Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Case For Space

A GuestBlog By El Capitan

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 was supposed to be the day we sent astronauts back into space aboard the shuttle after a 2 1/2 year delay following the Columbia disaster. A fuel tank sensor glitch will kick the launch back to Saturday at the earliest, and odds are that one or two other gremlins will be found, possibly pushing the launch back even further.

This is disappointing, but after watching two shuttles burn up with the entire crews lost, I'm not going to question NASA's caution. The 3rd times the charm, as they say, and one more shuttle mishap will pretty much nail the coffin shut on NASA's credibility, and kill the space program until private industry is in a position to take the ball and run with it.

Every time a delay comes up, however, is more time and opportunity for the doomsayers to get up on their soapbox and piss & moan about the colossal "waste" of taxpayer dollars on NASA's pie-in-the-sky programs. The detractors come in many different flavors, everything from the "The Apollo Moon Landing never happened" whackazoid crowd to the "This Money Could Be Better Spent On...." social justice whiners.

Is NASA wasteful? Yeah, more than likely. No governmental entity will ever be as cost-efficient as the private sector. The importance of what NASA is doing, however, is sufficiently significant that I'm willing to accept the bloated NASA bureacracy in order to keep taking these baby steps into space.

"Well, El Capitan, why's it more important to futz about up in space than to feed the poor?" you might ask.

OK, I'll tell you my opinion, and if you're a regular reader of Andy's who shares his general worldview, you probably ain't gonna like what you hear. In fact, you might even be offended. Well, that's a risk I'm willing to take! Here goes...

1) The Ends Justify The Means

In the case of NASA and our space exploration up to this point, the 'Means' is measured mostly in dollars (several billion of them), but also in human lives. While it is by no means inevitable that we'll expand humanity's base of operations from this one planet to colonies throughout the solar system and beyond, there's a very good chance that we will. We're going to lose more lives along the way in pursuit of that goal. Tens, dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of lives are going to be lost in the effort over the next thousand years. That part IS inevitable. So, how can any reasonable person ever justify deliberately putting our explorers in harms way?

Because that's where trailblazers have to be. Progress is rarely made by those taking the safe, easy route. Think about the untold thousands of explorers, sailors, soldiers and settlers that perished in the opening up of the New World. What rational person could say that their sacrifice hasn't been repaid many times over? To paraphrase R.A. Heinlein, the birth of a new nation, like any birth, involves blood and pain. So it is with the birth of our outward expansion to the rest of the galaxy. There will be more fatalities, more accidents, more weeping families being handed folded flags. As we honor the fallen heroes of this nation's founding, so too will we eventually honor the ones who died to take humanity to the stars.

2) Scientific Advancement

The space program has produced an almost immeasurable increase in our advancement of technology. I'm not referring to Tang or freeze dried ice cream or zero-G ballpoint pens. Instead I'm thinking in terms of the advances in electronics, miniaturization, composite materials,and the hundreds of small innocuous improvements in technology that make it possible for you to be reading this in the comfort of your home on a computer that's easily affordable to anyone with a minimum-wage job.

The kind of rapid development the space program has fostered is really only possible in a capitalistic society, usually under threat of conflict. You always see great leaps forward when you really need to whoop up on the other guy. Once the techno-genie is out of its military-issue bottle, though, the sky's the limit, no pun intended! Anyone with intelligence, a vision of the future and some investment capital can do what they will with the know-how.

Case in point is Burt Rutan & Paul Allen, whose company Scaled Composites won the $10 million X Prize for having the first reusable suborbital spacecraft reach 100 km in altitude, then do it again inside a 2 week period. No government funding involved, and the long term benefits of their investment will be huge.

35 years from now, when you're paying $500 for a first class ticket on the 45 minute ballistic orbital flight from D/FW to Tokyo to see your grandkid graduate from Tokyo A&M (Gig 'em, Ninjas!) you won't mind so much the $55 per taxpayer annual price tag for all that NASA does.

3) Taking The Long View & Cheating Malthus

No doubt some of you raised an eyebrow in the above example where I mentioned the possibility of lives lost over the next thousand years. It's not too surprising if you have never thought that far ahead. Our current society rarely expects us to look past the next commercial break, much less to the year 3005.

Taking the long look ahead is absolutely necessary if you want to do more than just take life as it comes. You need to ask yourself, where do I want humanity to be in a thousand years? In 10,000 years? Does that sound presumptive to you? If it does, you need to shed that inferiority complex pretty damned quick. Those are going to be your ancestors reaping the outcomes of the decisions we make today. The pace of world events moves too quickly now to think about only ourselves and our kids. Like it or not, we have a responsibility to future generations.

So, what kind of life do you want your progeny to have? Are you interested in having your grandkids having the majority of their incomes sucked up by the government to give to poor people overseas because "it's just not faaaaiiiirrr...." that we have so much and they have so little? Well, keep voting liberal Democrat, and that's a likely outcome. In the name of 'doing what's fair', they'll have your grandkids living on a 1200 calorie a day diet and busting ass 7 days a week to keep the teeming world fed.

Personally, I'd rather have my grandkids working on an orbital farm, taking advantage of constant sunlight and harvested ice from comets or asteroids, growing virtually unlimited amounts of food and turning a healthy profit at the same time. I just don't see that happening unless there's a government in place that will reward those that lay out a substantial investment on a long-term project and not be in fear that their labors will be nationalized by politicians looking to win votes. Oh, don't get me wrong, conservatives can be scumbags, too. Hell, they don't even try to hide it behind a cloak of morality like the liberals. It's hard to argue, though, that the party of big business is going to be more helpful than the social justice crusaders in helping private enterprise go where it wants to go.

OK, here's where I'm going to seriously annoy some people. Buckle up...

Until such time as we can generate unlimited amounts of power, have nanobot factories create any item we desire out of stockpiles of raw materials, and have unlimited room for expansion, we are *ALWAYS* going to have poor people. Untold millions of 'em. It is inevitable. Sure, that bell curve of human prosperity may have its median shift back and forth, but there's always a bottom half.

Give a group of capitalist entrepreneurs 50 billion dollars, and odds are you'll wind up with several huge companies employing many thousands of people, and generating (over time) 200 billion dollars in tax revenues and profits, each one with the potential to spin off other successful ventures.

Give 50 billion dollars to millions of poor people, and you mostly end up with several thousand extremely wealthy corrupt officials, and several million additional poor people. Global populations are expanding at an unprecedented pace, thanks mostly to advances in food-producing techniques created by those Eeeeevil multinational conglomerations. Sooner or later, though, the Law of Diminishing Returns is going to catch up with us, and Malthus is going to raise his ugly head.

If we reach the point (through poor planning, natural progression, whatever) that food production no longer keeps pace with global population growth, you can count on several things happening.

First, your grandkids and great-grandkids will more than likely already be sacrificing whatever futures they might have had into the effort to keep the world fed. When those efforts fail to measure up, look for wars, purges, epidemics, and the general setback of progress for a good long while.

We've got a pretty good chance of outrunning Malthus in the long run, but only if we don't play the Social Justice game, and we don't keep all our eggs in one basket. To generate the unlimited amounts of power and the nanobot factories and have unlimited room for expansion, we've got to drag ourselves off of this rock and get out where things can get done. No, it's not particularly fair that Americans have reached their current level of prosperity while the 3rd world has languished in general poverty. OTOH, it would be criminally negligent for us to cease our efforts to advance our society in a fruitless effort to make everyone on the planet live in relative parity. No one has EVER been taxed into prosperity, and a world where everyone is forced to be equal means any blade of grass growing too fast is gonna get mowed down. That way lies stagnation and disaster.

If there's one thing we are good at as a democratic & capitalist society, aside from making piles of dollars, it's giving others a helping hand. When we've reached the technological level that we can have unlimited amounts of power, the nanobot factories and unlimited room for expansion, you better believe that we're not going to keep it for ourselves. We may have a drive to succeed, but we have a conscience as well.

The poor of the world may well have to wait a while longer before they get all they desire, but they'll get it a lot quicker if they start hauling on their own bootstraps instead of our coattails. Heading out into space offers humanity its greatest opportunity, but only if we have the desire and fortitude to achieve it.

For more info on taking the 'Long View', please visit these sites: