Predrag Bokšić | perceptronThis past Friday, my good friend and colleague John Carter McKnight organized a little stealth seminar on space travel, and detecting small trends in the social media sphere before they blow up. These days, John does the politics of virtual world, but about a decade ago he was active in the spaceflight movement (blast from the past, eh John?) before the whole thing got swallowed by the invasion of Iraq and America’s imperial mission to search and destroy every bad person on the AfPak border with robots. But he and fellow mad social scientist Kathryn Denning (part of the team that won DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Challenge) had a conversation about the viability of private spaceflight, and the notion that a bunch of tech billionaires (Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow) have the resources to launch their own space program, and damn government policy or economic rationality! They want to go to space because it’s cool and they have the money.
There are a lot of new actors on the stage, but at the end of the day, the big money is still with the government, either in NASA or the military, and if space flight is really our human destiny, it’s going to need public buy-in. There are major technical challenges to putting large numbers of people in orbit: launch costs are still too damn high, running a closed-cycle life support system is open problem, and zero-gravity is tough on the human body. If this stuff is what you care about, I recommend Project Rho. But I’m not an engineer and I don’t do technical fixes.
My problem with space these days is that the rhetoric and policies are dated bullshit, and rather than try and come up with new justifications, space advocates just double down on same old arguments. For example, let’s take Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent testimony before Congress.
“The only people doing much dreaming back then [late 1950s-early 1970s] were scientists, engineers, and technologists. Their visions of tomorrow derive from their formal training as discoverers. And what inspired them was America’s bold and visible investment on the space frontier.
Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states — to change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions. They energize the electorate. During the Apollo era, you didn’t need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.”
Let me just grab some key words: Dream, ambition, discover, explore, frontier. These are the core rhetorics of the Space Race, and NdGT argues that by refunding NASA and putting these ideals at the center of the national mission, we can inspire the future. The problem with his argument is that it’s causally reversed. These ideas inspired a generation of scientists because they related to the immediate political and cultural concerns of the era.
The ambition of the Space Race was tied up with a competition for national prestige between the USA and USSR. The competition for space demonstrated the technical capabilities necessary to fight a nuclear war to domestic, opposed, and unaligned audiences. More than that, however, the space race transformed the unthinkable 45 minute annihilation of an actual nuclear war into a human drama. As Tom Wolfe explains in the authoritative cultural history of space, The Right Stuff, astronauts were modern knights, champions of democracy who put their courage to the test by riding flaming steeds into orbit.
What it was was a matter of prestige, and prestige only goes so far as a rationale for any activity. Keeping up with the Joneses only makes sense when there are Joneses, and the world of today looks very different than the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War. China and India are not threats in the same way that the USSR was, and their ability to match 40 year old American accomplishments is not seen as diminishing the prestige of being first. Indeed, if you look at the List of Space Agencies, you’ll see some surprising countries: Greece, Nigeria, Mongolia, Sri Lanka. For these small states, having a space program is prestigious; just launching a satellite is a major accomplishment. A similar logic applies to individuals in the private spaceflight: a successful launch proves their engineering chops, while being one of the very few private astronauts gives unique bragging rights. But as space flight becomes more common, it must become less prestigious.
Second, space flight is heroic only to the extent that it is dangerous. People watched rocket launches because there was a very real chance that the rockets would explode. Space flight, once it became relatively safe, stopped attracting public interest. There are very good human and economic reasons why we want our rockets to be as reliable as possible, (and drawing the crowd that watches NASCAR for the crashes is not exactly a high ambition), but NASA’s zero-risk attitude is anathema to innovation.
In fact, I think there might be an argument that competing against the prestigious missions of the past is one of the things harming NASA. The marginally improved next-gen launcher is discarded in favor of some aspirational, transformation project. Politicians and the public expect a mission to match the heroism and drama of the moon landings, forgetting that much of the heroism and drama was retrospective. Modern space flight is compared to its heroic past, and inevitably found wanting.
The other argument that has to be deconstructed is “exploring the frontier”. You want to explore space: go outside and look up. In the Age of Exploration, people had to sail on ships to other places because the world is curved and you can’t see over the horizon. While there are legitimate disputes about manned spaceflight versus robotic probes, telescopes unarguably tell us more about the universe than any reasonable manned interstellar mission would. On a cosmic scope, space exploration feels less like a journey into the unknown, and more a paddle across the lagoon. Yes, it is dangerous and challenging, but we can see the far shore.
The Age of Exploration rhetoric also ignores the commercial motives of the European explorers, who sailed around the world to trade with, colonize, and conquer native people. Exploration was at its core a human and economic effort. Not until the 18th century and the voyages of James Cook did pure science become part of the motive for exploration.
Space is a great resource for pure science, like telescopes and Earth monitoring satellites, but the economic motive is harder to find. There’s no one to trade with, and the most accessible resource is simply altitude to use for communication and surveillance system. Asteroid mining and other space resource extraction is uneconomic because spaceflight is expensive, and spaceflight is expensive because there’s no economic reason to go space.
Tyson, Elon Musk, and other space-flight advocates hope that one day the economic motives will be self-sustaining, but until then they desire access to public resources and play on national pride, engineering excellence, the value of pure science, and other essentially technological arguments to obtain them. But as declining interested in human space flight shows, people can see through these narrowly constructed rhetorics of pride and exploration.
I think one solution is to increase our tolerance for risk (the hundreds of people volunteering for one-way-to-Mars shows that there's something there), and we need heroes. We would also need to accept that some of them would die, and I'm not sure if we can do that. Another low-hanging economic mission that needs more effort is cleaning up space debris: some orbits are close to unusable, and maintaining the rights to navigate in space is a reasonable extension of the traditional government mission to keep open sea lanes. I’m not sure what is beyond space exploration, but I can say that harping on these same two points is not going to get these people the Mars missions they want.