Friday, August 28, 2009

Manned space exploration -- what a crock!

Cross-posted to Freedom Democrats. (note for new readers)
Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.
--Ayn Rand
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
--Henry David Thoreau
One of the things that has always baffled me about Ayn Rand (a self-described rational egoist and free-marketer) was her gushing endorsement of NASA's manned space flight program. She celebrates it as a symbol of the potential of rationality, but completely ignores the fact that this rationality emanated from the centralized, coercive state. The fact that this was a government program should have given her cause to consider whether this sort of project was, or ever could be, the product of free men. Another reason to pause is the recognition that this project was instigated in direct response to a challenge from the USSR--"let's see if we can beat them at their own game"!
Manned space exploration is pure political propaganda, financed by tribute from slaves. Rand should have seen that, but she (and her present-day disciples) are apparently blind to it. Erika Holzer says that Rand treated centralized, coercive planning as a given and figured that we might as well get something worthwhile (i.e. technology-based spectacles) out of it. But when Rand writes "Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical" she is elevating her own wishful thinking over the actual forces that drive human behavior. The Apollo program was political from its conception to its execution. It was conceived to justify corporate liberalism at home, and American hegemony abroad. It was designed to engage the sense of wonder of 10 year-old boys while also speaking to their hardnosed elders by demonstrating the awesome power of the USA.
The issue of practical benefits is absent from Rand's assessment of the Apollo program. Holzer even endorses the view (expressed by Krauthammer), that considerations of practicality are a distraction from the true purpose of the spectacle. However, this illustrates exactly why no rational, free man would expend substantial effort on this project. Krauthammer says that "we retreated" from the moon, but the truth is that "we" had no reason to stay. "We" went there simply to show that "we" could do it. Any attempt to create a permanent human presence on the moon or send people to Mars using modern technology would be the largest boondoggle in human history. Maybe these projects would be feasible after extensive robotic exploration and infrastructure development, but not in the near future.
There's a reason I've been putting we in quotes: the most perverse message from these "individualist" cheerleaders of manned space flight is that they portray human greatness as a social project rather than an individual project. They speak as though the only alternative to manned space flight is to vainly obsess over the eradication of poverty or get lost in shallow self-gratification (egoism, perhaps?). They ignore the possibility of redirecting money from manned space flight to basic scientific research, both terrestrial and cosmic. Most fundamentally they deny the possibility that individuals, left with control over their lives and the fruit of their labors, could ever contribute to anything worthwhile.
Note: The title may lead some readers to expect a full argument against sending people into space (see comments). Instead, these readers will find nothing more than an individualist criticism of Ayn Rand's argument for manned space exploration as a form of ideological propaganda. If there are any other serious arguments for manned space exploration, I do not know of them and this essay does not address them. I have not seen any serious proposals for a manned space exploration program that had scientific or economic goals. If such proposals existed, then I would retract the title, but so far everyone (including Presidents Kennedy and Bush) seem to view manned space exploration as ideological propaganda. My disdain for current proposals for manned space exploration do not extend to robotic exploration, or continued experimentation with long term (but near-Earth) space habitation, nor does it apply to some hypothetical future time when manned space exploration could have a serious economic or scientific purpose.


Unknown said...

Wow! Your inarticulate, near-anarchic ramblings actually almost became coherent near the middle. Then I realized that you don't think "engaging the sense of wonder of 10 year-old boys" is worthwhile.

Awful job here.

Ricketson said...

A child's sense of wonder does not depend on light-shows from the state. The only issue here is whether it will be focuses on the stories of parents and teachers, or whether it will be focused on the megalomania of the state.

Unknown said...

That's certainly not the issue here. A child's sense of wonder can be stimulated by a pebble or an insect, but in most scenarios those things won't lead him to make significant advances in the fields of geology or entomology. The launching of a man to the moon, however, might well inspire this child to go into aeronautics--it's simply an inspiring thing.

This excerpt is from a Freakonomics blog: "...when I asked guests on The Space Show, students, and people in space-related fields what inspired or motivated them to start a space business or pursue their science education, over 80 percent said they were inspired and motivated because of our having gone to the moon." (

I think you're looking at it as if manned spaceflight is a tool to boost national ego, rather than the opposite. Why shouldn't the furthering of national pride be a method of advancing our space program? I'm not what anyone would call a "patriot," but I don't see how the desire to keep America as the primary explorer of outer space is a negative thing. Now, I would be all for the privatization of space exploration, and it's likely that that's where the field is headed. Hell, if the UN wanted to create a UNASA, that would be excellent (though it's not particularly likely.) As of now, though, I believe that a version of patriotism is quite a good enabler for space exploration.

Ricketson said...

Before responding to those particular paints, I want to be clear that I am only critical of the monumental space exploration projects of the type that Bush promoted (men to the moon and Mars). I fully support space exploration that is focused on efficient scientific research, as well as any commercial endeavors that find practical benefits to putting men in space.

1) Regarding motivation to study science and technology:

You are implying that without the Apollo program, all of those engineers and entrepreneurs would have squandered their talents. I think it is more likely that they would have entered other fields of science and engineering (computers, biotech, etc.).

2) Regarding the harnessing of various sentiments to support space exploration:

I don't believe that these monumental space programs have sufficient practical value to justify their expense, at least until further technology is developed. So I don't see the point of harnessing national pride to promote these projects.

The other implicit assertion that I see is that these monumental projects serve as advertising campaigns for space exploration generally. I think that the monumental manned space exploration projects (moon and Mars) would end up costing much more than the more practical projects that they are supposedly promoting. Furthermore, any resources that are mobilized for space exploration will not be available for other activities, including other science and technology programs.

I see no reason to spend a trillion dollars on a monumental space exploration project, just so it can divert billions of dollars from one field of scientific research into another field.

Unknown said...

Then I think the fundamental difference between our viewpoints is that you see no feasible reason for these massive campaigns, no end result that would justify the massive amounts of effort and resources put into the missions. I do see a worthwhile goal here--or actually several, which I will list in order from most to least "useful" as relates to the world today.

1. Resources. Many asteroids are made up of compounds that would fetch a very pretty penny on our planet. This would contribute to goal 2 as well.

2. Exploration. In centuries past, the human race has explored ever-tougher terrains. Very often, this very exploration is what kept us alive and allowed us to adapt. Space is quite literally the "final frontier," and knowing what is out there will certainly help with any other goals we might have.

3. Colonization. I was not aware that this was even a serious option until I began the research for a school paper, one of the assigned readings for which was this blog. However, many space experts seem to agree that within the next several decades humanity will need to look into propagating itself elsewhere in the solar system, whether that elsewhere is the moon or Mars.

Goal 2, exploration, is really where we are focusing our efforts at this time. Though it is perhaps not the most "useful" avenue to go down at the moment, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt necessary if we want to do anything else in space.

Ricketson said...

As I wrote repeatedly, I am not opposed to robotic (i.e. efficient) exploration. I am opposed to the idea that sending men all over the solar system is a worthy goal in itself.

I think that this was clearly stated in the original post.

"Holzer even endorses the view (expressed by Krauthammer), that considerations of practicality are a distraction from the true purpose of the spectacle. ... Any attempt to create a permanent human presence on the moon or send people to Mars using modern technology would be the largest boondoggle in human history. Maybe these projects would be feasible after extensive robotic exploration and infrastructure development, but not in the near future."

Ricketson said...

We may have a different perception of the technical hurdles related to manned space exploration. As I said, my opposition is specicficall to to impractical attitudes towards manned space exploration. If it proved to be practical, I'd be fine with it.

However, given the following considerations, I consider manned exploration to be impractical, while robotic exploration IS practical.

1) We still lose a lot of out space missions. I think that we should improve our ability to launch and recover crafts before expanding the manned projects.

2) It is very hard to keep humans alive in space. Their life support systems are heavy, expensive, and prone to break. Extended periods in space lead to some severe health problems. There is still a lot of technologies to develop here, and we shouldn't be traveling far distances until they are developed.

3) Robots have proven very productive in exploring space, and the technology is rapidly developing.

So we still have a lot of technologies to develop, and we will develop them even without an explicit goal to send people to Mars. We especially don't need a timeline.

I think that robotics is especially important because they will help solve the first two problems (flight and life support). I think that we will be able to use them to build a portion of our "bases", and they will be able to do much of this without any humans being present. They will clear the path for us.

Much of my perspective comes from the book "The Case for Mars" by Robert Zubrin. My main disagreement with the Zurbin is that I don't think that we need to develop our robots more and do more robotic exploration before implementing his plan.

Ricketson said...

Ignore the "don't" in the last sentence. I wish I could edit comments after posting.

Unknown said...

Alright, that's fair. Your article, in the absence of discussion, seemed like you oppose sending people into space under any circumstances. While I do agree that much robotic research and exploration must be done before we can send humans into space, but I think that there are uses for them besides the actual colonization. Many geologists hold that one of them could, given a week on Mars, get us more information than we could get with years of rovers and probes. An unfortunate result of the harshness of space travel is that we must place more value on durability than on sensitivity in the technology we send. A person on Mars could not only take a much larger sample size, but could analyze the samples intelligently and make informed decisions quickly, unlike a robot. I agree that much infrastructure must be constructed and much exploration performed by robots before we send men.