The Value Of Spaceflight.

A short question rather than a 2000 word post today, just so that I can get you guys to do some of the work instead.

If you go back and read the comments on the Neil Armstrong post on Monday, you’ll see that Kenti and I got into a little kerfuffle over the value of manned spaceflight to places like the Moon. He thinks the money could be better spent solving problems affecting people on Earth today. What I think of him is not printable, but that’s hardly an uncommon view and one of the reasons why the automated probe dudes have had such sway over NASA for the last few decades — it’s cheap, easy and nobody has to die to make it happen. However, while manned spaceflight is more expensive and far riskier, I think the payoff is infinitely more valuable because it’s nothing less than the vision of a future for our species beyond Earth. In particular this:

Society needs ideals and goals just as much as it needs welfare or schools or a national health service. What is the point in a society that simply exists for its own sake?

I feel to be a key factor. I look at it in the same way as I do the government investment in art and the people who take degrees in art and art history. Call me a cultural philistine if you like, but most art doesn’t interest me all that much. Take me to an art gallery and there’s every chance I’d be bored to tears while I was there. However, despite being uninterested in art myself I am happy for the government to invest in creating more of it, and I’m glad that people exist who could tell me about it if I really were interested, and this is because I recognise that art has a metaphysical cultural value above and beyond the cost of the materials and the aesthetic quality of the work. The character of a society is reflected in its art, and in its literature, and in its other forms of creative expression. Art is important, even if I personally don’t really get it, and I think it should be funded right alongside schools and hospitals and all that other stuff.

Now I’m not saying that the space program should be funded as a gigantic arts project, even if an attempt at zero-g painting would be pretty funny. What I am saying is that the space program has that same metaphysical cultural value because it makes a statement about what a society is, and where it is going.  However, it also goes above and beyond that because it actually has the potential to get us there while dispensing lots of technological gewgaws like the fancy telecommunications device you probably have somewhere on your person right now. Space travel provides a potential out for humanity, the chance of a life past simply existing here on Earth until we multiply to the point where the resources and the food no longer sustains us and everything collapses into a Mad Max post-apocalyptic dystopia. In short, Armstrong walking on the Moon was important because it was a powerful symbol that gave us as a collective species some hope for the future beyond our Earth-bound existence, and that’s why never going back was such a crushing disappointment.

Still, that’s just me. Innokenti thinks differently. Maybe you do too. What do you think?

21 thoughts on “The Value Of Spaceflight.

  1. says:

    I agree with everything you say. Kenti is wrong. Again.

    NASA’s budget is around $18 billion, right? I’d rather the US just knocked off $20 billion from their $680 odd billion military budget than they removed NASA’s funding. You’ve also got to look at the fact that this $18 billion doesn’t just disappear. That money is helping people because it provides jobs at NASA and all their suppliers which in turn keeps this money in the economy.

    If they used this money for ‘better’ purposes, you’d be throwing away thousands of jobs.

  2. innokenti says:

    My argument isn’t really that we shouldn’t spend money on NASA, and should spend it elsewhere, because I don’t actually think that if say $10 billion was grabbed and sent to Education that it would necessarily do $10 billion of good. Or even $10 of good. Because that’s not how government works…

    But I think we can dream of other grand things – discovering better who we are through research into say DNA. Or what we can do to harness the world for better or more efficient energy. Or even better understand how we behave as a society and hope to make things better for people through that. Or explore deep beneath the Artic. Or whatever.

    Space Flight is important, but I think it’s a little rich to think that exploration in that direction is some sort of ultimate Ambition. The direction of the greatest achievement mankind can make.

    (And ultimately coming back to the previous points slightly – Governments not committing to spending big budgets on ambition space flight ventures is not representative of humankind or our interests, ambition or willingness.)

    • Smurf says:

      I’m going to go ahead and post the letter that Janek linked to in the last topic. I think it’s relevant to what you’re saying.

      Space travel does not only benefit ways of traveling in space. It can also directly and indirectly affect all the things you list.

      • innokenti says:

        I am well aware of that. But that applies to the other things we do. Space Flight is not a magic silver bullet or anything…

        • Janek says:

          If we fire enough bullets from the MACHINE GUN OF SCIENCE, one of them’s bound to be magic and/or silver.

          I mean yes the argument does apply to a lot of other fields, and I think those fields should also be vigourously persued.

          I think the problem with manned spaceflight is that people often write it off as a wily-waving publicity exercise – which is true to an extent, but willy waving has its place, in that it gives a big splashy “event” for people to get excited about, hopefully drumming up further funding and inspiring scientists and engineers of the future. The fact that it’s throwing out useful innovations along the way is awesome, even better. So long as a balance is kept, it’s all good.

          Ramble ramble ramble.

        • Smurf says:

          Space is also more likely to inspire future generations. “Hey, you can land something on a different planet” is always going to be more inspiring than “We made a machine to read DNA”. While of course the DNA thing is important and very interesting and will inspire people, space travel is alway going to catch more.

          Space stuff is also a lot more inclusive. Take Curiosity for example. You need a whole collection of people from different fields working together. Like programmers, rocket scientists, mechanical engineers, material engineers, etc. Speaking from experience working in a multi-discipline department, creativity and innovation is far greater when you have many different minds working on the same problem. While space travel isn’t unique in this regard, I think it is one of largest examples, and one that creates the most unique and difficult challenges which in turn attracts the cleverest people and produces more unique and clever solutions.

          • innokenti says:

            Er… good thing Curiosity happened then. Right? Excellent.

          • Smurf says:

            Yes. yes it is. I’m glad we agree.

            (I think I’m missing your point. What exactly are you saying with that comment?)

          • innokenti says:

            Well, we’re clearly still doing some interesting and awesome things in that department. This is most definitely a good thing. These things are still happening.

    • Hentzau says:

      “(And ultimately coming back to the previous points slightly – Governments not committing to spending big budgets on ambition space flight ventures is not representative of humankind or our interests, ambition or willingness.)”

      When they’re instead spending billions on drone technology so that they can kill people by remote control from the safety of a trailer park in Nevada, it kind of is.

      That’s the snide answer. The long answer is that we’re also spending lots of money on things like CERN, but I dare you to try and explain why the Higgs Boson is important to a layman. (You will have noticed nearly every single news article that reported on it bending over backwards to try and avoid explaining what it was in anything but the most vague terms possible.) That’s not to say manned space flight is a glorified PR program either, but in so far as a scientific achievement that actually means something to people goes you’d be pretty hard pressed to beat that photo of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. It’s a really effective way of saying “Yes, this is what we can do now. Just think of where we can go in the future. Just think of where you might be able to take us.”

      My point here isn’t that spending money on manned space exploration somehow makes a society inherently better, but that the abandonment of space speaks to a more general malaise and stagnation in society as a whole. Very few things are done these days unless they have a near-immediate economic payoff thanks to rampant capitalism, and even CERN regularly gets asked what exactly it is doing to benefit society. The answer is: lots of stuff, but since it doesn’t have a direct dollar value attached to it it is perceived by society to be something of a waste of money that’s only funded because we have to maintain our credentials as a Western technocracy *somehow*.

      Here is a little story for you about how smaller scale university funding works. At my university there were three research groups: Materials, Optics and Astrophysics. Materials and Astrophysics each got half a floor of a building plus some sundry labs. Optics got an entire *building* to itself, as well as the lion’s share of the grant money. Why was this? It was because Optics was researching things that had direct commercial applications (optical coherence tomography amongst other things), whereas Materials and Astrophysics were engaged in research that was a little more blue-sky in its thinking.

      So that’s the ballgame. Unless your research will lead to big bucks further down the line, you get a bare minimum of funding — just enough so that you can be waved around as a prestige item. That’s not an attitude that will take us anywhere useful, and neither is not exploring space because it’s too hard and the moon isn’t literally made of cash money.

      • innokenti says:

        Oh I completely agree with basically most of that. But I still don’t think that’s indicative of human ambition and interest. At times the issues are for whatever reason hijacked or lobbied into a particular position. That is a problem, and I think a significant problem of our time. It is not (I would maintain) because that is what we have asked of our governments of our world, nor is it something that is necessarily here to stay.

        The situation now is not an indictment of humanity or whatever, just the folly of the time and something that could and should be changed.

  3. Sandplasma says:

    It won’t be until we leave the planet that the human race will near guarantee its future existence. We need a hostile country to make plans for a moon base for the U.S to really get going.

    • Hentzau says:

      This is actually one of the reasons I was kind of hopeful about the Chinese space program, as the US is the stereotypical rich man who never uses something when he’s got it but cries bloody murder when it gets taken from him. Unfortunately it’s moving very slowly and while it’s possible China could catch up that’s only because the US space program has been in standstill itself for the last thirty-odd years.

      (Note: not characterising China as “hostile” here.)

  4. Josh says:

    The non-functional benefits of manned spaceflight are huge. You can’t capture a kid’s imagination, and teach it to dream an ambitious future, with DNA or renewable energy in the same way that you can with a footstep on an alien world. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

    • Hentzau says:

      Pretty much this, it’s all about hope for the future as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I’m biased because I do (did?) a lot of work with kids, but they all think they’re going to get the chance to go out and explore the solar system just like I did when I was their age. This forces me to get creative in not telling them that that future has effectively been cancelled in this age of austerity.

      • innokenti says:

        That’s a great way to get kids interested and inspired. But yeah, I reckon you would be biased, just as if I was doing it I’d be a little biased towards history or something.

        But we want kids to be inspired by a lot of other stuff. Because they will get inspired by other stuff, because everyone is different and things are going to stick with or bounce off them in different ways. Yeah, kids want to be cosmonauts, but that’s not the only way for them to dream and be inspired, and not the dominant way either.

        I’m not saying we shouldn’t have people get into it all and be inspired by it. But it’s just one facet. Yes, it might seem that it’s the ultimate thing to someone driven passionately by space exploration, but it probably isn’t.

        It’s almost certainly awesome though. Just like the many other awesome awesome things.

  5. Gap says:

    I’m spectacularly late to the party on this one, but yeah, space travel is a way for the US to project its power further – even if no other nation challenges it into space again (which they will), surveillance is a crucial reason to launch stuff into space (and once you’re there, there might be an argument for mining asteroids or the moon, I don’t know. Mars, could be a while before that turns a profit, but hopefully with a decent orbital industry the costs of a mission there go down). The fact that the US military donated two telescopes that are better than Hubble to NASA recently shows that the US still takes space travel seriously and has a bunch of awesome kit up there that they’re not telling anyone about, even though it isn’t dumping money into crash programs to other planets just yet.

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