Beyond Space Exploration

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
This 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.


  1. Amen, brother.

    There are two big problems with space, as you've noted: (a) there's no there there (other than L5 or Mars as mega-Sealand, and if you've got $40-100 billion to blow, easier to buy a couple governments) and (b) the sales pitch was written in 1963, didn't work well then, and is gibberish to anyone born after 1955.

    That anything is happening is fascinating, especially since it's doing so at the intersection of utopianism, private fortunes and government contracts. What unholy spawn will that union yield?

  2. I recall a conversation on this very blog about a year ago, which pointed to a clip of N.Dg.T. on a talk show, stating that the appeal of a mission to Mars lies in the risk. Beck at the time argued that this was silly, and that the appeal of an endeavor should be strictly related to what that endeavor accomplishes, not how risky it is. Drinking bleach is also fairly risky, but not on the list of things we want to accomplish. Only certain types of risks are inspirational. The frontier of space has become stale because we've realized that we have no idea how to exploit it, tame it, or what, if anything we can extract from a manned mission to Mars. Are you saying that we can, by risking lives, somehow suddenly gain something new from manned spaceflight? I'm not sure this is true. I think that we first must solve the problem of sustainable living in space, and that a necessary first step is to solve the problem of sustainable living on Earth.

  3. The telescopes are cheaper, but their information is much more "mile wide and inch deep" in comparison to an actual mission. We've been observing Mercury with telescopes (and one Pioneer probe) for decades, but we learned a great deal more about Mercury in the short time that Mercury Messenger has been in orbit there.

    Manned exploration, however, is quickly becoming less relevant and useful. A manned expedition to Mars could still do far more than an entire fleet of probes, but I don't think that will be the case in 10-20 years - which is how long it would take to do a manned mission, even if we started tomorrow.

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  5. @M.Rule: There's dumb risk and there's heroic risk. Beck is right that homo economous should only care about the results, but we aren't homo economous.

    Closed cycle ecosystems are definitely the next big space technology. Even if launch costs go down dramatically, you still need to ship a lot of stuff up, and wasting lift capacity on oxygen, water, and other organic molecules just to sustain life is not a good idea. Give the increasing resource pressures we all face, a closed cycle system might not be such a bad idea. Ecologically, a space station and an arcology are very similar. Of course, nobody wants to live in arcologies, because we're stupid primates.

    @Brett: Yes, but telescopes can be used for many more science missions over a longer period of time, whereas a probe is one-and-done. This is just my political biases, but I think NASA needs to launch James Webb ASAP, and whatever it has to kill in that goal is fine.

    The cost is certainly a big issue. Some quick googling showed me that the Curiosity Rover cost $2.5 billion, and the most optimistic manned mission to Mars comes in at $20 billion. The cost of a manned mission to Mars is uncertain, but we can do ~10 well-equipped robotic missions for every manned mission.

  6. I don't see what is heroic about a manned flight to Mars. This seems about as heroic to me as the Fonz jumping on waterskiis over a shark.

    Seriously, the spaceflight in the 60s was pretty heroic because all the technology was totally new and it was somewhat unpredictable what problems they might encounter. In a modern mission to Mars, many of the risks are now very well understood, and the technology has mostly stopped evolving. The kinds of maneuvers they will perform will be about the same, generally from the astronaut's perspective it would be about the same. I suppose they've stopped building Saturn V rockets so they'll need to find something different for that, but that seems fairly minor. Going to Mars today would be about as heroic as if Ferdinand Magellan had said to his men "alright boys, lets gear up for Lap Two!".

  7. Well, the inherent danger of going to Mars that no one seems to talk about is Cancer. With our current propulsion technology astronauts will be exposed for extended periods of time to cosmic radiation. Without proper shielding, by the time they reach Mars, the entire crew will be terminally ill and unable to receive treatment. We would have to rethink shielding technology if we want to make it to mars.

    As Michael BF mentioned, we would have to accept that crews would die. I think as a nation, we can accept something like the Challenger or Columbia disasters as freak accidents, partly because the crews were killed quickly. Its an inherent risk that if you are flying rockets, eventually one is going to explode. However, in the advent of social media and the 24 hour news network, could we bare to watch the crew of a Mars mission slowly suffering out there in the void of space?

    What I wonder is why NdGT seems to think everything is riding on NASA? Can't America be inspired by other Frontiers? Social Media has pulled children onto the internet who are doing things we never could dream of. Essentially this generation has been given the keys to a virtual Narnia to build in their image. Why not argue for better computer science programs in our public schools? Or finishing the SSC in Texas? There is so much hope for inspiration in the sciences that I wonder why NASA is so important? Star Trek inspired a generation of scientists and engineers (and yes I know NASA inspired Star Trek). But does that mean we need to make a new Star Trek Series to have Inspirational Science Fiction?