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Sunday, May 08, 2011

space programs about space

Trent Waddington has a problem with this segment of a Neil deGrasse Tyson speech:



To which Trent says:
It disappoints when a speaker says something like this.. it fills you with inspiration for about five seconds, only to have the nagging rational part of your brain chime in with: umm, excuse me? That's not actually true, ya know. I think kids who are inspired by such speakers to follow their dreams will feel terrible betrayal when they eventually discover they've been lied to.
In the comments section Dr. GeGrasse Tyson defended what he said, but I think Trent's point still stands: spinoffs are not a justification for a space program.

By its nature a spinoff technology must be developed for some purpose, which is later developed as a consumer product - which may be used for a vastly different purpose than for which the technology was originally developed, as with the LASIK example. And if that original purpose isn't justified, then the spinoff technology never happens at all and we would never even know what we were missing. In other words, spinoff technologies occur after the fact of justification and are thus not the justification in themselves.

We didn't establish space programs in nations all over the world so that we can have LASIK. Spinoffs like that are nice to have, but they aren't the reason that there is a NASA and JAXA and ESA and all the rest of the acronyms.

The reasons for the existence of all these space programs extend back to the geopolitics of the Cold War, and each space program has had to come up with continuous justifications for its existence. They're all trying to answer the question "why bother with space?" Or more specifically "why should a national government bother with space?"

National space programs have to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, there are the multiple potential benefits of using space - the limitless energy supply, the limitless raw materials, access to zero gee and hard vacuum and unobstructed sight lines. So, those potentialities have to be acknowledged, and it must at least appear that progress is being made in our understanding and ability to use space to our benefit.

And then there is the other side of the coin. Imagine for a moment a bank with a physical vault located somewhere deep under the surface of the moon, and a transportation structure that enables cheap trips to space. What country would have jurisdiction over that bank? Would that bank be an extra-national entity, outside the law or reach of any nation?

There are enough problems policing the inner cities now, what do you do when millions of people are living in the asteroid belt? What happens to a nation's decades-long investment if second-generation Belters start grumbling about independence?

This is a fundamental problem with national space programs. If they are wildly successful, then large numbers of their taxpaying citizens would be able to physically go beyond the reach of the tax man, spreading out over roughly kajillions of cubic miles of space.

So a national space program must appear to be making progress while simultaneously making that progress as glacial and expensive as possible. The "expensive" part is key feature, as it discourages private individuals and small businesses. The weak tea that we get in return - pretty pictures from Hubble, the occasional robot scattered here and there, the tepid pace of ISS construction - are supposed to indicate progress. It worked for NASA for decades.

Not anymore. Entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan and Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow and many, many others have started to peel back the facade. They have demonstrated that the hugely-expensive development programs NASA has historically undertaken simply don't need to be expensive. Consider: in 9 years SpaceX has gone from a clean sheet of paper to having developed two new rocket engines, two classes of rocket, and a crew capsule, all for a grand total of 800 million dollars. That might sound like a lot, but NASA's yearly budget is around $18 Billion with a B. NASA spends SpaceX's entire 9 year investment every 16 days.

The reason for the difference is that SpaceX is actually about space. Elon Musk wants to put his own boots on the soil of Mars. He realized that in order for that to happen, he had to make a business that would make it possible for large numbers of people to go into space. So, every decision about SpaceX is made with the larger goal in mind: make it possible for large numbers of people to travel to orbit. And that only happens if SpaceX makes a profit.

Robert Bigelow developed the expandable modules with a goal in mind: space hotels. He knows hotels and also knows they grow up along with any transportation infrastructure. Bigelow Aerospace has a purpose, and it is about making money in space.

Richard Branson has an actual purpose in space: making money from suborbital tourist hops, and eventually going for orbital tourism. It's the same with example after example of the new breed of space entrepreneurs: the purpose of space is to make money.

That is the way it has to be. It is the only way the large numbers of people will go into space, which is fundamentally at odds with National interests. It is also the only way that a space program will actually be about space, because the search for profit won't allow for any distraction from the goal. NASA and all the rest can keep doing what they are doing, spending huge amounts of taxpayer money for miniscule advances, which the profit-seekers leap past them. You watch.
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3 Comments:

Blogger QuantumG said...

Agreed!

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forget that all that progress that Musk and Co. are making, is based on materials testing and the infrastructure that NASA has made.

I agree with you that business is the driver at this point, but to say that it is cheap now, misses the point that all the testing, rating, alloying, machining tech, etc,etc, had to be done. that is where the national investment has to be made.

Nasa's own rules now make it nearly impossible to develop anything more complex that space probes, BECAUSE of it man-rating and exposure rules. It is easy to blast them now, but they had to make all this up as they went.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

to say that it is cheap now, misses the point that all the testing, rating, alloying, machining tech, etc,etc, had to be done. that is where the national investment has to be made.

If the testing, rating, alloying, machining tech is already done, of what use is NASA's or ESA's or JAXA's or CSA's continued pursuit of these already-accomplished technologies?

10:01 PM  

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