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The Spacefaring Web 3.05
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Feb 26, 2003
Post-Columbia punditry has formed up into two camps: mystically pro-human and reductionistically pro-robot. Before the isolated sparring turns into a general melee, we should look up from our conflicting means to examine the question of ends. If any of us are to be effective, in water-cooler conversation, op-ed high-noon showdowns or Congressional testimony, we'll need a good firm grip on our own answer to the root question: why do we want to go to space?

It's immediately clear that there is no single answer. Some motivations cross established bounds of ideology, in a sign that people might be thinking around the edges of their own rusted-in-place opinions. Some are rationalizations, some are reasons, some are passions.

Sorting through the variety of answers may show us what is possible to achieve and with whom, who our allies and opponents are, whether our future holds advocacy or conflict, and ultimately whether we will see our ends in space realized in our lifetimes.

Science: Answers to many questions about the nature of the universe are to be found in space, from basic physical properties to the origins and ubiquity of life, to the most arcane matters of astrophysics and planetary geology.

Interest in answers to scientific questions increases with their generality: while most folks would like to know if there is other intelligent life in the universe, data from some space experiments commands the attention of few beyond the principal investigator and those likely to share publication credit.

Likewise, genuine interest in the enterprise of scientific inquiry is limited to a small sector of the population.

Here, there is a grain of value to the robot/human faceoff. Scientific research has three primary sources of funding: taxpayer money, university budgets (in many cases also taxpayer money) and corporate investment. In each case, funding is close to, if not precisely, a zero-sum game: my project can only get funded by raiding your budget, and vice versa.

Only to the extent that research dollars are finite, and that any one human spaceflight is vastly more expensive than any one robotic mission, does a genuine conflict of interest arise.

Whether any particular question is best answered, or experiment is best performed, by humans or robots is no policy issue. It should remain nothing more than a technical matter of concern only to those involved in that project.

Settlement: Some in the space community, myself included, define our goal as permanent human settlement offplanet. This is an intermediate, not a root, value, and putting it forward as if it were at the core has contributed to much of the acrimony and miscommunication over space policy.

Space settlement may hold an appeal as an engineering challenge: the Howard Roarkes, Paolo Soleris or Robert Bigelows may be driven by the fundamental desire to build on a grand scale. Far different is the core motivation whose raw materials of construction are culture rather than titanium.

Robert Zubrin, Gerard O'Neill and others have all stressed the appeal of space as a construction site for new civilizations. Obviously, short of dystopian fantasies of an artificial-intelligence Singularity, space civilizations can only be built when humans have unfettered access.

Emigration: At a more personal scale, the social-engineering appeal of settlement becomes the desire to emigrate. Emigration is a subtle cost-benefit calculus: present circumstances must be undesirable, and the destination must hold the promise of a better life.

Moving from the killing fields of a failed state to brutal work in a sweatshop may well be a net gain. When the cost of emigration is equivalent to that of a luxury house, the new life must be significantly more appealing.

Space emigration becomes attractive not when the cost drops below a certain dollar threshold, but when it drops below the benefit. The 1970s Alaska boom didn't come about because Alaska was cheap or appealing, but because it offered boomtown wages to skilled workers - it was benefit-pushed.

Early English emigration to America was benefit-pushed in part, by opportunities in transatlantic commerce or homesteading, but was significantly cost-driven.

Religious persecution and a rigid class system made staying less appealing than the very real risks of the journey and the frontier. Benefit scenarios (a demand for skilled workers on orbit) and cost scenarios (culture and government turning hostile to the values of the wealthy and technologically sophisticated) have been developed; obviously, neither has yet come to pass.

For both settlement and emigration, the humans/robots dichotomy is resolved fairly easily. To the extent that the tool of robotics is useful in construction, it will be applied. Robotics are clearly not an end, nor are they a preferred means.

Adventure: There are a number of variations on the theme of "space is exciting." I suspect many of the original astronauts were driven in large part by raw thrill, the same motivation that makes people do things like test experimental aircraft or make night carrier landings.

Space tourism is the attempt to build an industry around this core value. Many of those whose core motivation lies elsewhere - in encouraging science education, patriotic feelings or social solidarity, rely on adventure as a justification or obfuscation for their real goals. "Space is exciting," the argument goes, "therefore we can channel that excitement into -" physics classes or nationalism or the like.

Of course, while space is exciting, not everybody likes excitement. Oddly, in the entire history of naval aviation, no one is on record as objecting to it because most people would rather hoist a beer than hook a wire.

Risky pursuits from piloting to mountain-climbing have been recognized as the passion of some odd few, and the tame majority has largely gone about their business, either catching a vicarious thrill from their exploits or ignoring them entirely.

Only space has attracted the busybody, the Puritan (in the definition of "somebody desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere is having a good time"), the seeker of the universal wet blanket.

Some robotic partisans come to their position from an opposition to adventure. In a recent SpaceDaily op-ed, Bruce Moomaw characterized my embrace of adventure as "saying that we should risk human lives unnecessarily in space exploration; that we should embrace danger and risk entirely for their own sakes -- even when we could carry out such exploration, and such commercial exploitation of space, not only far more safely but tremendously more cheaply using robots."

I'm reminded of the apocryphal comment by the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto: "Whaddaya mean 'we,' white boy?" "We" aren't seeking adventure, risking our lives or making the personal choice as to whether risk outweighs return.

Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon each made that choice, for themselves. Nobody asked the peanut gallery, and nobody should.

Moomaw counters that I'm "saying that the taxpayers should be forced to subsidize such unnecessary risk-for-its-own-sake. This is like saying that taxpayers should be forced to subsidize recreational mountain climbers or the Flying Wallendas (before they started working with a net)."

Nice try.

But Moomaw defends taxpayer expenditure on pure science by the National Science Foundation on the one hand while excoriating NASA expenditure on human spaceflight on the other.

There is no issue of principle at stake here: either way, money is confiscated from people uninterested in the expenditure. Put everything currently funded by taxes on a cash-and-carry basis and see how many people pony up for X-ray observatories versus space hotels. Go ahead. Please.

Exploration: Exploration is a dangerously vague term. Partisans of science take it to mean "collecting data from remote locations," and argue from efficiency that it is a task best undertaken by robots. Partisans of human spaceflight take it to mean "the adventure of traveling into unknown territory," and argue from passion that no robot can do the job.

The history of exploration is largely a story of adventure, with science along for the ride, sometimes as a near-equal partner and sometimes riding down in the hold.

Polar exploration, still the best analog for human spaceflight, always had precious little to do with science and much more to do with passions, personal, social and political.

The Apollo program was undeniably driven by exploration-as-adventure, as only one scientist, Harrison Schmitt, ever flew, while the other astronauts were primarily adventure-driven pilots. Best we abandon the term in favor of those that genuinely reflect our core values, be they science or adventure.

  • Spinoffs: NASA has invested much public-relations effort in promoting the spinoffs from the governmental space program. In doing so, it has supplied the opposition to human spaceflight with some of its best ammunition, as the spinoff argument is even on its face completely ridiculous.

    Putting forth as a reason for doing something the fact that it generates unintended consequences can most charitably be described as knee-slappingly funny. Critics have clearly established that spinoff-related work by NASA, especially that associated with human-supervised experiments on the Shuttle, is window-dressing at best. This case has been made persuasively by SpaceDaily's Bruce Moomaw, among others.

  • Wealth: Vast fortunes could be made in space, as they have been made on every technological frontier from deep-water sailing to mobile telephony. Here the humans/robots issue is marginal, as it is widely assumed that space as an investment frontier will only open with the arrival of people, as tourists, construction workers, settlers.

    It is not impossible that a good deal of money could be made from telepresence operations, though it's difficult to see how such things could be more than one-shot spectaculars, flags-and-footprints ironically without the footprints. Hardly a scenario to thrill most opponents of human spaceflight.

  • Environmental Protection: The environmental arguments for space are so complex as to be beyond the scope of this column. They cut across the humans/robots battle lines: many robotics advocates see Terrestrial benefits from space science data and perhaps from robotically-built factories or power stations on orbit.

    Advocates of large-scale space settlement see environmental benefits from moving substantial numbers of people along with their supporting technologies off Earth. Some are deeply opposed to biological contamination of other worlds; some advocate massive terraforming in the name of biophilia.

    Space environmentalism is the freshest and most rewarding source of genuinely original and creative thought on policy, one where unfettered conflict is a boon to the advancement of our scientific and moral understanding.

There are other motivations, surely. Except for the debate among environmental advocates, all the core answers are complementary. Were launch costs $100 a pound, everyone would be free to go seek their root values in space, civilization-builders, geologists and robber barons alike.

There are a million personal reasons, a myriad potential destinations. Our challenge lies not in choosing between them, deeming some worthy and others too crass or plebeian, but in enabling every choice.

In the end, what matters isn't what we fly, or where we fly, or even why we fly. What really matters is that we fly. We, along with our machines, into the rest of the universe.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2002 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation (http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/Spacefaring ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at [email protected]

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