April 11, 2008

Why space exploration ?

Universe today asks the question "Why should we be spending money exploring space when there are so many problems here on Earth that we need to solve first?"

I provided my answer [I have extended it here]:
Lack of a space program will not solve anything else faster and a well planned program [not what we have been doing] can deliver massive benefits. History shows the logical flaw.

There has been no historical example of any group "solving all of their problems before embarking on exploration/expansion/major project". The solve all problems locally before advancing has not been shown to be a successful strategy. There has been major examples where the imperfect/highly flawed expander had major advantages over the non-expander (who was also flawed). The biggest one is China had the largest ocean going fleet in 1400's. Then the emperor destroyed that fleet. The Western nations came a few hundred years later and forced China to give up Hong Kong and Macau for 99 years. The Europeans colonized North America and expanded economies because of those policies. The world has about a 60 trillion/year economy. There is not a shortage of resources in money or people to target problems. Well funded, well planned and well executed efforts can be directed at all of the problems simultaneously. Just putting ten times, a hundred times or a million times more money does not convert a failing plan, project against hunger, poverty, corruption into a successful plan. Most of those plans and efforts have failed in the past and holding a new project contingent upon solving those first is a bad idea. We need more/better plans and better thinking.

The fallacy of the let us solve X, Y, and Z before doing A, B and C can be seen not just in big history but every day life.
I will lose 35 pounds, organize my home and achieve emotional balance before getting a new job.
I will become self sufficient through greenhouse farming, get my extended family and friends jobs and savings and solve all of their arguments, feuds and disagreements before I launch a new business.
Whether I can make a new business a success is largely independent of those other projects. A well executed business plan can provide more money to pay for other home projects.

Space exploration and development has had a lot of waste and a lack of purpose and a good plan. A strong case can be made that the overall purpose of the space programs have been one aspect of political pork with minimal space efforts and the name space program. Clearly the space shuttle and the space station have vastly under delivered for the money spent on them.

Strategies for successful space development: Focus on lowering the cost and the purpose of colonization and industrialization and commerce (tourism etc…)

- If lowering the cost is best down with more robots then use robots first or mainly. do not force the manned program until costs go down.

- fuel depots in space (bring the costs down closer to the cost of LEO $2000/kg)

- More nuclear propulsion and non-chemical systems (mirrored laser arrays for launches).

Bill Dunford - Riding with Robots on the High Frontier had an answer that was along similar thinking.


Anonymous said...

If space flight beyond earth's orbit shall have any future, those state sponsored molochs like NASA and ESA have to give up their de facto monopoly.

Space flight beyond earth's orbit will only have a future in our generation if the whole thing offers a propper return on investment and thus incentives for commercialization. And the only incentive I currently see (more will of course be discovered) is mining, be it on the moon, or mars, or astroid belt, or on mercury. Space mining operations have to become as regular businesses as airlines.

The "new" Ares is a prime example of absent innovation, Soviet-style bureaucracy paired with defense of pork, and lack of willingness to take a risk. That has plagued space flight since the Germans left NASA. Bureaucracy should have no business in space flight. Flight control and orbital coordination & controll should be handed over to a global organisation. There are of course risks, and people will die. But how many sailors lost their lifes when just sailing accross the Atlantic to the New World? They all know what the risk is and they're doing it on their own free will.

The key problem of course is still how to get stuff up there (and back at a later stage). It's a pitty that Sea Dragon was never developed. Hundred of tonnes at a reasonable price, plus it could be launched from international waters, meaning that no national bureaucracy has a say in it.

al fin said...

Very good points, Brian.

The astounding wealth that exists in space will pay for further expansion, once we get far enough to exploit it. Your ideas of using robots, pre-placing fuel depots, and using alternative propulsion methods are good principles to keep in mind.

NASA squanders money on politically motivated climate research that it should be spending on space missions. But that is government bureaucracy for you. The main purpose of any bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself. said...

Mining is a pretty weak argument. There's simply no material currently needed here on Earth than can't be had here thousands of times cheaper than getting it from elsewhere in the solar system. There are only two scenarios for mining to make sense: (1) a market develops for something like He3 that simply doesn't exist on Earth; or (2) it's cheaper to haul materials to Earth orbit for construction than to lift them up from the surface. I think that the only short-term incentives are microgravity manufacturing and space tourism. If and when these things start to be profitable, we might see a slow and steady increase in orbital construction, which might eventually drive down costs of mining operations.

Like you said, there will be other incentives. Whatever happens, I'm certain that the growth will be exponential. That means that we'll have a lot of slow progress for a long time, then it will explode.

Lobo7922 said...

Excelent article Brian, this is not just a good advice for space exploration but also for everyday life, one cant wait to solve every single problem before starting a new bussines, thanks.

And about the reasons to go to space, in my opinion the most important is energy.

kurt said...

Please rephrase the question as:

Why should we spend public (e.g. tax payers') money on space?

This is an entirely separate question. Of course we are all "pro-space" in the sense that we believe it is desirable and our destiny to settle space. However, are government-funded space programs the best approach to making this happen? Or would it be better off left to entrepreneurs and private industry?

The think the comparative levels of success of the semiconductor and computer industry as compared to, say, NASA and the Tokamak fusion programs makes clear the answer to this question.

al fin said...

Space robotics will reduce the cost of sending mining probes to NEAs and beyond.

The point of space mining is not to return the materials to Earth, but to develop an infrastructure in space. Space based manufacturing using space materials makes a lot more sense.

In fact, in situ robotic factories on the asteroids themselves (or at rich locations on the moon) would allow a lot of savings over transport of raw or processed materials to Earth.