Musings on Space Exploration

I was thinking today about space exploration, and the doldrums we are, and have been, in, ever since the last Apollo astronauts lifted off from the moon last century. Actually, I wasn’t thinking, I was arguing. In my head. With the countless people who dismiss the space program as a pointless waste of money or a nerd luxury humanity can ill afford. This makes me crazy. I don’t often know where to begin. Offer positive arguments about the space program and its economic and technological gifts? Wax poetic about the importance of space exploration to the evolution of the human spirit? Or viciously expose the argument for the crock of I can very well believe it’s not butter it is?

Given that this argument is with imaginary people (until the real people who espouse such beliefs start posting their comments and thus reveal themselves to be corporeal enemies of which I keep a list), I will choose the last option.

Yes, space exploration has lots of benefits to the economy and to technological development. And yes, it’s important, if not existentially critical, to the development of humanity as a species. (Not just development, but survival…eventually, down the line, our sun will turn into a red giant and swallow earth whole–we should plan on being elsewhere.)

But what about the argument that we just can’t afford it? I mean, such people say, there are so many problems we need to fix here on earth.

I used to say to such people that I’d trade them one aircraft carrier for a space program. An aircraft carrier is an awesome thing, and it represents the effort of a city of people all united in common purpose. Well, as one of the early defenders of space exploration testified to congress (I’m paraphrasing here): An aircraft carrier defends the country, the space program makes it worth defending.

And anyway, one less carrier group won’t really hurt. The Chinese have a new missile that might just make all of them obsolete.

Last week I was listening to the audio version of Craig Neslon’s excellentRocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, and something I heard really floored me. Nelson was describing the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At something like 50 stories tall, it was designed to house the enormous Saturn V rockets that would carry the Apollo astronauts to the moon. It’s so cavernous that it will rain (inside!) if the air conditioning fails. What really floored me, however, was the description of its doors. They’re the largest doors in the world, and they are over 400 feet tall.

Next time you’re in a big city, got to a tall building and take the elevator to the 40th floor. Find a window and look down, and then imagine the whole face of the building below swinging out (slowly, the VAB doors take 45 minutes to open). That’s a big freaking door.

Whoever designed and built that door likely doesn’t have a monument built in their honor. Yet it’s an engineering feat that has not yet been rivaled (I guess since nobody has needed an even bigger door since Apollo). But here I am trying to defend the space program by instilling a sense of wonder in the reader. What about that nagging argument…We can’t afford big doors!

Here’s my counter-argument. We can’t afford to keep throwing away perfectly good plastic utensils as if they won’t outlast the Sphinx. We can’t afford vast industries, like cosmetics, video games or golf. Good god, why aren’t people arguing that we can’t afford professional sports as a whole? (I’m not anti-sport even if I was a nerd and the last one picked for many an gym class team–I’m against paying people millions of dollars for the thrill of us watching them play (whatever sport it is) well and then making a complete mess of their private lives very publicly.) We can’t afford our car culture, and I’d argue that our communities cannot afford television. We can’t afford beauty contests. And probably all the energy spent on remote-control model airplanes (except where they’re used to teach kids about aerodynamics).

I could go on and on about the totally useless things that form the heart of very big industries (and the central focus of far too many lives). Give up any one of them, and don’t bother us nerds about the space program anymore.

The second part of the argument (that we have earthly problems to deal with) is simple to destroy with a reactive question. “So, what have you given up to solve starvation, poverty, disease and war?” Ask not what you can do for your world, ask what someone else can do for it! In light of crushing global poverty, I’d argue we can’t afford McMansions. Or really, the rich in general. We can’t allow so much money to be spent by, and on, celebrities. We have real problems to deal with down here.

Help me out here. Name some totally useless things that humans waste precious talent, energy and resources on. And let’s start calling shame on that wastefulness, and start planning even bigger doors to a more exciting and purposeful future.

(And now I have to reveal that much of the venom of this piece was motivated by the fact that the weather forecasts keep telling me it’s clear, and yet it’s cloudy, and I really wanted to go out and look at the stars tonight.)

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One thought on “Musings on Space Exploration

  1. Compare the cost of this:

    “Estimates of the cost of sending people to the red planet vary hugely, ranging from $20bn to $450bn”
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/29/nasa_mars/

    With the cost of this:

    “U.S. Bailout, Stimulus Pledges Total $11.6 Trillion”
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aZchK__XUF84

    What the hell is wrong with us?

    I say someone just starts a web campaign collecting money from individuals and organisations for a manned mission to mars and then lets space agencies or consortia of space agencies from around the world submit bids for the money. Once a certain total was reached it’d really start to snow ball…. google, the x-prize foundation, microsoft, apple and every other massive organisation would bight your hand off to have their name associated with such a noble endeavour if it was viable. Heck governments might even be shamed into matching funding.

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