Thoughts on Space Exploration (Long)

It has been a long time since I posted anything here, so why not jump back in with something so long that nobody will bother to read it?


I got into a bit of a kerfuffle last night and today when I posted a little thing on Facebook about the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Basically, I said that the landing was an amazing achievement, but I am not currently a big proponent of manned space exploration. A friend objected, and in the exchange, my views on the subject have crystallized a bit.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, America was experiencing a transition composed of postwar economic prosperity, anti-Soviet paranoia, and nascent social transformation. (I am no historian, so I’m sure I have grossly oversimplified and mixed things up. But this is how I view it from here.) When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, people were both terrified and disappointed. Terrified because of the threat that the Commies were going to drop atomic weapons on us from space; and disappointed because we were supposed to be the big winners from World War II – the saviors of the free world, the stalwart champions of industry and technological achievement. For the Soviets to accomplish a feat like getting a satellite into orbit before we did – why, that was inconceivable!

So when President John F. Kennedy promised us in 1961 that the United States of America would send a man to the moon by 1970, the nation was stirred. For the anti-Communists, here was a chance to put the Soviet Union back in its place. The U.S. was the dominant industrial and economic force in the world, and we could Do This Thing. Others, particularly in the younger generations, were engaged in the civil rights and other social change movements, and for a lot of them, the gee-whiz optimism of the promise – especially coming as it did from JFK – matched up with their hope for a transformed society. Kennedy’s vision was inspirational, and as tragic as his assassination was, I think the mythic status conferred on him as a result helped keep people behind that vision.

And of course, in the end, Kennedy’s vision was realized and NASA put the first human beings onto another world on July 20, 1969.

There is no question that the moon landing was an awesome accomplishment, and not just because we beat the Soviets and got a big boost to our sense of American exceptionalism. (In fact, I would say it was awesome despite that; I’m not a big fan of exceptionalism as a policy driver today.) The moon landing inspired a lot of technological develoment and the feat itself drove many young people into scientific and engineering fields, as had the effort to get there in the first place. It allowed NASA to develop the space shuttle program. All in all, the net benefits, in my opinion, more than justified the costs – which included, tragically, the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launchpad fire.

Unfortunately, I do not think the same factors are in play today in considering manned space exploration. As a society and a nation, we are in a very different place. We don’t have a Soviet Union to race against – our biggest enemy is a stateless radical religious ideology that has no interest in development of new technology, and no interest in exploration and expansion into space. The the extent it has any interest in space-related technology, it is focused only on obtaining and using such technology as a means to inflict damage and death on its ideological opponents.

We are no longer experiencing the kind of economic advantage that we had 50 years ago. The U.S. is not the sole dominating force in industry and commerce. For reasons that can be, and are, endlessly debated (especially in an election year), we are suffering from an anti-prosperity that makes it very difficult to justify pie-in-the-sky idealistic projects. Our economy is fragile and our priorities are different from those half a century past. Recession, a decade of very expensive war, and spiraling debt have put our national focus much more on the question of what tangible benefits are obtainable from each and every expenditure.

Another factor, which seems counterintuitive but which I think is important, is that technological advancement has been so rapid and so incredible that we no longer have “holy shit!” reactions to innovation. A lot of people carry around in their pockets and purses a tiny plastic box that contains thousands of times more computing power than the machines that controlled the Apollo spacecraft, through which we have access to a global network that contains nearly all human knowledge to date and vast stores of entertainment, all available nearly instantaneously. I won’t go into a litany of all the amazing technology that we take for granted, but I think it’s clear that our expectations have been skewed. The Space Shuttle was launched 135 times. At first it was pretty breathtaking, but in time, it became almost as commonplace as a truck leaving a shipping dock. The public generally took real notice of the shuttles only in the case of the two fatal disasters – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t think the public spirit in America today is as likely to be inspired by the vision of humans stepping on Mars as it was decades ago about the moon. Not right now, anyway. (One has only to look at the public reaction to Newt Gingrich’s “moon colony” speech to get an idea of how different attitudes are, though it’s also fair to attribute some of that reaction to the public perception of Gingrich himself.)

On top of that, it seems to me that a great deal of the exploration and discovery we are most interested in at the moment can be accomplished by the sophisticated unmanned equipment NASA and others have been developing over the past several years. My friend argues that there are things a human can do that robot probes can’t do, and that is undoubtedly true. The question is whether those specific things are sufficiently important that they justify the expense required to get humans to Mars (or wherever). Not only do astronauts require extensive life support to get there, they require continued life support once on the surface, and they have to be able to come home. All of those things add a very large number to the bottom line costs, and at the moment, I don’t see that any added benefit the human presence might provide justifies that very large increment.

Make no mistake. I want to be able to send people to Mars and elsewhere. I personally would love to see it happen. But I don’t think it ought to – or can –  be a first priority right now, even in the narrow area of space exploration priorities.

NASA is starting to do a better job of promoting its mission, as evidenced by the very slick “Seven Minutes of Terror” video it released to describe the Curiosity landing scheduled for August 5-6. Geek culture is on the rise in many ways; the Kepler exoplanet survey has a lot of potential to inspire young people about space exploration; and there are fascinating stories almost every day about new technologies in a multitude of fields, many of which will undoubtedly contribute to future human exploration of other worlds. Contra that, we have a weak economy, a couple of wars still costing vast sums of money, a public zeitgeist that is complacent half the time and terrified half the time, and a cynical political class that is more interested in gaining and maintaining power than in developing and promoting a unifying national vision. We may reach a tipping point sometime in the next couple of decades, if everything doesn’t go completely to shit before then, and I sincerely hope we do. But without the kind of incentives that we had in 1961, we aren’t there now and we may not get there for a while.