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Why Aren't We in Space?

chicago dyke's picture

So a couple of my Netflix this week are space related. It's got me wondering: why aren't we there? "We" being the whole globe, not just NASA and the US. Yes, I know that China and other nations have been moving along in terms of space explorations. Still, it's interesting to think about today, and just a few decades ago, when popular writers and thinkers and even politicians believed we'd have bases on the Moon and spaceships near Saturn by now. I have my own conspiracy theories, but they are mostly silly. It just irks me, though, as a sci fi reader and movie fan of long time, that space isn't a priority anymore, as it was in my parents' generation. Feel free to diss space exploration as a waste of time, if that's your opinion. Myself, I see it as (go on and laugh, I'm a Trekkie) the Last Frontier, and the only chance we may have for real freedom.

Ken and I are on the same page here, yo. And then there's this this NASA guy.

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ScentOfViolets's picture
Submitted by ScentOfViolets on

I'm not sure I understand what you feel is lacking these days. There's lots of space exploration going on - here's a partial list of them so far. Are you perhaps thinking of manned space exploration? I think that one's a nonstarter and will be for some time to come. To see why, check out what the Juno probe will have to contend with while it orbits Jupiter:

"For the 15 months Juno orbits Jupiter, the spacecraft will have to withstand the equivalent of more than 100 million dental X-rays," said Bill McAlpine, Juno's radiation control manager, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "In the same way human beings need to protect their organs during an X-ray exam, we have to protect Juno's brain and heart."

So there's plenty of interesting stuff going on right now, even as we speak, and more missions in the future. We just won't be sending tinned primates out to investigate.

Submitted by brucedixon on

Boosting humans and cargo into space on top of firecrackers is a pretty lame and expensive way to get them out there. If humankind were serious about space, the only way to lift sufficient cargo up there to make a difference would be via a permanent structure near the equator, a space elevator.

Trouble is, such a structure can only be built and operated near the equator or the poles, and as long as nations are hostile to one another, a space elevator is a sitting target. So as long as nations are warring against one another, you can't build one of these.

And of course there are technical challenges too, not to be minimized. It would have to be constructed of much stronger, much lighter materials than are available now. Research, they say, is underway. But nobody's holding breath.

But if you ever could build these, putting humans or cargo into space, or perhaps bringing them down would just be the equivalent of a long train ride, and could be done at a fraction of the cost per pound of lifting things into space via rockets.

ScentOfViolets's picture
Submitted by ScentOfViolets on

I, uh, don't think space elevators will work at the poles. Maybe you're thinking of something else.

Submitted by Lex on

I've long thought that the greatest failure of the 90's was in Clinton deciding to beat swords into more swords. With the fall of the USSR, it was the perfect time to "cut" the defense budget. Now we all know that you can't really cut that budget, but it could have been shifted towards space as most of the players are the same.

We're much more likely to get civilian technology from the space program than building a better bunker buster.

It also would have been a good way to build that bridge to the 21st Century that he yammered on about. Wouldn't have hurt in terms of turning Russia into an ally either, which would have been the smart thing to do given that Russia had resources, technology and a smallish, well-educated population. Instead he sent Summers to pillage Russia and made the most obvious future competitor of the US our "most favored nation" for trade.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i grew up reading a lot of sci fi and it's always interesting to go back to the older stuff and see how wrong they got it. but most sci fi folks in the 60s and 70s really believed we were on the verge of something. what interests me is that the sci fi world got a lot right- computers, nanotech, gene engineering, etc. but so many were so wrong about space.

i grok that in terms of weight and the difficulty humans have exposed to the rigors of space, getting people and stuff in space and staying there is economically a challenge, not to mention the engineering and science part. still. the riches of the asteroid belt alone should be motivating...somebody, some dreaming richee bastard with great influence over a government, i dunno.

"that's impossible" hasn't stopped millions of people around the world throughout history from trying, and sometimes even succeeding. with oil running out, the climate changing rapidly, the proliferation of dangerous and unstable corporate or terrorist controlled states, i'd like more people to have a sense of urgency about space exploration.

Lex: i totally agree with your post. the more i look back on what Clinton didn't get done, the less of a fan i become.

another thing that interests me is the way a lot of progressives have a harsh and negative reaction to the idea of increasing the amount of money we spend on space exploration. Lex's way is the obvious way to go, but i'm constantly surprised how many times i'm told that to do so would be unprogressive because that money is better spent on [insert non-space progressive cause here]. one almost never is told, "we have to completely eliminate the DOE, because children are starving and that money is better spent on food stampts" by progressives. but bring up space, and all the sudden they become budget cutting hawks. it's odd.

ScentOfViolets's picture
Submitted by ScentOfViolets on

With respect, manned exploration is very, very expensive, especially when compared with the alternatives. And as both automation and remote sensing gets better and better, this disparity will only work to the greater favor of unmanned probes and against manned spaceships.

Iow, telescopes and interferometric methods are far cheaper than unmanned flybys or orbiters, which are cheaper than unmanned landers, which are far cheaper than manned landers that then have to return their crew alive back to Earth. That last bit really works against astronauts.

As for the "wealth of the asteroids", well, exploration is quite different than economic exploitation and development. And the economics here are against any sort of extraterrestrial mining as well - despite Club of Growth forecasts to the contrary that were so popular in the 1970's just about every resource on tap now is cheaper than it was in 1970, whether it be iron or aluminum, niobium or uranium. The few resources that have become more expensive since 1970 - read, petroleum and it's relatives - aren't the sorts of things you're apt to find in space.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a space enthusiast from way back and I'd really like to see more manned exploration, the big wheel space stations and all the rest of that 50's/60's dream stuff. But I can't substitute what I wish for what is real, and the times and economic realities being what they are, these sorts of techno-romantic adventures aren't likely to be happening any time soon. Of course, I'd be very, very happy if I were to be proven wrong on this one :-)

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

To set up and work on a space colony? You'd have to surrender your life to space. I don't see "real" people wanting to do that. Contrast that with technology (computers, processors, biology) where there is little to no personal risk and a lot of potential gain. I know tons of academic scientists, I have been around them constantly for 10 years and I can't name many who are dedicating their life's work to getting people to space. This suggests to me, that there aren't many of the hard scientists putting in the effort needed to make this a reality. Commercially, the expense is probably impossible to sustain any real development. And since academics aren't around en masse to push this, then it seems pretty obvious why we aren't colonizing the moon.

Also, as far as flying cars, its pretty expensive energy wise. You have to overcome gravity to a level that is almost negligible to cars going horizontal. If gas is $3/gallon, do you really want to have to put more fuel in your little geo than a hummer?

To me, there just seems so many clear and obvious reasons why we aren't at sci-fi levels of space travel and not really close to being there. Not that we aren't technologically capable of much more, there is just little incentive economically and scientifically few folks deeply interested in the Star Trek field. Maybe if sci-fi writers/enthusiasts dedicated most of their lives (which is what physicists and biologists do) to space travel it would happen sooner.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

Do we really need to?

We've already wrecked one planet, still can't stop ourselves from going to war against ourselves.

So we really need to branch out and fuck up other planets? Strip mine Mars for all its worth? Colonize the moon to the point where it fucks up our gravitational pull with it(No idea if this is possible, I just know it's a delicate balance between Earth and our moon)?

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

yes, i hear what you say. but let's apply that to 1492, or Marco Polo. can anyone deny that the exploration of the new world at least in part fueled the revolutions which led to our modern reality in which we enjoy things like democracy, women's rights, the progress of science, etc? the Frontier is more than just a place, it's a space of the human imagination that spawns things that can only be born there.

gqm: the "flying car" bit is a joke. obviously, i don't want a car that consumes even more than the one i have. i was just joking, sadly, about what once upon a time seemed realistic and possible in our collective imagination. you have no idea how depressing it can be, as a long time reader of sci fi, to perceive the shift in the sci fi zeitgeist. it's gone from "someday we can do that!" to "we'll all live in a planet of slums ruined by corporate greed and over consumption."

A: overconsumption isn't something that is going to go away any time soon. here's my P's wager: are people going to Wake Up, and manage resources better, such that we can all live on this planet in harmony and comfort? as in, in time to deal with the end of the petro economy, the end of limited resources which power computuers, etc., like gold and copper? not foul up our water and air so badly that we all die? i don't know, but taking that chance without any, even minimal effort to set up a space colony, doesn't seem like a smart bet to me.

as to scientists etc not "devoting their lives" to the space question, well. i can't devote my life to progressive politics either, due to economic concerns. that won't stop me from asking, on my little blog and to a bunch of Little People who probably can't affect the issue one way or another, what's so bad about space exploration. again: you want an economic motivation? (pretend hypothetical numbers): if i were G. Soros, i'd take my 1000 Billion, invest it in basic, low interest but safe investments, and start building for space. 1000 Billion in Earth money today is literally a drop in the bucket, to what exists to be exploited (yes, i admit that's what i'm getting at) in the asteriod belt.

we progressives have always existed on the margins. one serious space effort that allows for a colony or environment of radicals like us, supported for a time by the leavings of some corporate endeavor... well. i guess i should've made this a "why hasn't this book happened yet?" post, as published authors have made this argument much more successfully and romantically than i can. MacLeod's "The Fall Revolutions" are a wonderful exercise in what i mean, and there are many more.

bottom line: i think most of us can agree that our current corporate and political leadership will take this planet, and everyone on it, to the brink, and even to the Bottleneck, before they allow the change we need. given that, is it really so stupid or illogical to want to get on board a space effort, even one with outlandish chances of survival in the long term? how would those chances be that much less than what our grandchildren here on earth will face? yes, i'm a dreamer. i'm not going to make it to space, but i hope my nephew will.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

In biology, you have millions of people "dedicating their lives" to advancement through their jobs. (If you know a grad student, postdoc or non-tenured faculty member, you know what I'm talking about, re: dedicating their lives.) Similarly with computers and nanotech. That's why there are so many advancements in those fields. Scientific breakthroughs are the product of years, often decades, of extremely dedicated work. The people with expertise and to create advances in your area of interest just aren't into it as much as you are. That's a big reason and it has nothing to do with pessimism. And given the massive expense and economic risk in funding such an effort, I don't see business folks lining up to take this on. In summary, I don't see many scientists caring about this and without their expertise and developments, of course its not going to happen.

And not everyone believes in a perfect utopian society if we could just start over. If we can't figure it out here, we won't figure it out long term on another planet.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

of which i like to think i am, means i reject arguments based on "economics." that's a whole, long, nasty, bitchy post, but in a nutshell i think econ is mostly self justifiy bullshit that empowers the already rich. like religion, or the racist justifications of slavery and theocratic justification of misogyny. Pazuzu isn't real; "neoliberal economics" aren't real, except as they are currently enforced upon us by those few who control currency.

"economics" isn't a science. it's ideology, and politics. it's what some/all/the powerful agree to. let's start there. "we" can afford endless wars for no appreciable gain. to my mind, "we" can also thusly afford a wasteful, pointless exercise in space, that has the added benefit of killing no one on purpose, and creating technological advantages that building better bombs never does. again, i'm a dreamer. but no, i won't accept "it costs too much" as an excuse not to try. that almost never leads to discovery, innovation, or leadership among nations, that attitude. worse still, the nations who say so, as an excuse why they can't fund and endorse their dreamers? well, that's a long list on the roster of "formerly important states."

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

that's sort of the point of the dream of space. a colony of Correntians would be a very different place than a nation of americans. we've talked about communes and suchlike here before. obviously, space is the most extremely outrageous place for one, but then again, there are reasons why it's still a good idea to try.