What You Should Think About Human Space Exploration

October 5, 2007

Treading the soil of the moon, palpitating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, the feeling in the pit of one’s stomach, the separation from terra . . . these form the most romantic sensations an explorer has ever known.”

–Vladimir Nabokov

I was just about to embark on “What You Should Think About Torture” when I paused to reflect on this project so far. Much of my focus has been on social and political problems. At times it can be pretty dark stuff. Thus I felt like establishing a tradition of positive themes for readers headed into the weekend. So Arthur Miller and the Spanish Inquisition will have to wait while we look to the heavens.

Few issues offer a better challenge to radical libertarian orthodoxy than nationalized space exploration. Though we know catastrophic impact events do happen, and in theory some other cosmic events could imperil us, death by astronomical hazard is, well, astronomically unlikely. The survival imperative does not apply directly to this matter. Outside that realm, the sort of people enamored with the phrase “President Ron Paul” tend to stand against government activity on principle.

Some will bolster this stance by focusing on the virtues of privately funded space ventures. All the hoopla surrounding the Ansari X Prize reveals how warped this thinking can become. Yes, the effort from Scaled Composites achieved suborbital flight for a fraction of the cost of a shuttle mission. A slight brush with space is also a fraction as useful as deploying maneuverable vehicles with the capacity to reach high orbit. Then let’s not forget the giants providing the shoulders upon which Paul Allen and Burt Rutan now stand. To hear the “privatize the sidewalks” crowd talk of this achievement, you’d think the winning team acted alone to take humanity right from the Bronze Age to the Space Age.

By no means do I wish to imply that there is no role for private endeavors in space. Corporate-government partnerships accomplished wonders in fields like relaying telecommunications and prospecting for resources by means of satellites. As relevant capabilities, with particular emphasis on deploying launch vehicles, become attainable goals for private entities, responsible exploitation of space should be encouraged. For that matter, the right breakthroughs at the right time could make possible a private space elevator before any government shows the initiative to make use of those same breakthroughs.

Still, it remains on the shoulders of governments to conduct exploration for its own sake. Microchips, weather satellites, and freeze dried food were not the ultimate goal of early space exploration efforts. Yet technological spin-offs like those have given the civilized world far greater benefits than the cost of assorted public space programs. It is just the sort of progress Wall Street would never fund. The influence of capital markets drives corporations to become ever more myopic. Most privately funded pure research has been phased out in order to focus more resources on R&D structured to produce specific ways of generating new revenue in a relatively narrow time frame.

Publicly financed space exploration creates one of those increasingly rare avenues of progress in which bold efforts to overcome enormous challenges will tend to produce a steady stream of useful discoveries. Because the nature and timing of these discoveries does not fit neatly into short term plans, it does not fit into a model of corporate operations dominated by quarterly thinking. More to the point, these innovations occur precisely because great minds are focused on great achievements that have nothing to do with commercial goals.

No doubt money is a powerful motivator. Yet Sputnik and Mir give us history to verify that breathtaking achievements can follow from other motives. A sound economy should find ways to harness the powerful force of human greed. Yet it is a dangerously unsound economy that harnesses only that force while neglecting all others. Ultimately, it could be that the greatest of all the secondary benefits provided by space exploration is human inspiration. In government agencies around the world, this inspiration serves to motivate excellent work from teams of brilliant thinkers who do not necessarily dedicate their lives first and foremost to personal enrichment.

Yet the inspirational value of space exploration goes far beyond this role of encouraging brilliant science and engineering work. Young people may be more dedicated to wholesome pursuits as a function of aspirations generated by space programs. Educators benefit from more compelling material to exploit in striving to engage student interest. Even people who do not now nor ever will endeavor to do relevant work can draw much inspiration from achievements in the heavens. Think how the Apollo Program instilled pride in all Americans, and perhaps to some degree in the entire human race.

Today the future of space exploration is in flux. China has embarked on a credible initiative to place human explorers on the Moon. Russia is revitalizing its space program with an eye toward manned flights to Mars. The United States also has a bold initiative intent on returning to the Moon, then reaching Mars. However, it is plagued by a ridiculous mismatch of overreaching Presidential mandates and insufficient funding. Add to this the dysfunctional web of autocratic nepotism that makes being politically connected more important than having sound designs or competent management.

Discouraged by unrealistic goals and outlandish technology proposals, it is only natural that American leaders in the field of space science might suggest turning away from human exploration altogether. Getting a few human bodies into space is no big deal, but taking along life support enough for something like a mission to Mars is an extremely big deal. Innovations in computing make it possible for probes and other robots to act with much of the autonomy that makes human explorers useful on a mission. There is no substitute for subjective human observation. Yet, when it comes to gathering samples, taking measurements, and other strictly empirical work; it is often much easier to develop and deploy a robotic method than it is field and equip personnel intent on the same tasks.

With that in mind, the coldest and most calculating rational approach would suggest you should think manned space exploration is a relic of the time before advanced information and automation technology. Yet I do not believe that is the correct conclusion to reach. In this area, I believe it is unreasonable to adopt the coldest possible view. Public morale, national pride, and international goodwill are all real phenomena that tend to be accompanied by real economic and social benefits. One area where a team of NASA robots cannot compete with a team of NASA astronauts is public relations.

Far from a frivolous distraction, the messages of hope and possibility space exploration achievements generate can be uplifting to people from all walks of life and all nations of the world. Any two months of full scale military operations in Iraq require expenditures greater than the entire annual budget of NASA (and some of NASA’s own budget is consumed by service to military projects.) It may not be cheap, and it may even require some political reform, but I believe the social and cultural consequences of continued manned space exploration alone justify the cost. Factor in the likelihood of great inventions falling into the public domain, and we have ourselves a form of stimulus spending that positively stimulates our economy while also stimulating the best aspects of human nature itself.