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I'd like to start a discussion about the space program in the United States.
I'm a big fan of all intellectual and scientific pursuits, and space exploration is no exception. However, I think that NASA receives funding that is out of proportion to its contributions.
Proponents of NASA often invoke the mythology of "spinoff" in defense of the space program. According to this mythology, innovations such as Teflon and the personal computer would not have occurred without the research done in support of the space program. Let's examine these two common citations first.
Teflon: Teflon was invented by DuPont in 1938, well before the space program existed.
Personal Computers: Missile guidance systems were pushing for smaller and smaller digital systems, and would have lead to advanced circuitry without the Apollo missions.
The transistor itself had been invented at Bell Labs, independent of a space program, in 1947.
The actual personal computer was invented, not just in the private sector, but by a ragtag outfit of hippies in Northern California (which later became Apple Computer). Many of the participants in this computer club were Berkeley and Stanford students, which I mention to emphasize the importance of secondary education in scientific research and technological advancement. I could also mention Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, and other such private (or in the case of Bell Labs, semiprivate), research enclaves as being centers of innovation. Sure, they receive government grants and contracts, but they are not government owned or operated.
Tang and velcro weren't developed by NASA either, just popularized by it. Even a technology like solar cells, used to power satellites, originated outside of NASA.
I'd like to acknowledge that the space program has contributed technology to the world: any technological endeavor would. But we have seen technology emerge from the private sector time and again, without public funding (or perhaps with partial funding) or an overarching government program. So let's not get carried away here. Let's accept this argument for what it is: NASA's bid for self-justification.
Just like a lot of the bullshit biological experiments that they came up with to justify is International Space Station, all of which would be conducted more effectively in gravity.
The other frequent argument in favor of a space program, and one that I think is closer to valid, is that space exploration will prepare us for a day in which we could be forced to look to another celestial body for resources or even habitation.
Some people think that we will eventually master interstellar travel, but that the only way we will be able to will be to pursue the space program. I'm extremely skeptical that we will ever figure out how to travel to another solar system. If you look at the physics of the whole thing, assuming our knowledge of physics is even partially correct, it looks like an impossible task no matter how much money we throw at it. I welcome arguments counter to this, though I won't listen to such insipid logic as "well, who could have predicted in the 1800s that we would land on the moon?" I'm not talking about the advance of technology, I'm talking about the laws of physics, time, and space.
So, we are down to the last commonly invoked defenses for NASA's buget: the gathering of information about the rest of the universe--a scientific exercise with little immediate practical value--and exploration of our solar system. As aforementioned, I think that there will come a time when we will be forced to explore, mine, and/or colonize our solar system. I don't think that we will be unprepared for this time if we invest research dollars into addressing pressing scientific challenges here on earth. In fact, if we have to terraform Mars some day, what better preparation could their be than massive investments into environmental science?
The aerospace technology drive has already proven itself to be at least partially self-sustaining, and in fact, we have seen a private space flight now. There's no evidence that the private sector and capitalism won't continue to drive technology in the aerospace sector, and in fact, the contrary appears to hold.
On the other hand, where's the evidence that public funding for the aerospace industry is anything but a bonanza for those companies at the expense of the taxpayers? What return do we get on our investment? Shouldn't we remember that a lot of these aerospace companies are also members of the military-industrial complex? Should it disturb us that they are getting massive government subsidies from both the military and the space program? Should we regard the space program as, in part, another way these same companies can suck up public funds without driving up military expenditure?
For the fiscal year 2006, NASA is budgeted to receive $15,744,000,000. I think there are areas of research and social services that at least some of these funds should be allocated, including, most importantly, education.
I think we should reevaluate the space program's place in the national budget, particularly given the strain our economy is in and the massive deficits we are faced with. I think we should run the more of space program in concert with other countries, and share the expense with the rest of the world. I do not like the idea of the Prometheus project, in which we would send a nuclear-powered unmanned exploration craft to explore faraway moons, and I think it should be scrapped. I do not think manned exploration of Mars is such an immediate concern, and I think we should relax our pursuit of that goal for the time being.
I love science, but I'm tired of state-funded science getting a free pass. It smacks of treasury-rading and fiscal irresponsibility. No one seems to hold scientific research to a standard of justification. That's why we have the remains of the incomplete Supercolliding Superconductor decaying in Texas, and why a multibillion dollar telescope is about to be decommissioned after simply providing us with some pretty pictures (and necessitating an unplanned space mission and two planned ones, at God-knows how much a pop).
To be honest right from the start, I don't have any logical arguments to justify the amounts of money going into the space program. But there are a few ideas and thoughts that might explain parts of it, which seem - reviewed with the necessary distance - anything but science related.
Space exploration and research programs are definitely the HiTech-topics mankind is thinking about at the moment. And being the leading nation in that field of knowledge, or even belonging to the chosen few countries, who can afford to invest reasonable amounts of money in that area, "belonging to the club" has got something to do with prestige and credit. Take countries like Japan or China, or even more India, countries on the edge of the Third World, who still developed an ambition to be part of it.
You claim to reinvest the $$$ for education in the US, who is raising his/her voice for the starving and dying people in India? Can you find a sufficiently reasonable explanation/justification for that? There is no logic of benefit behind any space program. Its a matter of national-identity and self-esteem as a nation, for India as well as for the US.
Lets look at it a little closer. Space exploration, rather what we call it today (which is not much more than opening the door of the room you're living in), the history of space exploration so far has always been a race. A competition between nations. And its still the same today. Now, don't tell me, there are multi-national crews on the Shuttle missions, or multi-nation-funding of the ISS, that's bullshit. Its still a national event of the US, while they're trying to raise money for it outside their own country. Decision making and, even more important, gathering of experiences and knowledge lies completely and only in the hands of the US. In the long run it WILL pay off, so they think. Not so much in scientific results from missions, but in domination and securing the position of a leading nation. The problem about mankind is its curiosity. If its not the US, there are other nations ready and willing to do the same, in fact they do. Independently doing the same things to gather the same knowledge and experience, independently blowing up comparable amounts of money for comparable little scientific results.
But I guess that's in the nature of mankind. If there is something unknown, we have to find out. And I cant say I'm dismissing that. There definitely IS a bad taste about it, but still I love to see the progress, even more love to dream about, what might be possible in the future. And one thing is for sure: if you don't gather experience early, you wont be a part of it, when its getting serious some day.
You said, Mac, you don't wonna hear any insipid logic. I'm not sure whether or not what I have to say falls into that category, but I'm really failing to see any need for a serious cost-benefit analysis, just because its so obvious there is there is no immediate benefit from the space program as we're seeing it today. Its just a long term investment into the future, may be even more the political future than the scientific future, but that may well render useless as soon as the national borders fall in a future society.
You think interstellar travel will stay impossible because of the laws of maths and physics? I tell you interstellar travel WILL be possible because of the laws of market and curiosity. Why do you think what we know today is the end of the evolution ladder? Isn't there any room left for additional knowledge? For changes and revision of laws due to a new understanding of time and space? We're looking at the world and the universe today with a certain set of knowledge, but I simply refuse to accept that it'll be it. Einstein was a genius for the time he was living in, but so was Archimedes in his time. Why should a future time not bring up another genius, who's looking at everything from a different angle? It doesn't necessarily mean Einstein was wrong, but in a way he didn't know everything there is to know.
After decades of construction my website is finally up an running: www.kkds.de
The investments of NASA's space program are questionable. I'm not going to debate whether their spending guidelines are satisfactory to the results.
However, I will say a thing or two about man's pursuit for the unknown. Since the dawn of man, we have feared anything unknown. Through experience though, we've discovered that by learning more about the unknown, there was nothing to fear but ignorance.
Now onwards to the 21st century. We are traveling through space, even if for relatively short distances. One thing I think none of us can dispute is that everytime we send another person off to space, we learn a great deal about it. This should be enough to continue again and again. The real point to the space program shouldn't be about getting to pluto, or colonizing mars. It should be about the pursuit of knowledge.. the one thing that has kept mankind out of the dark ages and into a better world.
I believe the moment we stop looking for better and greater things is the moment we slowly slip back into the dark ages in which everyone lives a life of misery because they believe that is the way it has always been. The one thing that keeps 1984 from becoming a reality is that there are always a number of people asking "Why?"
If we end up with a colony on mars or a flag on pluto, then all the more better. Our first priority should be the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.
Sorry if this sounds a little "truth, justice, and the american way" but I firmly believe this is one of the few things that has indisputably made mankind better off with than without it.
If the world should blow itself up,the last audible voice would be an expert saying it can't be done
This post was edited by Hawkeye on May 09, 2005.