I’m a fan of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I’m out here touring the place today, but their latest theme, Space, did not satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the space program has lost its way — if it ever had a good direction in the first place — and the exhibits just confirmed it for me.
Gadgetheads will enjoy the exhibits. It’s gosh-wow engineering all the way through. The Omni Theater movie is called Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart, and you’ll get your fill of thundering rumbly lift-offs and a dome-shaped screen filled with flame and smoke. The space shuttle is glorified, we are given many grandiose promises about the next generation, the Orion spacecraft, and we get to watch a few of the hundreds of astronauts who’ve been to the International Space Station gamboling about.
We are never told why they are there, or what they’ve accomplished.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there was a good reason and that they’ve learned things, but the story constantly emphasizes huge engineering projects and fiddly details of living in space, and neglects to explain the science. It was really a propaganda film by Boeing, for Boeing.
There’s a big room of exhibits titled “SPACE”. It’s got explanations of all the layers in a spacesuit, the sections of the space station, hypothetical scenarios for putting people on Mars. So? Why do I want to go to Mars, why would I want to wrap myself in those intricately designed apparatus? There are many videos around the room, many of them featuring that persuasive guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he keeps telling me we can explore outer space, we should expand the space program, we must colonize other worlds. I think he takes it for granted. I don’t.
On one big wall, they were projecting the short film Wanderers over and over again. It’s this fictional set of animated images of the far future of interplanetary exploration; lots of people raved about it when it came out on the net, while I hated it. It’s the same problem: lots of golly-gee imagery and a shortage of whys. For instance, there’s a scene of thrill-seekers jumping into a 3 km deep canyon on some moon of one of the gas giants. Why? Is that our goal, to give ludicrously wealthy bored people an opportunity to do something stupidly exciting? What is the world in which the idle rich have the luxury of flitting off to distant planets to do something ridiculous like? Did the creators of this film take any time at all to think about context?
The exhibits are relentlessly self-absorbed — the entire focus is on things people build to allow people to go to and live in space for a little while. I looked in vain for something that lifted its gaze away from our own damned navel and asked “What’s out there? What are the big questions? What could we find in space that would enlighten us?” But there was nothing. Here’s a space suit glove. Here’s another huge flaming rocket launch with sound effects loud enough to feel in your bones. Here’s the exercise regimen astronauts go through to keep from falling apart.
“We made a rover that drove around on Mars!” I’m suitably impressed and I’m sure you’re very proud, but I’m more interested in learning about, you know, Mars.
I have a general principle I look for in science outreach: can you tell me what’s beautiful about your subject? Can you show me something that will reveal a hidden elegance or surprise about the universe? This exhibit fails completely. It was the work of engineers who’ve forgotten about the grand old cosmos and instead think government contracts for a nifty new gadget are the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. The poetry and curiosity were totally absent.
Don’t get me wrong — I want so see more exploration of space, I want to learn more about Europa or comets or Martian climate, and I would love to someday see probes to other stars. But that means the short-term engineering efforts, essential as they are, are subsidiary to the science. A lot of space exploration proponents seem to have their priorities reversed.
Usernames! (ᵔᴥᵔ) says
Next you’ll say we should spend MONEY on space science, you fat-cat ivory tower denizen!
PZ, what’s your opinion of Kerbal Space Program?
We need some definitive biological experiments to check for Martian organisms before we send a manned mission there and contaminate the planet.
It would be a boost for science if we would shut down the manned space flight program–at least down to the level of basic research rather than planning actual missions to shoot humans into space.
We could learn a lot more with that money by spending it on robot probes to the more interesting moons of Saturn and Jupiter, or on building large-array space telescopes to explore the universe.
The crewed program is currently a waste of money, but it’s a politically useful waste of money. NASA needs some budgetary heft if it wants to be able to pay for the actual space science stuff done in the robotic program, otherwise it’s at risk of a death spiral of cutbacks and shrinking programs. In fact, we’re pretty lucky it survived the 1970s and early 1980s.
. . . Sometimes, though, it really annoys me. The $30 billion they’ll be spending on SLS so it can do nothing important until the 2030s could have paid for top-class robotic missions to every single planet in the solar system with room to spare for orbiters/landers dedicated to Europa and Enceladus. Sure, Mars and the planets aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but I would like to actually learn more about them before I die.
I remember Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society making that point about a crewed Mars mission. It’s hard enough ensuring that the robots are uncontaminated, and it will be impossible with actual humans there (although cthulu knows how any microbes will survive on the surface of Mars).
I’d much rather do a crewed Mars orbital mission, preferably to Phobos. There’s material there you could use to make fuel to come back home, and Phobos is close enough that you can remotely control “dumb” rovers on the surface in real-time (along with having them collect samples to launch up into Mars orbit for a sample return).
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
I am a space nut from way back, but unfortunately for the likes of us the science is pretty much in, and there’s not much future for canned monkeys out there. Lunar domes might be doable, but probably not worthwhile. There’s a huge amount of potential for space-based industry, from asteroid mining to growing complex crystals in free-fall, but it would be far more efficient to do that via robots and waldos, and only send humans up when something goes wrong that can’t be fixed remotely. That would still require some permanent crewed space stations, but the crews will be rotated out on contract, and there’ll be no-one living out there permanently.
Becca Stareyes says
And a lot of the why and how are inter-tangled. The Curiosity Rover has a laser not just because lasers are cool, but because it lets geologists get the chemical composition of rock outcrops they can’t drive the rover up to, which tells us things like ‘what was the geologic history of this place on Mars’. Heck, the Curiosity Rover has wheels because places that are good to land spacecraft often don’t have as interesting of rocks as the places where the engineers give us the ‘You want to go where?’ faces. (Then add in that wheels mean you aren’t limited to what’s in camera sight and what you can reach with an arm.) They landed the thing with that wild sky-crane because of weight and mobility concerns (aka getting it so it is wheels down), and there was still the balance between ‘we want to look at the rocks here’ versus ‘can the landing system get the rover close enough and in one piece’. (I was in grad school, in astronomy, at a school with a lot of Martian geologists when Curiosity’s landing site was being selected. So we got regular updates, and part of a friend’s dissertation was on putting together data for site selection.)
Planning a space mission is a bit like planning a backpacking trip: you have limited space and strength to carry things, so you can’t bring too much useless stuff. Getting your instrument to Mars or Europa means that a lot of your colleagues think you are going to get the most science out of your instrument for mass or space or money (or all three). The engineering to do the science is really neat, but context helps. If we could do this stuff cheaper or without new technology, we would.
(Even for crewed spaceflight which isn’t as science-focused, you can link engineering to the biology of a human body and the conditions of space. You could probably even link it to how we explore other extreme conditions, like deep below the sea, since some of the concerns are the same.)
A momentary lapse... says
Now that’s a question I would like to see put to the discoverers of Placobdelloides jaegerskioeldi.
I’ve used the analogy with an oil platform and ships before. We got out on to the open ocean to work and play, but generally speaking we don’t live out there permanently. Someone could potentially put up a sea city (and there have been proposals of “sea-stedding”), but it would be expensive and probably pointless – why would you want to live out in the middle of the ocean when you can get there in a few days anyways while living on land?
Perversely for the space cadets, easier and cheaper access to space also makes that more likely. The cheaper it is to send astronauts and missions up into Earth Orbit, the less you need to have them stay up there for long periods of time. And of course Low Earth Orbit is close enough that Robonaut’s successors will be controllable in Real Time from Earth to do lots of stuff.
I get how you feel. I’m more or less the same way about computer history museums. They’re not really about the history of computing, they’re just a boring collection of old hardware. Virtually nothing about the history of computing.
Then again I study computability theory, so I’m not the target audience.
Equal parts Dear Muslima and Bobby Jindal’s ‘volcano monitoring!’? From PZ??
That first fish that wriggled out of the water, I guess all her friends said the same things. “That’s a waste of time, nothing can live up there! Get back in the water where you belong! Running away is no solution, we’ve got real problems down here that need fixin’! You’re wasting your time, idiot!!”
PZ Myers says
comfychair: Not so good at that reading comprehension thing, hey?
consciousness razor says
Interesting. Compared to space, I always feel relatively warm and full, not to mention mind-bogglingly small.
We don’t have space here, wherever that is, so they went there to see what it’s like. They still don’t know.
He has that hammer, so it looks like a nail. You do a lot of the same thing with biology, frankly.
Maybe they’d be less enthusiastic if they realize how utterly boring their trip would be on the way there (and back, if that’s even in the cards). You’re basically asking to put yourself in a prison cell for who knows how many months, before you have your big thrill that lasts for maybe a couple of minutes. I feel like I should probably run away screaming, if I thought somebody was deranged enough to believe they should suggest that to me as a form of entertainment.
That seems like a feature of most museum exhibits, at least ones focused on artifacts like that. You can go there to look at the stuff, but the stuff doesn’t usually have an interesting response if you ask it any questions. That’s why Jebus put people here with you: so that you can pester them about all of the silly things you think you need to know.
Nothing like that is taught in an engineering program. Fuck, you’re lucky if you can find a good solid dose of it in an arts or humanities program. But that probably traces all the way back to preschools, not just colleges.
As far as your general complaint goes, I’m not sure how “deep” anything from space exploration* is ever going to be. Yeah, we’ll keep learning things from it. We know so little, how could we not learn something? But it probably won’t be very much that’s fundamental or really significant to your entire worldview or anything like that. I mean, unless you lived a couple of centuries ago and thought the Earth was flat, really big, or the center of everything (in terms of orientation or importance). If you’ve already gotten the memo on those sorts of things, then I have a hard time imagining what else you could get out of it no matter what people might discover.
*I don’t mean cosmology or astronomy or other parts of physics proper. That’s endlessly fascinating, at least to me. But NASA and co. have never been in the business of doing that.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun
Some people call me the Space Cowboy. After reading this I may have to rethink that. Any suggestions?
Excluded Layman says
This is a terribly rude volume of words to shove into someone’s mouth, but I feel compelled to respond.
I don’t think PZ would find it much different to the museum, honestly. Think about the underlying game systems: You build an (aero)space craft, then you fly it somewhere, spend about a minute ‘performing’ experiments and gathering the results, then you fly back. The overwhelming majority of your time is spent building and flying, and almost nothing speaks to the importance of the experiments. They only seem important because your excitement from successfully arriving and landing makes the payoff of new parts taste so much sweeter.
Because that’s what the science experiments really are: You click some UI buttons and get some points to spend unlocking new parts. Science is just another currency, exactly analogous to XP in RPGs; and, likewise, a pale, vestigial shadow of what it represents. Gamified into a heartless progression regulator.
As it stands, the game is very SpaceX. It’s based on completing contracts to pay for missions to unlock parts to get more prestigious contracts that pay better so you can pay for bigger missions… And so on.
Personally, I don’t see how it can be any different. Games are limited in how much new information they can present. D&D style games could at least have a science mechanic where you logic out fan theories about magic and nature, then the GM can incorporate those theories into future events. It would be difficult, but it’s almost like real science! It’s based on the thrill of connecting concepts and discovering new knowledge, encourages exploration/questioning of ideas, and has consequences that reinforce its importance in the world.
A video game can’t really do that kind of thing, so the closest they can come is being open-ended sandboxes. Sandbox games are like the stereotypical passive-aggressive girlfriend: You aren’t supposed to do something because they want you to do it, you are supposed to want to do it yourself. Which is kind of like being motivated by scientific curiosity, since you’re exploring and all.
To that end, I’d love to see science changed. It needs to take time, cost a lot, demand extensive exploration, and deliver a lot of flavour. (Why were those experiments done? Who’s waiting for the results back home? Is anything unusual about them? Is there an impact on the rest of society? etc.) To keep it viable as a pursuit, I’d have it reward regular infusions of grant money instead of unlocking parts. Parts would be unlocked either by performing experiments based on the underlying technology, or paying third parties to make them. That way science and contracts co-exist as both means and ends.
Well, that was long. Turns out dumping that many hours into something gives you opinions!
I agree with you PZ, that the science should be explained better rather than hand-waved.
But I feel incredibly excited just at the idea of exploring new worlds and pushing our limits.
It’s pure curiosity. And yeah, some sense of the challenge.
I have been playing Kerbal Space Program.
It took me one month before I could put a spacecraft in orbit around Kerbin, the “Earth” of the game.
After another month of preparation, of experiments and an epic struggle with gravity, I managed to land my Kerbal on the Mun.
I could feel the immensity of the space between the satellite and Kerbin.
I could feel how anything could have gone wrong, a slip of the keys or my placement of the lights in the wrong way.
I felt the danger in every small thing I did, I felt the utter, overwhelming distance from safety.
I knew I had very little fuel left and the wrong maneuver would mean never going back.
I made it, and Valentina Kerman splashed in the water safely with her huge scientific payload ready to be investigated (the game hand waves the science too, though).
Then, I decided I wanted to reach Duna, the red, closest planet.
It was much, much harder than reaching the Mun.
I prepared and tested a robotic lander, no return mission.
Zooming out from the star map, I realized how the distance from the Mun paled in comparison to the distance with Duna.
I realized how damn small we are, how big the challenge is.
I realized I had to choose the correct launch window.
I experienced the “seven minutes of terror” while my craft was aero braking on Duna’s thin athmosphere (even if yeah, I could still see and control my craft. Anything could have gone wrong.)
As the atmosphere stopped to rage on my vehicle and reached sub-sonic speed, I deployed the chute, then let go of the heat shield.
When the wheels of my lander touched the red soil, and I saw that everything was fine, I felt I could cry.
TL;DR: it is quite possible that people who feel like you, PZ, are in the majority, and those who really feel this urge to explore just assume that everybody else feel the same impulse.
But when I listen to Sagan saying that we are a race of explorer, I know exactly what he’s talking about.
Meanwhile, back at PZ’s post—I’m really sad that it seems unlikely that Bob Park is ever going to recover enough from aphasia to return to What’s New. He was a tireless advocate for robotic space exploration, and a tireless mocker of human space exploration; and, for all that he was a physicist through and through, he thought that the most interesting thing we could hope to learn by exploring Mars (and perhaps other planets or their moons) would be whether there is (or has been) life in the solar system that isn’t—or is!—related to life on Earth. I’m with him all the way on all of that. The engineering is a necessary means to scientific ends; presenting it as an end in itself is very distasteful to me.
Well, sure. Some people are temperamentally suited more to engineering than science, just as some are the other way around. For a big project like space exploration you need to attract both types, as well as those who can move easily from one to the other. An exhibition for the proto-engineers isn’t to be scorned because it doesn’t interest you. You’ve got regular science journals, as well as ordinary news reports whenever something telegenic is discovered, to keep you interested. Regular TV and paper news doesn’t cover engineering at all well, so far as I can tell.
Dr Tyson makes the compelling point that a lot of the value of manned space flight and pushing the boundaries therein is in the effect on our culture. When that is going on, you don’t need to convince people to study science or take its future seriously. Everyone already knows the value of it when that is going on. People are inspired, they want to get involved, and when they try they will often discover some other field of science or technology that they are interested in. As for politics, when the public interest in science goes up, so does the political interest and the funding.
Manned space flight may not be ideal for lots of science, but if it can bring in funding and brains that science would not have had otherwise, then it is worth it, and the value of those endeavours becomes part of the value of your space program.
Space Exploration is definitely high-profile science, the kind that grabs people’s attention in a way that a lot of other scientific fields don’t. It’s why I think it’s culturally enriching to support it, even if there’s no direct practical “How can we use this in our everyday lives?” aspect in the way that medical research provides.
Of course, if you want crewed spaceflight to provide that, then you need objectives for it to accomplish. It can’t give the appearance of just treading water.
You are definitely a scientist and not an engineer.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
Being an engineer geek, I like museum presenting all the details of how difficult the problems were to solve and all the little details of the gizmos they came up with to address those problems. I look at them with the inspiration of , “gee, I think I can try to do better than that. let me hit a blackboard and work on it.” I simply assume that is their intent with those displays of gee-wiz gizmos with little of the history and other sciences behind it; their trying to inspire improvement, by showing how narrowly they achieved their difficult goals. I recognize that inspiration is insufficient, as lots of education is also required, and that is practically impossible to instill in a museum exhibit, So they settle on achieving the inspiration aspect, that is also necessary to achieve the goals in the long term.
K E Decilon says
I am with PZ here, and not a big fan of the idea that we were born to a grand destiny among the stars.
50 years of space exploration have made it easy to believe that it is now simple and commonplace.
There is another way to look at our accomplishments in space exploration. Everything on the surface of the earth is at the bottom of an enormous gravity well, especially humans. Through an enormous undertaking of engineering, enterprise, chemical energy, and expenditure of public funds, we have managed to throw a few thousand pebbles that are now on the lip of that well. That accounts for probably 99% of our space programs. The returns in knowledge and commerce for that program are enormous, and it continues today. There is great value in satellite communications, weather forecasting, and science from projects like the Hubble. Not to mention I would hate to go back to navigating in strange places without Google maps and GPS Satellites.
For the money and effort, I am not impressed with the ISS. A wonderful ongoing Buck Rogers reality show for our enjoyment on Network and Cable TV, while Fred Thomson extols the financial wonders of Reverse Mortgages, and drug companies try to sell me boner pills for sexy people that like to take baths in separate bathtubs.
Beyond the lip of the well, we spent greater efforts to send 20 humans to the neighborhood of the moon, and 12 of them landed and explored small parts of the surface, all in a period of 4 years. When calculations were made as to the vast sums of money that could be made by walking around there and picking up rocks, versus the vast sums of money necessary to get there, that program of human exploration stopped.
The rest of our efforts (probably 1% or so?) are robot extraterrestrial missions. Well worth the effort, they return vast amounts of data about our universe.
I can’t believe that there is a huge public relations effort going on to try a manned mission to Mars. I have already done the calculations about the vast sums of money that can be made by walking around there, picking up rocks, versus the vast sums of money necessary to get there. Nothing in that calculation has improved in the 40 years since Apollo.
F. O. #16
Yeah, and when Einstein started mumbling deepities about the mind of god, we knew exactly what he was talking about, right?
Like Einstein talking about god, on this subject, Sagan was full of shit, IMHO. We are a race of meat robots, living at the bottom of that enormous well of gravity, under an umbrella of the atmosphere and the Van Allen belts (which give a lot of shielding to the ISS also. Low Earth orbit, remember?). Throughout millions of years of evolution, that has shielded our tender meaty asses from a constant stream of atomic firestorms from our daylight star and various other sources of violent radiation beyond the friendly neighborhood of our planet’s surface.
The universe between the planets is not a friendly place for humans. Here is an interesting chart showing estimates of the radiation dosage that can be expected out there, from JPL —
Keep in mind those are logarithmic scales. A six month trip to Mars gives you 25 times the annual Radiation dose on Earth. 500 days on the surface gives you another 25 times dose. You can’t just turn around and head back, you need to wait till Earth and Mars are lined up again. Then you get another 25 times dose in the six month return journey. Looks like any astronaut that made that trip would return with a permanent tan that would last him the rest of his life, which would likely be damn short, assuming he made it back before he was cooked.
Well, how about shielding, you say? sorry I can’t link to it (Subscription is expired), but an article in Scientific American a few years ago estimated that shielding to get those figures down to survivable levels would require a 2 foot lead shield around the crew quarters. A ten foot shield of water would do the trick also, IIRC. I suspect neither of those items are in the specs being drawn up for the Mars Exploration Vehicle.
If that chart from JPL and the boys from Scientific American are correct, it looks to me like no one is going to be traveling to Mars anytime soon.
However, that will not stop our illustrious Military Industrial Complex from spending “Billions and Billions” (thank you, Carl Sagan) of public monies on the effort for several years, before pulling those figures from that chart out of their asses, and letting us know, that alas, it just won’t work after all.
Thank you for listening.
@ K E Decilon
I think you’re off on the radiation dosage. The six-month trips there and back would definitely have them taking the full Cosmic Ray dosage, but while they’re on Mars they’ve got some protection from the Martian atmosphere (nothing compared to Earth, but it does apparently knock the dose down by half) and whatever dirt they pile on top of a hab.
The space dosage isn’t good, but it’s not a death sentence. Multi-mission ISS astronauts and some Cosmonauts have taken a similar dose to what a Mars Semi-Direct style mission set of astronauts would take, and they haven’t dropped dead from cancer or radiation sickness.
@K E Decilon #23
Dude, I think you may want to connect a bit better your arguments to the statements you intend to criticize.
Other than calling strawman, I can’t make sense of your point.
K E Decilon says
brett @ 24
Well, here is JPL again, comparing the levels on Mars to the levels on the ISS. —
Levels on Mars appear to be at least double that on the ISS, which is under the Van Allen belts.
Are there any figures on ISS Astronauts or Cosmonauts whose multi mission time adds up to 2 1/2 years total?
Good point about them living underground. Those engineers are clever, they can probably smuggle some kind of digging machine on board.
F.O. @ 25
My point would be that both Einstein and Sagan occasionally viewed things with an emotional investment, from their culture or their passion for their science, rather than the evidence they had from the real world. Carl was determined that we were destined to explore space, and that message was central to all his work.
In retrospect, Carl may never have seen those radiation figures for all I know, and may not have been full of shit.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson has seen them, and might be a bit over enthused about manned space exploration.
You are right, I could have framed it better.
Hey PZ, I think you need to get your “sensawunda” generator checked, this is the second time in the past week or so you’ve been a stick in the mud about trying to do things just because they would be cool.
Huge frickin’ rockets are cool. Building a lunar base would be cool. Going where no one has gone before–well, I guess you aren’t a Star Trek fan either.
Sure, there are problems here on Earth, but money can’t fix those. After all, we already have the resources to feed, clothe, and house everyone on earth–but we don’t, because (far too many) humans are stupid and greedy (e.g., Republicans).
So, if we can’t use the money to, god forbid, feed the poor, then at least we can use it to see some cool stuff, rather than to fund more wars and fill the pockets of the obscenely wealthy.
@K E Decilon #26: If you notice, my post didn’t deal with claim of reality, but with emotional drives.
I am fine with PZ feeling a different drive, but I wanted to explain mine.
I wanted to explain him why Sagan speaks to my drive.
If Einstein found mysticism in his scientific pursuit, good on him, but I never liked the way he described it nor felt any affinity to it.
Joe Felsenstein says
48 years ago, when I was first interviewing for an academic position, I met a biologist (a physiologist) who was flying experiments on one of the early satellites. He said, “Of course, there’s no scientific justification for the manned space program”. That brought me up short, and I had to admit that he was right. Well, almost right because we do want to know whether humans can survive and work in space.
About 20 years ago I was lecturing in a summer workshop. NASA was supplying part of the money, so they sent a NASA administrator, who attended the workshop. He turned out to be one of the high administrators of the unmanned space program, a guy who thought it would be fun to attend this course outside of his academic area.
He was a nice guy. In a break in the course, we talked and he asked me what information he could give me about our space program. I should have expressed my admiration for the wonderful science done by the unmanned space program. I asked him “Could you tell me what is the scientific justification for the manned space program?”
He said “Um, I’d have to get someone else to answer that”.
I think I have to anonymize him. It is pretty obvious that the people flying all those wonderful unmanned missions are perpetually frustrated by seeing the expenditure on the manned space program. But they can’t break ranks and say that out loud.
The Big Why of the space program should be: Are we just going to sit here on this rock until we go extinct like everything else, or are we going to be the first life forms to break that cycle? That’s pretty big and something I’d expect an actual evolutionary biologist to understand.
We’re not learning a whole lot from the manned missions from the past 35-40 years. You’re right, doing what we’re doing now IS a waste of money and resources. We need to be doing big, nearly-impossible projects, because that’s where we learn new things. Doing what we already know how to do over and over and over (see: ISS) isn’t going to teach us anything we don’t already know.
@ #14 oliversarmy: You could try “The Pompatus of Love.”
As for the rest of this thread, who cares about minor differences of opinion on how science and engineering are done? All that really matters is that it gets done. If I bring a snowball to the floor of the Senate I will be rightly ridiculed as a fool, but more importantly the public will buy the stunt and denigrate the science. This reveals a deep problem with the way science issues are reported.
consciousness razor says
Come on, he made some remarks about the god of Spinoza, who has to be one of the least mystical “goddists” there have ever been. For a very long time people routinely called Spinoza an atheist, and as far as I know, there’s very little that he said (or could’ve said) to actually disagree with that fact, even though this was basically impossible to admit openly at the time (which was still very hard even in Einstein’s lifetime). He would pretty much evade it by insisting he was a good person, blah, blah, blah, and that’s about it. But when you’re basically saying “all that crap theologians refer to isn’t really god but is instead nature, because that’s all there is, so let’s say that’s what ‘god’ is” … it’s not hard to see why that’s an approach people like Einstein could at least find respectable, for putting forward something substantive in place instead of merely denying all manner of things like a lot of atheists would do.
I have great respect for Elon Musk because he made hundreds of millions of dollars creating something useful, and instead of retiring to the country club and investing in Wall Street ‘products’ he blew it all on rockets and electric cars, fully aware that he was most likely to fail on both accounts. His end dream is a multi-planetary civilization with a fully sustainable energy use. That is an insanely huge goal that could bankrupt countries, yet he has been pretty successful so far bootstrapping himself from scratch using a relatively small amount of money. It is an odd choice of retirement hobbies, but they are interesting. They are cool. And they could change the world for the better.
I’m currently watching the live streaming of the Falcon 9 CRS-7 mission. NASA showed a couple really good videos one about the science experimented designed and built by school kids and the other about the science experiment of growing vegetables in space. Both highly interesting space science.
This flight might very likely be the first time SpaceX lands their first stage and will be one of the greatest space achievements in decades as it will open space up to many, many more groups. It is an engineering marvel. PZ might not get off on amazing gadgets humans created, but some do and Falcon 9 is an amazing gadget.
Or the whole thing can fucking blow up before stage separation.
Damn rocket science is hard.
consciousness razor says
You expect them to say that we can somehow collectively will ourselves into a situation where we won’t evolve into something else? Most probably understand that life of some sort (maybe not the species of your choice, which must remain static) has been remarkably good at continuing even after catastrophic extinction events, considering how obvious it is that “everything else” has never actually gone extinct as far as anyone can tell. Also, having a fairly solid understanding of deep time and so forth, they probably get that we have a long time to sit on this rock, evolving into whatever, before there’s any actual reason why we’d actually need to leave it somehow (which is different from you having a strong hankering for it as an individual). There’s also no reason to think, no matter what else might happen, that leaving a rock (how many of us?) would somehow make us escape evolution or natural selection. It just doesn’t work like that.
Rob Grigjanis says
“This rock” is my home. That’s where I keep all my stuff*. Anyway, you’ve got to go extinct somewhere, and I can’t think of a better spot. The rocks are all out there, in a hard place. T.S. Eliot (unwittingly) wrote a great response to the Mars colony bullshit;
*Stolen from The Tick
Rob Grigjanis says
F.O. @28: I find this much more mystical (and barfworthy to boot) than anything Einstein said or wrote;
consciousness razor says
Seriously, Einstein was common sense on steroids. Blame him for that if you really think he had it wrong about something. (Indeed, people like Rob Grigjanis might say that about his arguments against Bohr et al.) But to say that he had a “mystical” approach is so far off the mark that it’s just comical. And to then add that Sagan’s brand of newage metaphors and pipe dreams are more your style really makes it seem like this might be some kind of absurdist performance art more than anything genuine or thoughtful.
@35, consciousness razor
I might be putting words in their mouth, but I don’t think that’s what they were saying. When I make that argument, I use “we” to refer to modern humans and whatever we happen to become. Also, while we almost certainly have an astronomically huge amount of time left of this planet (barring incident), it is also an inevitability that eventually that time will run out. It might run out when the sun blows away our atmosphere and cooks the planet to a lifeless hellscape, it might run out when a rogue neutron star passes through our solar system, or it might run out when Andromeda and we just so happen to spiral out of our galactic orbit and hit something. Yeah, most of these are highly unlikely, sure (and fairly optimistic in the case of the first), but it is a certain bet that eventually life is going to be impossible on this planet. While some people would be content with the idea of the human race (or whatever you care to call our descendents) dying out in a billion years, I’d prefer the alternative. *shrugs*
To get out of low orbit we NEED A FUCKING THERMAL NUCLEAR ENGINE. Even a unit with very conservative specifications will help. And -quoting Carlo Rubbia- it does not have to be more expensive than much other space-related hardware.
consciousness razor says
That would be fine if that’s how you use it, but in what sense would that be breaking the cycle of something, apparently having to do with extinction, in a way that evolutionary biologists are supposedly expected to understand?
I was arguing against space exploration, particularly manned missions. There aren’t many uses for that. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t start projects aimed at deflecting threatening asteroids or comets, for instance. I haven’t considered a neutron star, since they’re especially rare, but that seems like a case where there’s simply nothing we have the power to do (although we’d spot it very early and very easily compared to something dark).
If you’re afraid of galaxy mergers, there’s nothing to do about that. There’s nowhere else to go, because intergalactic space is not friendly to life to say the least, even compared to the shooting gallery of exploding stuff that already surrounds us. That’s what our home is going to be like, for as long as anybody is there to live in it. Anyway, the chances of something actually hitting us or disturbing our orbits is very low. And there’s nothing you can really do about that, because there aren’t any special places which are any safer in general, so the same risks would still apply. If you want to cook up special or conspiratorial scenarios where there are specific safe places for us to go, then you could do that for the purposes of this argument, but that’s not something we can actually rely on.
Oddly enough, if we’re ridiculously lucky, a wandering star headed our way could be the best thing we could hope for. If it happens to send us in a trajectory away from the Sun in the next couple of billion years or so, the planet thus wouldn’t be cooked by the Sun. It will just slowly freeze in the middle of nowhere, which might last longer than the frying pan (maybe we could stay warm underground). Or (again it would be fantastically lucky) we could get into an orbit around the new star that’s relatively safer than being utterly destroyed. So, it’s not a simple or straightforward thing that these kinds of interactions would always be bad for us.
It is a certain bet that eventually life is going to be impossible everywhere. Talking as if it’s this planet is a big warning sign to me that you don’t really appreciate what the problem actually is. This planet is definitely not the problem — it’s literally the only thing we’ve got.
What’s the alternative supposed to be? That our descendents never die out? That they have two or three billion years instead of one? How is doing anything whatsoever right now, having anything to do with institutions like NASA, going to have any effect on that?
Seeing how many gadgethead Space Cadets are now cheering for Branson and his murderous suborbital joyride scam for the surreally rich, I’d say yes, that’s what space is all about now. Maybe in a few years that exhibit will be run by Space Pope Self-Made Innovator Supergenius Elon Musk, if he’s not too busy watching his rockets explode. If his marketing department can make fleecing the government for sweet, sweet taxdollars like the most important contribution to humanity’s progress, I’m sure they can make a nice exhibit that entertains the rubes.
In an ideal world we would use our financial resources to expand human knowledge beyond all imagination with a fleet of cheap robotic vehicles, but here in the broken real world our space programs are in the hands of cranks who’re high on Manifest Destiny and want to reenact America’s westward expansion in the irradiated vacuum of outer space, or say to themselves “okay, maybe we’ve wrecked Earth. Fuck it, let’s just move to a new planet!”
The sooner we as a species realize there’s no bountiful, unclaimed shores out there, no escape hatch for our irresponsible treatment of nature, only hostile wastelands, the better.
consciousness razor says
Just to press the point a little more. Suppose instead of collisions and such, you’re worried about radiation instead, from a nearby supernova or whatever. Maybe you’re worried because the galaxy merger (or whatever) caused some new star formation in our neighborhood. I can’t see how the thing that you would want to do in that case is put everybody (more likely a handful of everybody) into some rickety spaceship with practically no shielding and with nowhere to go. You go into your bomb shelter, probably way underground here on this planet, and do what you can to survive for as long as necessary. Don’t be the guy in the disaster movie who tries to drive away (just in the nick of time) from the tornado/monster/whatever in his trusty old pickup truck. In reality, that’s not a very safe place to be.
As an engineer, I think I agree with you. We engineers enjoy and are pretty good at making things and solving problems. Ask us to make a Mars Rover and we’ll make it. The problem as you say, is that with the space programme, too often the priority seems to be making and delivering the hardware, not asking what the hardware is supposed to do.
I find the “how” to be absolutely fascinating. How does this rocket work, what neat trick did you use to reduce the fuel consumption to something manageable, how are you going to survive the huge energies involved (and the lack thereof, at other times), etc.
I’m doing a startup, and the potential investors have taught me that what normal people care about is the “why”. So now I have to recalibrate. Apparently it’s the norm in startups founded by technically-minded people.
I read PZ to be saying the same here: you want to know “why” we’re going to space whereas the exhibit is aimed at telling you about the “how”.
You do realize that the heretofore safest rocket on earth just blew up hours ago?
People have good reason to be a bit paranoid about putting plutonium on rockets.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
The direct cause of the explosion has been determined:
Finding why the overpressure occurred will take time.
There’s long been open bickering between the manned and unmanned programs. I worked a couple years on the unmanned side, and it quickly became clear to me also that science was served better, faster, and cheaper by robotic probes than by human exploration.
The peaceful reason for human exploration is colonization. The imperialist reason (which I suspect is how it actually gets funded) is to brag about how capable our engineers are.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
What? If they’re on that moon, they can’t find a way to have some fun? While thinking about here, all safe and snug, it may look kraaazzzzeeee, yet isolated so far from everybody else, it may be the only way to stay sane.
IOW, “human error”, not mechanical incompetence.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
the rationale is embolded
Exploration is a goal unto itself, from which our knowledgebase is enhanced, which makes solving a whole host of other problems not previously considered addressable by the exploration. “Unforeseen consequences” is not only a euphemism for “negative effects”. Ask James Burke about “Connections”.
AJ Milne says
I haven’t seen the exhibit (and am unlikely to), but figure I’d probably share the sentiment if I did.
Don’t get me wrong. The technology is neat. I build bots myself now and then, am quite fond of small programmable things that move and react. It’s on a slightly different level of silly from the manned space program, that celebrating the technology thing, obsessing over the rovers, I might mention, but still…
The point being: in space, cool as these intricate contraptions are, they’re just not the stars. (If you’ll forgive the double entendre…) You’d have to be one hell of a robot to compete, it seems to me, with attention for the bizarre exoplanets we’re teasing out of spectra, the methane lakes of Titan…
I mean, yes, New Horizons is one heckuva mission, more than a bit mad, in a few ways. Current speed relative to Pluto insanely fast (I can give you the number in km/sec… and our monkey brains just barf considering what this means, so it hardly seems worth bothering)… Fun fact: hitting the window where they get the best images and other data off the target bits of rock and ice is one hell of a challenge, given the orbits are less well known than some, and everything’s moving at these crazy speeds… Thing in Nature the other day reviewing the same, if anyone’s interested…
And it’s 4.7 billion km from here. Yes, neat. Neat barely cuts it. Thank you, engineers, all of you, and I mean this, for making this happen. No, it wouldn’t happen without the bot, the booster, the clever people figuring out the slingshot off Jupiter’s well…
… but the whole damned point is what it’s sending back. Stuff like this.
That’s Pluto and Charon. 4.7 billion km from here, as shot late last week. And every day, bigger and bigger in the cameras. From that face-peelingly fast crazy flyby, we’re going to see Kuiper Belt objects up close. First time in human history…
Nice bot and all, but, um… Holy shit! We’re visiting Kuiper Belt objects! (If, granted, a peculiar and special class thereof, but if you’re going to do that, picking relatively large ones observed for relatively long isn’t the worst approach, I figure). Up close enough to see the surface details! These frozen bits been out there billions of years since this whole mess coalesced from dust, and now we can see them in this detail. It’s been out there in the freezing cold, that long, relatively unchanged, in all probability, since the beginning of it all, and now we’ve got these pictures, with more to come. What it might tell us about all we guess of how all that formed, how it got where it is, that’s the big deal. The cool little RTG-powered contraption is nice, but that’s just the warmup act. That ancient object and its moons, those are the headliners.
I think “the problem” is more basic and fundamental.
as 31 indicated with his example of the snowball he was not laughed out of the senate hall sure many here thought it was a stupid thing to do but he was listened to by many.
That is the problem. I take it that PZ is perplexed and frustrated that the science was barely mentioned in the displays. I am myself amazed that what we are learning about existence through science is not eagerly devoured by the public at large. It seems that most would rather wonder through life in some kind of intellectual torpor and listen to those who actively dispute science/reason.
I see PZ saying that the attempt to overcome the public’s ignorance and aversion toward space exploration and science by trying to excite and entice with flashy engineering is clearly failing. just look at the difficulty getting funding for science related projects including education.
I realized the space program had lost its way (if it ever had one) around the time of the Apollo Soyuz mission. I would have been around 10. In retrospect, I can appreciate the engineering difficulty of linking spacecraft from two different nations who weren’t communicating about much at the time. But it is still all about stunt, not science.
I like unmanned missions and would like to see more. Neither the space shuttle nor ISS got me very excited. I think landing on the moon was a big deal and it amazes me that the US managed to do it faster than a local municipality has managed to redevelop a mall that closed in 2002. I have been very interested in the Mars rovers, but it disappoints me that they did not capture the popular imagination the way astronauts do. Actually Mars Pathfinder got more media attention than the later, more advanced rovers if I’m not mistaken.
Maybe they really ought to put advertising on the rovers like in Nascar. This has been suggested satirically, but there would be a lot more incentive to keep them in the news. Or for something more advanced, have them project ads on the surface to include in downloads. This would have the advantage of not letting the logos go out of date and would accommodate more advertisers. Really, I’m grasping at straws, but just something to make people outside NASA care.
There are a couple of astronauts and cosmonauts that are close. Sergei Krikalev has spent 803 days total in orbital space, and Valeri Polyakov has spent 22 months (including a single-duration 437 days in orbital space). Neither of these men have cancer or radiation sickness, and they’ve taken doses that are probably at least what the Mars astronauts would take when you figure they’d have a lower dose on the surface of Mars.
They wouldn’t have to dig underground, either. It’d be enough just to pile dirt and rocks on top of the lander, enough to get at least two feet of protection. If they’re using a separate return vehicle than they’ll be fine.
One of the best, most accessible essays I’ve read proving this point was astronaut Don Pettit’s The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation. It really shows why rocketry is so damn difficult:
stevem@50: Please explain more. You said I was wrong to say that human spaceflight is a more expensive and slower way to do it than robots, but you didn’t bother saying why.
Just to clarify my prior post, I’m commenting on a particular issue with a manned Mars mission. That doesn’t mean I necessarily support a Mars mission, although I actually do think such a mission would be a huge scientific boon if you can deal with the risks of contamination.
The idea that we’ll be building colonies in space in the next 50 years is rather silly. Beyond that, though, things get unpredictable. When you can have remotely operated robots build all your space colonies in Low Earth Orbit if you have the money for it, then it just becomes a personal preference – you choose to live in a space colony for the same reason people choose to live in Phoenix versus Denver, or what have (or in a high-rise luxury tower versus a mansion on a ranch in Wyoming).
AJ Milne says
Oh. What the hell. We all have our obsessions. Gotta add:
Right now, out in the blackness beyond, apart from the various Mars rovers and orbiters, we have:
Dawn, orbiting Ceres, this its second stop after Vesta. Ion engine powered. Brilliant concept, truly a piece of the future, if you ask me. Mastering this stuff is going to be very useful for missions well beyond this. And Ceres is amazing. A real eye-opener. Still don’t know what the bright spots are, exactly, though the general consensus that they’re some kinda impact ejecta seems a bit of a gimme. And we didn’t know they were there before this year.
Rosetta orbiting Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Philae on the surface (!) of the same comet. For all the difficulties, we former cave dwellers now know what this bizarre bi-lobed thing looks like up close, got tonnes of spectra, months of observation in.
New Horizons, as mentioned just above, about to scream past Pluto (!, again). Pluto. 32 AU out there, and about as remote a target as you could practically imagine going after. People grumbled a bit around launch it was a bit of an arbitrary thing to do, visiting it, but geez, I’ll take the closeup pictures of Kuiper Belt objects in situ, thank you very much. Oh, and yes, for those just joining at home: the New Horizons closest approach is about two weeks away, now. Stay tuned.
It’s so much these last few months, what with having a life to live and all, I can’t really keep track, day to day. I’ll turn around, realize I haven’t even seen the latest LORRI pictures from Pluto because I just haven’t had time. Yes, we’ve a robot in the Kuiper Belt, more surface features swimming into view daily, and I don’t have time to pay attention to it. Too many distractions… from the asteroid belt… And from the bots tagging along with the short period comet…
It’s truly an age of exploration. But with due respect to the astronauts, from where I’m standing, the ISS is practically a footnote. I’m not going to claim enough knowledge to say with certainty human crewed space exploration will never make sense. But right now, and for the forseeable future, the robots do way, way more interesting science (for way, way less, too, yes, but, seriously, even if they cost more, they’d be more worth it), and we have targets enough for them we could fly dozens more, easily (and methinks it’s worth pushing this technology, for when we have targets we want badly enough to get probes close to vastly further still). If you want to know what’s out there, this is how you do it. So to do an exhibit on space exploration and talk about the manned missions and the ISS does absolutely seem to me to miss what’s really going on, and what really matters.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
Did I? Looking at 50 again (and again, repeatedly), I still can’t see it. Please quote where I said that, then I’ll try to explain.
I totally agree that human spaceflight is much more expensive than robotic. The advantage of including humans, though, should not be dismissed solely on a priori costs. I expect human spaceflight will provide a much bigger ROI [Return On Investment] than robotic. There are advantages, side effects, to preparing robots for spaceflight, however, during the mission itself, robots are much less flexible to spontaneously adapt to unforeseen events and would require human intervention (if possible, given distance limitations).
The skepticism regarding human exploration of space is that it would cost roughly a hundred of billions to get out to, say, Mars. Once. But one robotic mission costs about a billion, and robots keep getting more capable as we do more research. Throw 100 robot missions out to Mars, you’d learn a lot. We’ve already learned a bunch from the two dozen missions that have gone out there.
Colonization is inherently imperialist. But the important part is that there’s nothing to colonize in space. On Earth you had landmasses that were part of the same biosphere (and that could be effectively cleared off their indigenous populations by Western diseases and muskets). There’s nothing comparable in space whatsoever.
And those Space Cadets who claim all it takes is blue algae and shrimps to “terraform” other planets are full of shit.
@consciousness razor #32: I think you are reading too much in the word “mysticism” or, more likely, I misused the word. Please bear in mind that this was an answer to a different comment. I agree with you, really.
I have a slightly different perspective[*].
Manned spaceflight is hard, expensive and dangerous. We are operating machines at the very peak of their capabilities. And things go wrong, and we learn from them.
Putting humans in orbit is not going to get any easier or cheaper if we just sit around and think about it. We have to *do* it. The moon race provided a kickstart, showed what could be done if we put our minds to it. Yes, the science that came out of it was minimal, imagine what we could do if a trip to the moon was as routine as an ocean submersible? Or a nature hike?
Right now we are in the barnstorming phase of human spaceflight. It’s not outwardly flashy, a little side science gets done but in my opinion the real benefit is the day to day solving the little problems that always come up – clean water, exercise, supply logistics, psychological health, physical health, and so on. Not to mention the mechanical upkeep. Every supply mission brings equipment that is just a little better that what it’s replacing. Every crew rotation brings in people with new perspectives and new ideas. Much of the science that is done is geared towards the facility itself – remote manipulators, 3d printers, water reclamation and so on. All of this is continually making it a little more feasible and a little cheaper and a little more reliable to send people to the truly interesting destinations and do real science – handle the unpredicatbility that robotic probes cannot cope with.
Some of this is bearing fruit with the more commercially-oriented approach to operations NASA is taking. SpaceX brought a big push to bring costs down, but they are standing on the shoulders of NASA to do it. More power to them. Others are bringing their own innovations to the table. NASA and ISS are the catalyst allowing this to happen. Someday regular folks will be able to book a stay in a Bigelow orbiting resort, with no involvement from NASA. Someday instead of a crew spending a month on a drilling platform in the North Atlantic they will be spending their month mining asteroids, again with no involvement from NASA. That day has not come, but it will so long as we don’t give up. Yeah, those are not flashy endeavors but how many business areas are? And how can we even conceive of what ideas someone may have once putting up a satellite is no more expensive than putting up a cell tower?
Sure some say our limited dollars are better spent on robots or feeding poor or subsidizing oil exploration, or whatever their favorite cause is. There’s no reason we can’t do that too. We just, as a nation, choose not to. We are not talking about a huge amount of money: NASA’s entire budget is about $18B per year, an order of magnitude less than we spend on, say, cosmetics. (Fun fact: if you add up *all* of NASA’s budgets since it’s inception, including moon shots, Space Shuttle, ISS and science missions, you come up less than was spent to bail out banks in our last financial crisis.).
Anyway, I agree that more needs to be done to explain to the public just *why* we are spending all this money putting a handful of men and women into orbit. Most people’s sense of wonder and eagerness for the “world of tomorrow” has been replaced by ironclad cynicism and defeatism. That’s the nut that needs to be cracked.
[*] Yes I do have a dog in this fight [**]. Space is putting food on my table and putting my kids through school. And is a hell of a lot of fun to boot. So sue me.
[**] Not SpaceX, somebody else. But their successes benefit us all. And their loss this morning brings tears to all our eyes.
This is not a justification by itself. Until you have an independent reason for putting humans in orbit you could make the same point about other difficult problems, such as teaching cows ballet or building colossal sculptures of spun sugar.
In fact, I think it is interesting to put humans in space, and would be happy to see more money put into it if it was not taken out of unmanned missions. Even the “limited dollars” argument is largely bogus. The US suffers more from idle manufacturing capacity than from a lack of resources. We could be fixing infrastructure, funding alternative energy, and doing more science while actually improving our economic position if the political will was there.
My main objection is the idea that the limiting factor to having off-world colonies is sluggish progress in spaceflight. There are many other problems that would need to be solved before you could have a self-sustaining moon base or Mars colony. My view is that most of these problems will be much more tractable when we have self-reproducing and self-repairing robots. It is true that there are some things humans can do in space better than robots, but I don’t believe, for instance, that building a human habitat on the moon is one of them. It might be today, but given sufficient automation, it would just be a huge waste of resources to have a lot of humans going back and forth in space suits to build something, and it would not be done this way. Fortunately, progress in automation is driven by earthbound economic needs. I’m of the view that whenever it actually looks like it would make sense to have a permanent presence on the moon or Mars, that there would be sufficient time for space technologies to catch up. Even if I thought it was very important to have a lot of humans on other planets (and not just an expensive one-off), I do not think that the current state of NASA progress is really very relevant to the timing of that event.
I do not think it was a fluke of history that we went to the moon at the very height of the cold war. The fear of some catastrophic doom from The Soviet Union helped get the budget more than all the great science iscoveries to be made in space research.
All the talk about wasted monies on this or that program are just a side issue. There is scant talk about any waste in the $60+B we acknowledge being spent on the secret security services like the NSA and the security theater of the TSA.
We wont get serious about space exploration until there are Chinese astronaut orbiting the moon and even then the science will be secondary as a motivation.
I am not going to hold my breath waiting.
>>To get out of low orbit we NEED A FUCKING THERMAL NUCLEAR ENGINE. Even a unit with very >>conservative specifications will help. And -quoting Carlo Rubbia- it does not have to be more >>expensive than much other space-related hardware.
>You do realize that the heretofore safest rocket on earth just blew up hours ago?
The stage with the nuclear engine would not be activated until reaching the parking orbit in LEO. The reactor would be designed for not accidentally going critical (rods in the reactor etc) during a launch mishap. No plutonium, only U. With a pristine unused reactor, there will be no dangerous fissile products.
Anyway, other options (ion propulsion, light sails) limit the payload and/or mean acceleration will be very small, stretching mission time. If you want to get a serious payload out of Earth orbit to asteroids or to Mars, the other propulsion options are supplemental, but the core is a nuclear thermal engine.
@paulbc: Of course humans in space isn’t its own end. But you can’t really choose your ballet until your cows are already reasonably good at dancing.
Robots can do a lot, and are getting better all the time, but IMHO they are never going to be able to be as efficient and flexible as a human being. An exploration robot is only as good as the instruments you thought to hang on it and the motive power you gave it. A satellite servicing robot is only as good as the tools it has on hand. Look at the last Hubble servicing mission – some extra creativity and brute strength were needed to access areas on the instrument not originally designed for servicing. And any teleoperated robot is always going to have latency issues due to the sheer distance to its operator (lightspeed delays) and planetary geometry (Curiosity is currently inaccessible due to the Sun being in the way.
Of course there will always be a place for robotics, especially high-risk or high-stamina applications. But a robot under the ice on Europa is going to be far more effective controlled by humans nearby (in orbit around Europa or even camped on the surface).
No, human spaceflight isn’t the sole thing limiting exploration progress. There are many, many aspects that need to be worked on. Why solve them one at a time? As you pointed out, there is plenty of industrial capacity in this nation (and in the world) to have several aspects converging at once.
In response to your final point, I’d like to draw your attention to the chicken-and-egg problem. Right now locating something like a factory to space is pure science fiction, with nobody seriously considering it because it’s too expensive and too unreliable to get there. Solve the cost problem and who knows what will happen? Once upon a time geosynchronous communications satellites were the thing of pure science fiction, now it’s a very profitable industry. Self-replicating, self-repairing, intelligent robots are today the stuff of science fiction, why wait for that to come to pass if you can put a manned depot on site cheaply? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but why dismiss it out of hand?
Aleksander Modzelewski says
That’s true – robots would have to start holding themselves back for that to happen.
Which is pretty much true for manned missions as well – there is very little room for jury-rigging things in space.
And look how no current or future space telescope is planned to have support for servicing missions. It just turned out to be completely uneconomical. Just preparing the space equipment to have all the necessary hatches requires redesigning the entire thing.
You do realise that even just keeping the *robots* functioning in the radiation environment around Jupiter is tricky? You know why Europa Clipper is a “clipper”? Because it’s not actually going into orbit, because staying in orbit around Europa would fry it within a few months, even with all the hardening it will have. Sending anything remotely squishy to Jupiter is silly.
But a robot can do it, because a robot is more flexible and efficient that a human – because we don’t really have to fix it. We can just send another one later. Robots are disposable, humans are not.
I’m a gadget head, I love all the fancy equipment — but it’s really hard to admit that, cool as it is, manned space program should be put on ice at least until someone comes up portable fusion reactors. Oh, btw: NERVAs? I’m sure the operators of all the earth observation satellites are super excited about yet another wonky nuclear-powered poorly shielded nuclear satellite flying around.
Elon Musk is one of the worst things that happened to the space program. He’s a libertopian, after all, he’s one of them who pull the strings that make budget cuts to NASA happen. This way he can cheaply buy off their engineers, know-how and tech. His company is built on the work and achievements of NASA, a classical corporate parasite.
And they benefit us fuck all. All he does with his rockets is transport government payload, in typical libertarian hypocritical fashion. Fleecing the government for taxdollars is the opposite of benefiting anyone but yourself.
That applies to most corporate giants. They just endlessly repackage the achievements of the public sector and market it as “innovation”. Disgusting.
Aleksander Modzelewski says
Not if they have any experience and pay attention to what’s written about SpaceX. 5-star reviews of the company on Glassdoors involve minuses like “Working long hours can be beneficial” or “Long hours, no 401k matching” or “No real work/life balance what so ever” and “Management sometimes view workers as expendable parts versus a human being” and “With high stress and constant challenges, there are no real incentives or motivators aside form keeping your job” (those last three in one review, and still five stars. I’m kinda scared of that person). And then there’re more obvious things, like people being fired for single mistakes, Musk denouncing tech as uncool and hyping tech that’s one notch on the nut ladder than EM drive (just think about MCT or Hyperloop) and I can’t imagine why you’d work for them having a choice and enough experience to recognise the warning signs — though I slightly suspect that might be European perspective, where “no 401k matching” + quick search of Wikipedia immediately translates to “disposable short-term contract you do only when desperate”.
That might be a nitpick, but that’s not entirely fair. SpaceX definitely massively overhypes their achievements (typically for a Musk company), but it did bring out some engine tech from tests to flying, and the landing stuff might bring some benefit for routine launches (note how it’s actually more useful for “boring” LEO earth observing stuff than flashy high dV missions, which tend to eat the return flight fuel reserves).
To get the public to support realistic spending for “heroic” space projects, we need heroic photos. The photo of Earth by Apollo 8 is iconic and has inspired the “spaceship earth” analogy, but we need more. The Apollo landers landed at places considered safe, without terrain that might topple the lander.
If they had landed near the end of a collapsed lava tube and managed to shoot an image of a huge cavern opening to the lunar surface interest for the space program would not have plummeted so fast.
New orbiters have detected more, smaller tava tube cave openings everywhere, and it would be eminently doable to send a lunar rover to take some photos. Any steep chasms and other dramatic terrain (like the imaginary space vistas painted by Chesley Bonestell) is a must to break the association of space with nothing but boring lunar plains.
Likewise, a martian probe able to soar in the thin atmosphere should seek out “monument valley” analogs on Mars and film them in different light conditions. The payoff in public support will be well worth the investment.
Aleksander Modzelewski says
Thanks $entity I don’t want “heroic” space projects!
you can’t have a space race with only one serious player. Most people don’t care enough about space or for that matter do they even consider the future at all to be other than a projection of what they selectively see as the past.
For every Elon Musk there are hundreds of Ken Hams and Sarah Palins
Speaking of the manned spaceflight program, NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (the one use they supposedly have for it in the 2020s aside from expensive missions to ISS in Low Earth Orbit) is steadily becoming more of a farce. They’re not even sending them out to grab an asteroid anymore – they’re sending a robot out to grab it and park it around the Moon, whereupon astronauts will go to lunar orbit and fool around with it for a few days.
Seriously, that’s what it is. It would likely be cheaper to simply move the boulder they grab into Low Earth Orbit to be picked up there, but that wouldn’t let them claim that “we’re going back to the Moon!”.
A lot of that is the obnoxious Hollywoodization and Madison Avenue methodology of selling to their target, what they routinely regard as a dumb consumer public. Its the same influence that has wrecked science and nature programming on television, and NASA as well as space museums and planetaria hire from that same odious reservoir of slimy merchant used-car salespeople.
And a lot has to do with scientists, technicians and engineers (as well as administrators with professional backgrounds in those fields) not noticing or caring what’s wrong with that picture, as long as the appearance of artificial interest is maintained. It isn’t about enlightenment or educating people about the importance of science in the acquisition of knowledge anymore. Its about sensationalizing – making consumers squeal with mindless excitement over getting tickled.
If history has taught us anything, it is that every proponent of nuclear power is lying their ass off.
I think it was Cassini, where NASA swore the launcher was safe and the gravity-sling flyby of Earth was safe, so no worries about the radioactives aboard. The next time they used that launcher, it blew up. And the next flyby hit atmo.
Aleksander Modzelewski says
Spreading negligible debris and some hazardous chunks of metal, which cost a few million to clean up (which Soviet Union only paid in half, because they’re such good neighbours). It was dumb and embarrassing, but in no way a significant environmental impact you seem to be trying to paint it as. I dislike (earth-orbiting) nuclear reactors as pointless, heavy and impacting other orbit operations, but risk *on earth* really isn’t much. That was pretty much the worst-case scenario for a space-borne fission reactor crash, and all that happened was a few irradiated chunks of metal that Canadians had to search for.
As for RTGs, those are hilariously hardy — though I’m not too happy about them, as plutonium-238 is kinda toxic and ridiculously expensive. Still, very useful, and RTGs survived crashing into earth returning from the Moon (specifically, Apollo-13 RTG), so I’m more worried about an engineer mishandling them or something than release.
ooh, that’s a fine thingie. It’s executive summary includes this lovely passage:
With the estimated likelihood of invadventent reentry at 1e-6. So no, it really wasn’t a serious risk, and whoever you’re quoting is being horribly sensationalist, or can point out actual flaws in that statement, not just cherry-pick quotes from it.
Human space travelers have some things that our machines still don’t — a combination of good fast reactions and dexterity. If you’ve ever done any household repairs, you’ve experienced how valuable that combination is. For commanding a vehicle on Mars or orbiting it, one has a round-trip time raising between about 8 minutes and about 40 minutes. That makes it awkward to command rovers on the planet’s surface. One can’t simply drive it the way that one can drive a remotely-controlled car.
That being said, it’s much cheaper to send remote-controlled and automated spacecraft to other planets than to send people there. It also has much less risk, since we don’t have ethical problems about sending machines on one-way trips, including trips that destroy them.