA couldn’t justify “risking lives” to fetch it from orbit.

      1. Huh? It just got 3 new gyroscopes a couple of years ago and is still going strong.

  17. Leaving aside the merits or shortcomings of government sponsored space-exploration for the moment, what interests me are the conflicts between massive, multi-decade programs and administrations that change every 4 (sometimes more often!) years.

    It’s not clear to me that NASA can ever get to pervasive multi-planetary manned missions without a consistent 20+ year effort and that just ain’t gonna happen kiddos.

    (Ob-The Truth: But I bet the Chinese with their disciplined blah blah blah…. ok I choked while typing that)

  18. As confirmed space cadet with a patent on specific turbomachinery implement for staged combustion motors (still waiting for the huge checks…cue violins) I cannot bring myself to cry about the shuttle’s demise (though the little kid in me does cry; I love hearing SSME’s spool up on their start sequence and then the pre-burners light…its better than music).

    But even as a libertarian I have to say there is a ‘public’ mission for this stuff. Just like a census or a geo-survey or Lewis & Clark, there is a rational argument for the sovereign to understand the environment it finds itself in and will have to make decisions regarding. This includes space these days.

    Second argument is the intrinsic capacity to have a say in what happens in space regarding humans. Europeans had ships, nobody else did. Look who came out on top. Human history is a long lesson of discoverers being long-term winners and the discovered – even now – being perennial losers. We need a physical say in the navigation of the new sea or we’ll over time find out we have no say at all.

    No say in what happens over our heads and who looks down on us from the sky like the feared gods of old. Fuck that.

    1. The “discoverers” in the sea race were Spain and Portugal. Didn’t work out too well for them in the long run.

      Guns and smallpox immunity were far more crucial in the Americas to European dominance, and of course guns and the industry to produce them were the deciding factor in Asia and Africa (though it’s unclear how dominant the Europeans ever were there away from the coasts).

      And we’re not going to be discovered by anyone except aliens, who we’re not really in a race with anyway since they’re almost certainly far older than we are or far younger.

      1. The “discoverers” in the sea race were Spain and Portugal. Didn’t work out too well for them in the long run.

        Tell that to the Incas.

        Guns and smallpox immunity were far more crucial in the Americas to European dominance, and of course guns and the industry to produce them were the deciding factor in Asia and Africa.

        Guns and smallpox are so overblown in that aspect (smallpox, Africa, what?) to begin with. Chinese invented gunpowder, compasses, these were not exotic technologies to them. But of course they consciously turned inward mid 15th century and that turned out swell for them.

        And we’re not going to be discovered by anyone except aliens, who we’re not really in a race with anyway since they’re almost certainly far older than we are or far younger.

        You take rhetorical devices far too literally. What a waste of a metaphor but it is what it is.

        1. Sorry but smallpox was not “overblown.” It probably wiped out a good 3/4 of the Native American population. Early explorers who came in after the initial wave of Europeans often reported finding whole settlements vacant as they moved deeper inland. Everyone having been killed by disease.

          Africans and Asias all had developed limited immunities to smallpox like the Europeans because they had contact with them as well as those animals where it originated. Native Americans had no such immunities.

          1. Oh boy, where to start here…

            In the case of the Aztecs, the initial Spanish expedition had no smallpox carriers. It was 500 Spanish vs. an empire whose capital city was one of the world’s largest metros of the time. The Aztecs were flummoxed by two things in that first half-year:

            1. Religion was so dominant in their culture and worldview it completely distorted – fatally distorted – their assessment and reaction to the European newcomers.

            2. The Aztecs were fatally undermined by the Tlaxcalans, their classic enemy and immediate natural allies of the Spanish. Without the Tlaxcalans, the Spanish were nothing and would have been completely obliterated when they finally were forced to flee Tenochtitlan.

            The Spanish hooked up with another bunch of Spanish afterwards (who initially were sent to arrest Cortez ironically), and among that second group was a SM carrier.

            But even in context of that devastating disease and its effects, there were still millions of people in the Valley of Mexico, against ~1000 Spanish? Nah, that’s like saying the Aztecs could have conquered Europe at the height of the Black Death. Which is completely foolish notion. But the primary manpower that defeated the Aztecs were other Native Americans. So smallpox obviously didn’t kill them all now, did it?

            And finally, the way the Spanish (with their multitudes of Tlaxcalan buddies) took the water-city of Tenochtitlan was with….ships built on the shores of Lake Texcoco for that task.

            Smallpox had huge input on fall of Incas as well, but in so much as strategically undermining the political system (the most detailed totalitarian system of its day) by killing the Inca, inciting a civil war between his brothers or sons (I don’t remember which) for the throne. Pizarro showed up (smallpox preceded him by years, probably brought initially by Balboa’s expedition in Panama) and took advantage of that to make long story short there.

            In both cases what got the Spanish on top was their savvy in exploiting political cracks and breaches in the civilizations they encountered. The guns and smallpox are significant in the narrative of those events, but not the ultimate reasons for their outcomes.

            In general, people have a poor grasp – misinformed all the more by political correctness – of both civilized Precolombian America (a subject endlessly fascinating to me) and the reasons for its downfall. ‘Smallpox did it’ or ‘guns did it’ is just completely simplistic view there.

            And of course, the Spanish had the ships to take them (and their smallpox and guns) to America’s shores, giving them the ultimate initiative no matter their intentions, and that’s the relative metaphor I’m alluding to when I make the connection between that history and current sovereign efforts in space.

            END TRANSMISSION

  19. Imagine if the budget Libertarians in the Spanish court had said. “Very nice Columbus, but now that you have been there we don’t need to spend more government money to go back.”

    Per ardua, ad astra

    1. It only took Colombus 3 months to sail acorss the Atlantic, and he came back with gold and stuff like that, so the New World represented an actual immediate payoff. The way NASA spends money is entirely different.

      1. It needn’t be. But no one is willing to put together a commercially viable mission at NASA, so it seems.

    2. TBH Spain probably would have been better off in the long run had they done that. The New World was never really profitable for them (of course dumping most of the New World gold into holy wars probably didn’t help).

      1. I remember reading somewhere about the stupid inflation Spain went through because of the influx of gold and silver with no increase in other productive assets.

  20. I don’t know. I’m fine with ending manned space flights for now, but what about the new James Webb Telescope? The Hubble has done more to bolster space exploration and our understanding of the universe than all of NASA’s previous endeavors combined.

    I get that JWST is a budget sink-hole right now, but isn’t this one concrete example of the benefits eventually outweighing the costs?

  21. If we were actually going to reduce the amount the government spends by the cost of the space program, I might see some point in not doing it. Since any money “saved” will be pounded down assorted other rat-holes, most of which will do far more damage to our society and economy than the space program ever did, I propose than instead we double the space program’s funding. We could eliminate the National Endowment for the (annoying) Arts, the idiots that mandated that I must endanger my short and heavy wife by having an Air Bag (AKA explosive neck-breaking device) in my car, and anything we are supposed to give to the United Nations.

    1. [ Since any money “saved” will be pounded down assorted other rat-holes, most of which will do far more damage to our society and economy than the space program ever did, I propose than instead we double the space program’s funding.]

      So, what do you have against the poooooor??

  22. The benefits of the space program have translated into vast advances in aerospace technology, both military and commercial. There are too many unseen benefits to count, and while orbital experiments may be largely fluff, it’s the development into the travel itself that most directly benefits Americans, and which is directly responsible for private enterprise even being able to enter the space industry. While inter-planetary travel may not be important given our budget, orbital flight most certainly is. Adopting a Russian model given the invariably over-budget nature of reusable platforms would be the most pragmatic way forward. Also, I’m laughing pretty hard at the idea of Krauthammer as a neocon. He may be verbose at times, and his quotes are on the corny side of poetry, but 99% of the time his religion is pragmatism.

    1. Re: Rob,

      The benefits of the space program have translated into vast advances in aerospace technology, both military and commercial.

      I hate to point out the obvious to you, Rob, that most of the technology that was sent to space was either already made obsolete by advancements in the commercial scene (think Apolo 11 and its “dumb” computer) or it was already available commercially (the motors used in the Sojourner robot were made by Maxon from already-existing products.) The space shuttle used computers that were obsolete by the time they started to fly. There’s a certain level of “clunkyness” in most of the technology utilized by NASA – there may be reason of reliability (some of the older tech is more robust,) but to say that commercial development lags behind space technology is a bit of a stretch.

    2. What were the opportunity costs of NASA spending?

      What advancements did we lose out on by taking that money out of the private sector and spending it in space?

    3. 99% of the time his religion is pragmatism

      How does that not fit with being a neocon?

      1. or being a giant douchebag?

  23. spaceships:libertarians::trains:progressives

  24. Wow, it’s shocking to see how many libertarians chuck their principles out the window when someone mentions “space”.

    What does funding space exploration with tax dollars have to do with preserving, protecting and defending the rights an liberties of the governed? Nothing. It shouldn’t be funded by force. It’s the only principled and consistent conclusion.

    1. It’s more along the lines of: this is way *less* screwed up than plenty of other stuff the government is doing. At least there is some actual payoff, while many government projects are sinkholes that show no potential economic or scientific gain.

      1. Principle doesn’t allow me to make those kinds of arguments. It’s not a legitimate function of government and any benefit argued is simply the same flawed logic that plauges progressives and conservatives: “Our goal is good for you and has unquantifable possible benefit, so fork over your money and rights, so I can do whats good for you.”

        If we are truely being pragmatic, we should realize the budget will never be as small as we’d like and as such cuts should come from anywhere without preference to the project.

        Fuck it. Lets fund a colony on the moon and in 100 years I’ll start dropping rocks on Earth.

        1. 100 years? Are you crazy. I could probably establish a full-fledged city on Luna in 30 years given $50 billion, with numerous commercial opportunities.

        2. And another idea: voluntary Space Tax. Those who want the space program, can pay a tax to support it, those who don’t, can refuse. Those who paid get first dibs on anything useful that comes of it.

          TANSTAAFL

          1. We call this idea ‘capitalism’. Fund the start-ups out of your voluntary ‘tax’.

    2. I don’t chuck my principles. I’d much rather see taxes drop to zero and all government activities turned over to private competition. But if we still have a government spending 3.8 trillion bucks a year, and I can help persuade people to cut that to 2.1 trillion (where it was 8 years ago), I think that leaves room for a space program, with a manned mission to Mars.

  25. Also, the ENORMOUS gains made in the world of physics would have taken eons without the space program. It may seem like an intangible to most, but it serves to advance all of mankind and our capabilities on the ground. Physics is the backbone of almost all science. And just to reiterate, as a former Patriot Missile operator and current Signal Corps officer, we would enjoy nowhere near the military supremacy that we do today without the manned space program.

    1. “we would enjoy nowhere near the military supremacy that we do today without the manned space program.”

      Are you lost? Do you know where you are?

      1. What enormous gains made in the world of physics? General relativity – established long before Hubble. Offsprings thereof (black holes, etc) predicted long before Hubble was established. Inflationary theory – long before Hubble. The important results in basic astrophysical theory were done long before Hubble. You could say that Hubble did things like note the acceleration of the universe’s expansion. But ground-based telescopes did the same things shortly later.

        And Hubble only has impact if you take a very narrow view of physics. It had no bearing whatsoever on quantum field theories (which form the foundation of modern physics), the Standard Model, post-Standard Model physics, etc. In that regard, the accelerator programs have been far more valuable.

        I’m not defending any government-funded physics program here. Just saying that, even amongst these, Hubble falls far short of having had an ENORMOUS impact.

      2. You could also say the opposite, that the space program was an offshoot of military technology.

        A lot of the ENORMOUS gains were militarily developed before the space program took effect.

    2. What were the opportunity costs of NASA spending?

    3. Thermonuclear weapons are, haha, ‘the Bomb’ for getting better at physics. Space and rockets is tiddleywinks next to that shit. Why go to the stars when you can make one right in your own bedroom!? Huzzah!

  26. To the comments here that want to argue that without NASA, there will be no future space Columbus. First of all, private space companies are the future, they will make the expensive and bloated government space agencies of the world obselete.
    Secondly, the idea that without these government organisations, then no innovation is not valid. It is like saying that if there were no NAZIS there would have been no rockets, and without the Soviets there would be no satellites. All these inventions would have come about one way or the other, the time was right for them to come about, not because of the governments.

    1. Note that the real winners in the Age of Exploration were the British and Dutch, who operated on a charter corporation model rather than Spanish and Portuguese model of direct state control.

    2. I think the right time was the 1800s, but everyone sat on their hands or was too busy enslaving Africans.

  27. I want a fucking Millenium Falcon — why can’t I have a subsidized MILLENIUM FALCON?????

    1. I’d like a tax credit available for those who suffered through episodes 1-3.

      1. “What the hell is an ‘Aluminum Falcon’?”

  28. I’m normally in agreement, but with this one, I take issue.

    Where would this world be without satellites? We would not have them without the space program, yet they are invaluable in today’s world. No single company would have spent the money and risked the lives to develope this technology, but once NASA paved the way, millions have benefitted in their wake.

    You also completely glossed over the fact that NASA freely shares all it has learned with private enterprise so that those businesses benefit from already completed R&D that they themselves won’t have to invest in as a result. The positive effects on the American economy from NASA space exploration are virtually immeasurable. This was one of the major selling points at NASA’s inception, and cannot be left out of this discussion.

    Going forward, I do believe private enterprise should certainly start taking over in the areas of satellite maintenance, and lower Earth orbit endeavors. NASA should continue to do things that the private industry won’t do because it is unaware of any immediate benefits to justify private industry’s cost to do it. Such as going to Mars and building a space station on the moon. There’s an argument for NASA and private industry to work together. NASA should always be pushing the envolpe and exploring new horizons. Once they’ve sussed out the details, they should pass them to the private industry to carry on behind them and take advantage of what NASA has learned.

    1. “You also completely glossed over the fact that NASA freely shares all it has learned with private enterprise so that those businesses benefit from already completed R&D that they themselves won’t have to invest in as a result.”

      Unless those businesses are in China or Iraq or certain Central American countries. Exporting certain rocket and satellite tech is life in federal prison.

    2. What were the opportunity costs of NASA spending?

      Im being fucking repetivite here, but its the question to ask when someone makes bullshit claims about all the great stuff we got from the space program (or any other program, for that matter).

      It is true that we got gains we probably wouldnt have received otherwise, but considering the efficiency of government spending, what 2 gains in other fields did we lose out on?

      1. Both repetitive and pointless, actually.

        It is true that we got gains we probably wouldnt have received otherwise,

        Perhaps, hard to tell, but I think we agree here. (I think the satellite example already mentioned is the strongest example, but there are others)

        but considering the efficiency of government spending, what 2 gains in other fields did we lose out on?

        While it is impossible to say how the alternate universe would have progressed, the distributed nature of the cost for NASA makes it unlikely that we lost any similarly significant gains somewhere else. This is only slightly more certain than your “probably” above, but it is more likely. The idea that opportunity costs lost are an argument against something that most agree had positive consequences is pretty weak tea in this discussion. .

        1. Actually, its not even remotely “weak tea”.

          Nor is this true:

          the distributed nature of the cost for NASA makes it unlikely that we lost any similarly significant gains somewhere else

          The distributed nature proves the point, in fact. Most of us had a better use for the money. The opportunity cost might not be 1 or 2 specific things you can point to, its little margins here and there. But those little margins, by definition, are more valuable in total than the big gain from NASA.

          If we had preferred the NASA gain, we would have spent the money with NASA voluntarily.

  29. But Transformers taught us that the Moon is dangerous — you libert-aryans just want to plague the world with alien robots for your own nihilistic gains1

  30. NASA showed that certain things could be done, if inefficiently and without useful sustainability. While it’s tainted by politics and other things we all dislike about government, as a human endeavor, there is much to be proud of, especially in manned spaceflight before the shuttle and in most of the unmanned initiatives.

    A much more commercial and less government-influenced space industry can take over in the near future. Once the low-cost access to space nut is cracked, the whole solar system will be our oyster.

    Thanks, NASA, but it’s time to get serious about manned space travel and to stop piddling about in LEO. I blame Congress more than I blame the NASA leadership, but there’s no escape from this mess without getting government out of the way.

  31. How the hell am I going to get with all the green ladies if you don’t send me out there?

    1. Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a politician.

      1. In space, no one can hear me ask for a cup of Earl Grey.

        1. Hey, MY starship was damn near steam-powered!

          1. You never existed, Archer. It was all just a bad dream.

            1. Fuck all of you. I’m stuck in a goddamn wormhole with time-travelling aliens.

              1. I saved Voyager and Captain Janeway every other week, and all I got was a crummy burrito chain named after me.

                1. My spaceship’s a bone.

  32. Space program is vital to our survival. We will run not only out of physical space here on Earth but also resources – resources necessary to sustain a growing and aging technologically dependent population such as ours.

    Also the ability for websites like this to function are 100% due to the space program – it is not a bridge to nowhere and that comparison is illogical. If not for space exploration satellites wouldn’t carry the internet around the globe let alone allow us to find Bin Laden.

    Oh and duct tape and microwaves are both spin-offs of the space program.

    1. Oh and duct tape and microwaves are both spin-offs of the space program.

      Not a strong argument. I actually favor the space program, but the side benefits of throwing billions of dollars and thousands of geniuses at a big technical problem are going to be impressive. We just don’t know what possibly more impressive things they might have done if freed from working on rockets in a government job.

  33. Yes I’d take a gun to my head for space exploration funding, or happily try and put one to yours. Maybe even before Defense as important as that is.

    Not for glory. For survival, for progress, and for diversity.

    You’d defund Columbus and Lewis & Clark. I’d say that the Americas surely must be worth far more than the jewels the Queen pawned to finance Columbus.

    That’s it in a nutshell. Other places to be, ultimately for more people than Earth could possibly support. Resources, endless. An expanding sphere can not be controled centrally: the last refuge of freedom and diverse approaches is the frontier.

    And yes as space is not our home we must meet many technological challenges. Doing so will also benefit us greatly in our current pursuits on Earth.

    1. What you wrote there sounds like an investment prospectus. Which is what it is, and by default a rhetorical proof of sorts the government shouldn’t be in the ‘space business.’

      If the government isn’t in the space business (and the military space budget is bigger than NASA’s whole budget at this point…so Uncle Sam is still in it) that doesn’t mean the money isn’t there. You just need different investors. And they’re out there, there’s lots of space cadets.

      Besides, the government has never been good at making money. They are good at taking money. Before the gov can plunder, someone else will have to figure out how to make money with it at all.

      THink about it…the government had the disparate bits of the internet laying about its bureaucratic environs – and more than enough evangelists of such in its employ – for decades and never made a dime. Even though everyone’s known for years and years that computers were the ‘future.’ Now the gov makes billions on telco surcharges alone every year and uses internet to spy on us in ways police-staters could only dream of not long ago. All with shit invented in the private sector once they got the internet going.

      It will be the same with space.

  34. Re: “I’ll be “in favor of nothing” until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn’t make me spray coffee out my nose.”

    Well, sir, when I want to know what’s what with hard core science – I go to iowahawk: http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/scifi/

  35. “We are retiring the shuttle [and the manned mission to Mars] in favor of nothing”an illegal war on Libya.

    Fixed.

    1. Eighteen billion could buy a pretty awesome one-year war in Libya. Even at average cost of $3000 per kill, you’d off the whole country with that budget in just a little over a year.

      YES WE CAN!

  36. Funny, I always thought of it as a bridge to everywhere else.

    1. Imagine a bridge – a huge impressive one on the scale of the Pyramids – that just was a big circle. You had to go through fire to get off of it, and needed a puff of fire to get on it. To go in circles. Lap after lap. But oh the view!

      That’s NASA’s manned space program since Saturn V’s went quiet. Its not a bridge to nowhere, its a bridge that takes you back to where you started…again and again.

  37. Sure, every dime counts, but funding of NASA is about equal to combined military aid for various Middle Eastern countries (with which result?), and pales in comparison to total military spending of USA (like next dozen countries combined, and most of those are allies).

    NASA is about hard science and high-end engineering. Each country decides on that strategy, but technological advantage US had over Europe since 1950s is stemming from large investment in science, where results were used freely within industry. First action of any corporate entity making research is to protect invention from competition, so overall progress is slower. China is making relatively large investments in science. Let USA give it all to private sector and compare what happens in next 20 years, should we?

    As for NASA, if you have lunar base, you could try to raise sheep and grow crops inside. In few years you would know would human colonists on Mars stay human in couple of generations. Not to mention, you would know about viability of asteroid mining lot more.

  38. -Taxpayers get nothing out of the space program? Give me a break.

    http://science.howstuffworks.c…..ons?page=1

  39. I’ve worked for NASA for a few years. This article sucks. NASA’s administrator is an astronaut, so he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

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  45. If you suggested to a US politician that Antarctica should be colonized then he would dismiss the idea as harebrained. And he would be right. There is a good reason no human being has ever permanently settled in Antarctica, despite it being easily accessible to humans for a century.

    Compared to Mars, Antarctica is a truly benign environment for human settlement!

    So how come the same politicians can propose the colonization of Mars with a straight face, and not even face widespread ridicule for it?

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