Why we have not gone into space. Why we must.

Summary: In the 1960s many people predicted that we would have a large presence in space by now. They were right that we have the technology. Why do we have nothing but a space station, doing little useful at immense cost? What will eventually push us into space? This is a revision of a post from 2 years ago.

Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufficient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system. Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.
Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.

Space Dreams
Science Photo Library

The incredible accomplishments of Project Apollo

Project Apollo was one of the greatest engineering feats in history. See the story in One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman (2019). From the publisher …

“Fifty years later, One Giant Leap is the sweeping, definitive behind-the-scenes account of the furious race to complete one of mankind’s greatest achievements. It’s a story filled with surprises – from the item the astronauts almost forgot to take with them (the American flag), to the extraordinary impact Apollo would have back on Earth, and on the way we live today.”

Unfortunately, that last sentence is totally false.

Men and Women in Space: a dead end.

History consists of missed opportunities and pursuit of dead ends. The former: what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and afterwards he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? The later: what if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research, and received a big payoff?

It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; the Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits. We did not listen.

Space Station from "2001"
Space Station from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The first 58 years of men and women in space validated those predictions. Little useful science was produced. The technological spin-offs have been even smaller. Many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, and smoke detectors. NASA’s buying did not accelerate the use and power of computers. As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn is Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) – “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”

“Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories – exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities – precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes – which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.

“In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. …The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.”

NASA, with some help from other nations, built a $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value proportional to its cost (it has a planned operating life of 30 years).

Compare the cost of men in space to other big projects.

As usual, research by the Congressional Research Service provides an invaluable perspective: “The Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and Federal Energy Technology R&D Programs: A Comparative Analysis“ by Deborah D. Stine. She compares the Manhattan and Apollo projects in both absolute terms (constant dollars) and relative to the US economy at that time.

  1. The Manhattan Project was intense (in terms of GDP), small in dollars, and brief. It was an unqualified success.
  2. The Apollo Program was intense, large in dollars, and long. Apollo met its narrow goal, but was a near-total failure in larger terms. It produced no space infrastructure or long-term national benefits.
  3. Energy research has been a low fraction of GDP per year, but massive in dollars and sustained for almost 2 generations – producing few useful results so far – relative to the immense cost.

Congressional Research Service, 30 June 2009

But this is for just Apollo, narrowly defined. Adding in Projects Mercury and Gemini, plus the robot lunar landers (necessary for the Apollo landings), more than doubles the cost – giving a better estimate of the cost of the manned space program through 1972. The cost in our dollars would be almost $300 billion. That spending as a fraction of our GDP would be roughly $700 billion (numbers from this excellent analysis by Casey Dreier).

We’re one for three in the game of big R&D. Not a happy record. We’ll have to do better with R&D in the future if we’re to prosper – or even survive.

Robert Heinlein predicts the future of space travel

"Expanded Universe" by Robert Heinlein
Available at Amazon.

Robert Heinlein wrote “Where To” in 1952, giving predictions about the year 2000 (included in the collection Expanded Universe). He was bullish about space.

By 2000 AD we could have O’Neil colonies, self-supporting and exporting power to Earth, at both Lagrange-4 and Lagrange-5, transfer stations in orbit about Earth and around Luna, a permanent base on Luna equipped with an electric catapult – and a geriatrics retirement home. …

If you’re willing to settle today for a constant-boost on the close order of magnitude of 1/1000 G we can start the project later this afternoon, as there are several known ways of building constant-boost jobs with that tiny acceleration – even light-sail ships.

{Total time for a constant boost roundtrip to Mars and to Pluto at two low rates of acceleration.}

    • 1/100 G………………50 days………………50 weeks
    • 1/1000 G……………150 days……………150 weeks

I prefer to talk about light-sail ship (or rather ships that sail in the “Solar wind”) because the above table shows that we have the entire Solar System available to us right now; it is not necessary to wait for the year 2000 and new breakthroughs.

Ten weeks to Mars, a round trip to Pluto in 2 years and 9 months. It took the Pilgrims in the Mayflower nine weeks and 3 days to cross the Atlantic. …England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal all created worldwide empires with ships that took as long to get anywhere and back as would a 1/1000 G spaceship. … Even the tiniest constant boost turns sailing the Solar System into a money-making commercial venture.

In 1980 he updated that article, writing “By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be building.”

Acceleration of 1/1000 G is ~1 centimeter/second2. In 16 days that would carry you a million kilometers (Mars is 55 – 400 million km from Earth). It’s a slow way to travel the solar system, but within our reach. A combination of solar sails and atomic-powered ion drives could do this using current technology (the Dawn space probe has a solar-powered ion drive).

In the 1860s a typical clipper could travel the 14,000 miles from China to London in 15 – 17 weeks at an average speed of 17 knots. A voyage from Australia to England carrying wool took 10 weeks. Modern cargo ships using fuel-efficient methods travel at similar speeds. In a generation we could travel around the inner solar system with similar travel times.

SS Botany Bay
SS Botany Bay, a DY-100 class space ship build in the late 1990s – in the Star Trek universe.

Jerry Pournelle explains who will colonize space

Jerry Pournelle gives more detail about the potential of space in his Galaxy Science Fiction articles “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships” (May 1974) and “Life among the asteroids” (July 1974). Both were reprinted in Life Among Asteroids. In the latter he says …

Life Among the Asteroids
Availabe at Amazon.

“A worldwide civilization was built around sailing ships and steamers making voyages of weeks to months. There’s no reason to believe it couldn’t happen in space. …

“What kind of people would go out there? {T}hose going out there will be fleeing something. Bureaucracy, perhaps. Fleeing their spouses. Sent by a judge who wants them off Earth. Adventurers looking to make a fortune. Idealists who want to establish a “truly free society.” Fanatics for some cult or other who want to raise their children ‘properly.'”

Five decades later none of this has happened, with no signs it will happen in the foreseeable future. Why? As we see today, Earth has millions of people willing to migrate to a better land. But we’re missing the other necessary ingredient: a financial incentive.

Profit fueled exploration of the New World. Investors financed the American colonies seeking profits from minerals, crops, and furs. The Merchant Adventurers and Massachusetts Bay Company financed the largely Puritan colonies; the London Company established the Jamestown colony. The Hudson Bay Company led the exploration and development of northern Canada as a purely commercial venture.

Investors, public and private, wisely declined to act on space enthusiasts’ confident forecasts about the wealth and valuable knowledge to be found in space. The voyages by unmanned craft have shown that space (beyond Earth’s orbit) has little to offer us at our current level of technology. We have the ability to colonize space, but an insufficient reason to do so.

The most commonly cited reason in the 1970s, when so many people believed that by now mineral scarcities would have pushed prices to levels where investors could profitably tap the vast resources of the moon or asteroids. That has not happened, and seems unlikely for many generations – perhaps centuries.

Deep Impact

A likely reason for space travel, eventually.

In Rendezvous with Rama (1973) Arthur C. Clarke described what might be the most likely reason for large-scale investment in manned space travel.

Rendezvous with Rama
Available at Amazon.

“At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens – at first in utter silence – it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

“Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones. Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries. The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the Earth; the last glories of Venice sank forever beneath the sea as the waters of the Adriatic came thundering landward after the hammer blow from space.

“Six hundred thousand people died, and the total damage was more than a trillion dollars. But the loss to art, to history, to science – to the whole human race, for the rest of time – was beyond all computation. It was as if a great war had been fought and lost in a single morning; and few could draw much pleasure from the fact that, as the dust of destruction slowly settled, for months the whole world witnessed the most splendid dawns and sunsets since Krakatoa.

“After the initial shock, mankind reacted with a determination and a unity that no earlier age could have shown. Such a disaster, it was realized, might not occur again for a thousand years – but it might occur tomorrow. And the next time, the consequences could be even worse. Very well; there would be no next time.

“A hundred years earlier, a much poorer world, with far feebler resources, had squandered its wealth attempting to destroy weapons launched, suicidally, by mankind against itself. The effort had never been successful, but the skills acquired then had not been forgotten. Now they could be used for a far nobler purpose, and on an infinitely vaster stage. No meteorite large enough to cause catastrophe would ever again be allowed to breach the defenses of Earth.

“So began Project SPACEGUARD.”

In 1998, two films described such an event: Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon. Use the IMPACT Earth website to model Earth’s collision with the sized object of your choice, and see the resulting damage. We will go to space to prevent the inevitable disaster, or – should humanity survive – prevent another one. See these posts for more information.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See about immigration, and especially these posts about investing in the future …

  1. Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010.
  2. Slashing R&D in favor of more important things, like wars and profits. Who cares about America’s future?
  3. The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future?

What happened to Project Apollo?

On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility and Armstrong took his giant leap for humanity. To understand why the Apollo program accomplished so little I recommend reading Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest by Gerard J. Degroot. From the publisher …

"Dark Side of the Moon" by Gerald J. Degroot
Available at Amazon.

“For a very brief moment during the 1960s, America was moonstruck. Boys dreamt of being an astronaut; girls dreamed of marrying one. Americans drank Tang, bought “space pens” that wrote upside down, wore clothes made of space age Mylar, and took imaginary rockets to the moon from theme parks scattered around the country.

“But despite the best efforts of a generation of scientists, the almost foolhardy heroics of the astronauts, and 35 billion dollars, the moon turned out to be a place of “magnificent desolation,” to use Buzz Aldrin’s words: a sterile rock of no purpose to anyone. In Dark Side of the Moon, Gerard J. DeGroot reveals how NASA cashed in on the Americans’ thirst for heroes in an age of discontent and became obsessed with putting men in space. The moon mission was sold as a race which America could not afford to lose. Landing on the moon, it was argued, would be good for the economy, for politics, and for the soul. It could even win the Cold War.

“The great tragedy is that so much effort and expense was devoted to a small step that did virtually nothing for mankind.

“Drawing on meticulous archival research, DeGroot cuts through the myths constructed by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations and sustained by NASA ever since. He finds a gang of cynics, demagogues, scheming politicians, and corporations who amassed enormous power and profits by exploiting the fear of what the Russians might do in space.

“Exposing the truth behind one of the most revered fictions of American history, Dark Side of the Moon explains why the American space program has been caught in a state of purposeless wandering ever since Neil Armstrong descended from Apollo 11 and stepped onto the moon. The effort devoted to the space program was indeed magnificent and its cultural impact was profound, but the purpose of the program was as desolate and dry as lunar dust.”

25 thoughts on “Why we have not gone into space. Why we must.

  1. Good post, not entirely sure as to the message of the whole thing. It is intersting that we could use solar sailors to travel around the solar system; however, I doubt that there are any astral bodies in the solar system that are habitable. I’m unsure as to the plausabilites of terraforming, and the biosphere experiments didn’t turn out so well.

    Interesting though. Maybe space mining could be a thing, or garbage dumping in the asteroid belt.

    Ps https://quillette.com/2019/05/29/its-not-your-imagination-the-journalists-writing-about-antifa-are-often-their-cheerleaders/

    Data set I was talking about. I was unsure if my emails came through. I hope your renovations are going well

    1. Isaac,

      “not entirely sure as to the message of the whole thing.”

      Not all posts have a message. Many here are just briefing.

      “Maybe space mining could be a thing, or garbage dumping in the asteroid belt.”

      Ridiculous (aka fantasy), over any foreseeable time horizon.

      1. Yeah that last part was riduculous in hindsight. What is your take on the dataset? I’m asking for your take because I am unsure ask to it’s accuracy/ truthfulness. There’s been something of a disruption over it.

  2. You’ve said a lot, FM, and yet, at the same time, not enough. Since I’ve never been able to STOP thinking about this, I guess it is my turn to pick up the gauntlet and see what I can do with it.

    First, you’re wrong in a lot of your assumptions. The future as envisioned by the brilliant idiots of the 1960-70’s was spectacularly and fundamentally flawed (as you’ve mentioned before) but we achieved most of the goals they set forth, just not in the way they stated them, which is key to understanding both our past and our future.

    The best part of your article (from a factual perspective) is about the International Space Station. It is very near the end of its basically useless life and NASA is making a major push to extend the life of the poor stinky (as described by people who have visited it) critter. I’m of the sad opinion that they should just strip the darned thing of anything useful and let it fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. Perhaps they should even give it a nudge with any remaining fuel to speed up the process.

    I was originally a big fan of the ISS but have since learned (for many of the same reasons your article describes) why it was such a bad idea. Why would you spend $150 billion to build something that wasn’t intended to actually do anything useful? It was envisioned as a major research center but the cost of delivering goods to and from the station was known to be catastrophic for the intentions of the station before it was built! That plus the understandable lack of foresight about the effects of long-term human occupation of a zero gravity installation (never been done on that scale before) makes the project a boondoggle of the first order and it will endanger the lives of the occupants if they keep using it as heavily as planned.

    Man in space is not quite a dead topic due to the efforts of SpaceX and some other companies that have (finally!) been thinking creatively about the topic. Space exploration (and potentially space exploitation) are very alive and well, thank you. If you doubt the truth of the last statement, consider the increasing popularity of satellite television, satellite cell phones, etc. SpaceX is planning to launch thousands of satellites per YEAR to support its vision for the future, which seems quite doable.

    Looking solely at space exploration, we’ve more or less fulfilled every prediction (except for constant acceleration probes outside of the solar system) but we used robots instead of humans to do it. I suspect the medieval money lenders would have been delighted to have robots instead of human crews to explore the far side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans if they had been available at the time! Diseases would have been far less likely to be carried back. No risk of mutiny, no risk of creative thinking to breach contracts, they wouldn’t have had to pay for food and fresh water for the crew, etc.

    Will humans eventually build space colonies? I’m pretty sure we will eventually but I doubt they will fall in line with the predictions of the 1960-70’s. I’m also VERY hesitant to make bold predictions of my own because I do not see the future that much more clearly than the visionaries did 50 years ago. Here are my guidelines and we’ll see how well they stand the test of time (and your scrutiny).

    Humans will ONLY be sent permanently into space as a last resort. The primary reason for this is that humans need continual shipments of air, water, food, entertainment, etc. that make them prohibitively expensive in space. Eventually we will create sources of the above that do not require lifting off from our gravity well and that will make humans much more cost-effective vs. robots.
    Humans will only be sent into space where profit from their actions is assured. The idea that humans would be sent out into space to just for the sake of discovery was the single biggest (and dumbest, as you point out) mistaken assumption of the early visionaries (not Heinlein or Pournelle, but the NASA planners). The success of the early robotic exploration missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury in the 1980’s doomed human exploration efforts. That was just as well because we’d probably have killed quite a few people if we’d pushed the human exploration envelope as far as we have the robotic exploration envelope over the last 30 years.
    The first places that will see human footsteps will have the following characteristics:
    a) Low, but not zero gravity (Humans are well evolved to handle gravity and many of our basic sanitary measures require gravity). High gravity is not likely to cause problems for humans but drastically cuts potential profits.
    b) Lots of sunlight (partly for cheap illumination, partly for cheap power, partly for the next reason)
    c) Locally available resources have a high oxygen content and a low cost to extract the oxygen (releasing the oxygen and combining it with hydrogen from the solar wind gives you water, electricity, and/or cheap rocket fuel)
    Although they sound attractive, lunar retirement homes are NOT likely to occur any time soon for the following reasons:
    a) Getting there could kill half or more of the people who would want to go (rockets need to generate multiple G’s of force to leave Earth)
    b) Cost to get there would be prohibitive
    c) Without a lot of other infrastructure, cost to stay would be prohibitive, especially to take care of the needs of increasingly elderly and frail people
    d) Life on the Moon would be boring. The place never basically changes and Earth-watching would probably pall eventually (although for some individuals it would probably take years)

    e) This is the critical one: No visits to or from younger relatives! As I get older, I have learn the value of physical contact with loved ones for maintaining physical and mental health among the elderly. I suspect the suicide rate at a lunar retirement home would shock the visionaries who created it.

    As for the “rock hitting the earth” scenario: rapid recent improvements in radar, robotics, and cheap rockets (SpaceX again!) make this scenario increasingly unlikely. We are rapidly gaining the ability to find and push rocks out of Earth’s way before they hit.

    The Earth overpopulation scenario also looks increasingly unlikely:
    1. We’d only be able to afford to send a few of our best and brightest (not normally the most frequent breeders during overpopulation eras) which would hardly not even dent the problem.
    2. We are currently in a baby bust situation which has policymakers scrambling to adapt to having too few people capable of maintaining our current designed infrastructure

    Will we cross the stars to other planets? I hope so! Most of the conditions noted above apply to the interstellar situation as well with one big addition you commented on: a one-way trip should not take more than 6 months to complete. Otherwise the crew are likely to be mentally and physically crippled by the time they arrive. I suspect some sort of futuristic teleportation between star systems will be the most likely transportation method.

    1. Pluto,

      “but we achieved most of the goals they set forth, just not in the way they stated them, which is key to understanding both our past and our future.”

      That’s only sorta true. They achieved the narrow goal set for Apollo (on the moon by 1969). But they failed to achieve the broader goals – “conquest or utilization of space by men.” The latter are the ones that made the vast expenditure worthwhile. Many people warned of this during the 1960s, but were ignored.

      “Space exploration (and potentially space exploitation) are very alive and well, thank you”

      Not even remotely true. There is zero interest outside NASA and its contractors for manned space exploration. There is low-level interest in space probes, no matter how little gain from them, so long as they don’t cost too much.

      “The primary reason for this is that humans need continual shipments of air, water, food, entertainment”

      No. The primary reason is that there is no need for space colonies. The costs you describe only have relevance if there is a need.

      “We are rapidly gaining the ability to find and push rocks out of Earth’s way before they hit.”

      You are reading too many NASA press releases. Detection is improving. There is near-zero R&D being done on a response to them. I’m skeptical it could be done by robots in any foreseeable time frame.

      “First, you’re wrong in a lot of your assumptions.”

      Such as?

    2. Pluto: ““First, you’re wrong in a lot of your assumptions.”

      FM: “Such as?”

      That we needed humans in space to achieve the goals set forth of starting to explore and exploit space technology. Unless having the humans in space was the sole goal, which I’m sorry, but I find extremely indefensible these days.

      Pluto: “but we achieved most of the goals they set forth, just not in the way they stated them, which is key to understanding both our past and our future.”

      FM: “That’s only sorta true. They achieved the narrow goal set for Apollo (on the moon by 1969). But they failed to achieve the broader goals – “conquest or utilization of space by men. The latter are the ones that made the vast expenditure worthwhile.”

      Agreed if you focus ONLY on manned projects. But for example the earth-orbiting satellite industry had an income of $277 billion last year.

      https://breakingdefense.com/2019/05/usg-launch-revenue-soars-50-in-2018-sia/

      And SpaceX has launched their first 60 Starlink internet satellites which (assuming there’s nothing catastrophically wrong with the concept) is likely seriously expand that number in the coming years. There’s the profit you were looking for from space technology, just not from men in space.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/science/spacex-launch.html

      Pluto: ““Space exploration (and potentially space exploitation) are very alive and well, thank you”

      FM: “Not even remotely true. There is zero interest outside NASA and its contractors for manned space exploration. There is low-level interest in space probes, no matter how little gain from them, so long as they don’t cost too much.”

      Please read the link below and tell me what you think. I agree that manned spaceflights to other planets are not yet planned but the necessary robotic exploration and set-up steps are very much planned.

      https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/03/12/Elon-Musk-plans-to-launch-spacecraft-for-Mars-in-2019/2401520836057/

      FM: “The primary reason is that there is no need for space colonies. The costs you describe only have relevance if there is a need.”

      Basically I agree with you but as you can see in the science news article above, Elon Musk and at least 100 volunteers seem to disagree with us. Personally, I’m awaiting further developments. I’d be happy to be wrong on this one.

      1. Pluto,

        “That we needed humans in space to achieve the goals set forth of starting to explore and exploit space technology.”

        That’s quite a misread of this post. The post says the exact opposite. As I say so often, people should provide a quote to reply against.

        “Agreed if you focus ONLY on manned projects. …the necessary robotic exploration and set-up steps are very much planned.”

        Did you read the post? It is about men in space.

        “agree with you but as you can see in the science news article above, Elon Musk and at least 100 volunteers seem to disagree with us”

        In what way is this an “assumption” of mine that you are disproving? I don’t say that there are no space enthusiasts. I say that their arguments are bogus, as they have been since the beginning. The only one that applies for the foreseeable future is defense against asteroid and comet impacts. Given the low odds of those vs. more immediate serious threats, it doesn’t seem worth spending much on.

      2. Pluto: “That we needed humans in space to achieve the goals set forth of starting to explore and exploit space technology.”

        FM: That’s quite a misread of this post. The post says the exact opposite. As I say so often, people should provide a quote to reply against.

        Pluto: “Agreed if you focus ONLY on manned projects. …the necessary robotic exploration and set-up steps are very much planned.”

        FM: “Did you read the post? It is about men in space.”

        FM, you’ve got me confused. The second sentence of your first comment tells me that the post was about how humans benefit from space tech by not sending humans into space. Your second comment tells me that the post was about men in space.

        Every comment/question that I make only seems to generate scorn from you regardless of what I say. The reasons for sending humans into space and the value of humans vs. robots for a particular mission in space is a topic of great interest to me and is one about which I am both passionate and extremely skeptical at the same time.

        I suspect (as has happened a few times in the past) we are talking past each other’s comments/ arguments AND, at the same time, sending incomplete thoughts to describe what we mean. See the example below for what I think is happening.

        Pluto: “Space exploration (and potentially space exploitation) are very alive and well, thank you”

        FM: “Not even remotely true. There is zero interest outside NASA and its contractors for manned space exploration.”

        FM (later): “I don’t say that there are no space enthusiasts. I say that their arguments are bogus, as they have been since the beginning.”

        FM: “If we want to spending hundreds of billions on a project to bring us together, let’s do it on something that produces actual benefits. If space enthusiasts want spectacles, let them raise the funds for it. Taxes are raised using the government’s police power, so should be used only for actual functions of government.”

        Sorry, FM, I gave you only one sentence and half my thinking. I will try to avoid doing so in the future.

        What I meant to say is that SpaceX is sending the robots and doing the exploring on their own, no government support at all. Furthermore, the necessary robotic exploration and colony set-up steps ARE scheduled and the hardware is being built as we speak. The manned landings are planned but no specific dates for sending people to Mars have been set yet but the conditions under which they would be set have been declared and seem reasonable.

        Again, SpaceX is funding this exclusively with their own money via their launch systems and their StarLink Internet system which is expected to generate hundreds of billions of dollars of profit per year in the next 5-10 years.

        I disagree with you that SpaceX’s arguments on why their Mars colony plans will be viable are “bogus” (your word, not mine). But SpaceX is beginning to change the dynamic of the arguments by lowering the cost of accessing space from Earth’s surface by at least 50%, perhaps a lot more, and not needing government assistance to reach other planets.

    1. sflicht,

      Thank you for the pointer! I’ll get a copy.

      However, from the description, it sounds like the same old malarky that has been written since the 1950s. Zubrin is a sci-fi writer pretending to write non-fiction. He has near-zero idea of why frontiers are opened, and less knowledge economics. Much less, for example, than Robert Heinlein displayed in history stories written in the 1950s.

      This is not a surprise. Zurbin is an engineer, with degrees in nuclaer and aerospace. That’s like the background of the engineers who lack of imagination designed an Apollo project that produced near-zero benefits for America.

      1. Zubrin came up with the Mars Direct architecture (which is more or less what Musk is implementing now) in the late 80s, and has a lot of interesting ideas about lunar and interplanetary explanation. I would not characterize him as lacking imagination.

        I don’t agree with everything in his book, nor have I finished it, but the end of the YouTube talk I linked contains some more philosophical arguments — apparently this corresponds to the last third of the book. These center around a vision for ending war / eliminating scarcity through the expansion of the space frontier.

        Like yourself, I don’t really buy his economic vision, but I’m simpatico when it comes to the stilted nature of the zero-sum thinking that dominates terrestrial geopolitics.

      2. sflicht,

        “I would not characterize him as lacking imagination.”

        Describing these things is subjective. I say he lacks imagination because he’s fascinated with hardware and engineering, but lacks the imagination to consider the wider aspects of human society. Such as why societies do things. “Why” is almost always the most important question.

        “These center around a vision for ending war / eliminating scarcity through the expansion of the space frontier.”

        I’ve read such stuff for 40 years. Asteroid mining, O’Neil space colonies, etc. Lacking any basis in economics, most of this genre is fantasy.

        The most sensible insight I’ve seen from this literature was in Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford (1986). They are two of the boomers’ top science fiction authors, imo. It mentions in an aside in the story that several multi-generation starships were launched – and most turned back when the second generation of crew took over (not sharing the mad dreams of their parents).

      3. sflicht,

        A follow-up note:

        One reason I little interest in this man-into-space literature as the reasons they give for doing so are quite specious. That is they are solutions to minor or fictional problems – while we have seriously problems desperate for funding. We don’t need lebensraum; the global population seems likely to collapse starting in the mid to late 21st C. The mineral shortage stories are based on ignorance of basic geology, space probes so far have produced little information (and robots do so adequately), public money should not be spent to create tourism opportunities for billionaires, the expectations for zero-gee manufacturing have proven bogus, solar power stations still appear unfeasible, etc.

    2. I’m going to stand up for Bob Zubrin for a moment and say that at worst it is a different kind of malarkey and you might well find it useful. I was also very skeptical of people fawning over his ideas but the ideas are very solid for the “How to go to Mars cheaply” but not “Why spend the money to Mars” arguments.

      1. Pluto,

        “the ideas are very solid for the “How to go to Mars cheaply” but not “Why spend the money to Mars” arguments.”

        I agree. But he spends a lot of time answer the latter question, with (as I said above) mostly bogus answers.

  3. I have often thought about the issue of space and how it relates to our future. One thing that has come to mind in recent years with all this talk of automation, is that space exploration could become something for us to do when work becomes somewhat obsolete (if that ever really happens).

    In a sense that is what happens in Star Trek where technology reduced scarcity by several orders of magnitude and people no longer had to worry about working to survive.

    Unless we as a species have a goal, or a mission that is broadly bought into, I see a lot of aimless and depressed people walking around and a decay in society that we can barely imagine. This is already occurring with our current levels of material well-being, which were unimaginable only 150-200 years ago. What will happen when we can 3d print almost anything we want at close to the cost of only the raw materials?

    While manned space exploration is both scientifically and economically unnecessary at the moment, perhaps it will become sociologically necessary.

      1. Larry, I hate to make this comment but I feel I must. Your observations of Maslow’s hierarchy are good but will the people who control the money want to spend it in that way?

        Possible but not likely in my opinion.

      2. Pluto,

        That is, of course, a valid point. We can only guess at possible answers. My guess is that in a better future we might throttle down spending on wars, and space exploration would prove a useful substitute. The SIC might replace the MIC as a source of corporate profits and Keynesian economic stimulus.

  4. Larry,

    I was and still am a big fan of manned space flight. I would play sick to stay home from school to watch almost every blast-off on TV since the first Mercury flights.
    Armstrong’s walk on the Moon was one of the proudest moments of my life.

    On the other hand, the cost to reach Mars leaves me wondering. Perhaps a global effort to accomplish the feat would be a better idea. The cultural and scientific gains shared across nations and sharing the costs might bring us all together for a rare moment in time. That’s worth something.

    1. Ron,

      “The cultural and scientific gains shared across nations and sharing the costs might bring us all together for a rare moment in time. That’s worth something.”

      Running circuses for people didn’t help the Roman Republic. It won’t help us.

      If we want to spending hundreds of billions on a project to bring us together, let’s do it on something that produces actual benefits.

      If space enthusiasts want spectacles, let them raise the funds for it. Taxes are raised using the government’s police power, so should be used only for actual functions of government.

  5. It’s true that Project Apollo has been an important innovation for mankind. However, I think it’s time to look for a commercial space market analysis company to take advantage of many opportunities that can be good for my company. This way, I can invest in NASA’s projects with ease.

    1. Angela,

      “It’s true that Project Apollo has been an important innovation for mankind.”

      Do you have any evidence for that? Everyone I’ve seen that looked at it found, as did the studies in the early 1960s, that it produced extremely low returns for America.

      “I think it’s time to look for a commercial space market analysis company to take advantage of many opportunities that can be good for my company.”

      Define “commercial.” If you mean, money from the government – space travel is already highly commercial. If you mean, money from other companies – the market is much smaller and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

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