The Struggle for Space

As Jonathan kindly notes below, I’ve been space-blogging up a storm recently over on Arcturus, mainly because we’re in the busiest stretch of space news since the tragic events of last February. I feel that I owe Chicago Boyz some commentary of a less purely technical and more interdisciplinary nature.
(Besides, I know what they’re thinking: He seems like a pretty good guy, but did the Common Core really take? So I need to prove myself by talking about, y’know, humanities and stuff.)
Anyway, for the purposes of getting something out here for everybody to chew on, I’ve identified three conceptual difficulties that interested observers — mostly Americans, but plenty of foreigners as well — are experiencing as they hear the back-to-back news of varyingly successful ongoing activities in space and leaks of the Administration’s proposal for the next generation of space exploration.
I’m listing them in order of (my perception of) increasing difficulty, or decreasing tractability. The first is pretty much negotiable. The second is much more fundamental, but subject to melioration. The third, in combination with sufficiently powerful political institutions, could be a show-stopper, the more so since I can’t recall ever seeing it written about elsewhere — it’s an “unknown unknown.”

  1. Risk Management and Prioritization — A perennial topic of mine, thanks to my ongoing study and work in project management (I now think of this, for example, primarily as a risk-management framework, and a very good one). It seems to me that nearly all political questions reduce to A) how to keep bad things from happening and B) how to allocate limited resources to best keep them from happening. Since we all have different top-10 lists of bad things and different conceptions of the resources available, political disputes are endless.
    Early-21st-century American space exploration, especially insofar as it is publicly funded, therefore encounters two immediate questions: what do we get out of it, and where does it rank, relative to other national needs? Most of the people who bother to frame the question this way are sympathetic to the effort, and even those who are not can often be induced to at least keep it on the table.
    Specific competitors for political bandwidth include national security issues, a social safety net, economic policies, education, and the environment. In this context, I note that according to this story: “With the exception of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, no other agency is expected to receive a budget increase above inflation in FY 2005.” (I have an unusual hypothesis regarding the identity of the person in the Bush Administration who is behind this.)
    The vulnerabilities are obvious: a second 9/11, an economic downturn, turnover of key committee chairmanships in Congress, or other events could strangle the new initiative in the crib. Of course, Project Apollo proved that effective national focus on space exploration is possible. But it is entirely unclear that such focus can be maintained in this decade.
    (Oh, and for the most recent example of “what we get out of it,” read this.)
  2. Mathematical vs Nonmathematical — I wrote a huge post on this over on Arcturus back in August; for the purposes of this discussion, what matters is that a threshold of mathematical knowledge exists that defines two sets of people, termed “Type M” and “Type N” by the mathematician who wrote the book I quoted from in that post. The two types correlate strongly with two sets of attitudes toward science and technology, and they do not communicate well with one another. The political problem is exacerbated by the fact that Type N vastly outnumbers Type M.
    One symptom of this divide to watch for in the next few years is public reaction to the development of nuclear-powered space probes, which are entirely necessary for any exploration of the outer Solar System (or of Mars itself at latitudes > 30° N/S). But the more immediate problem is that Type N people have trouble conceiving of the idea that doing anything in space, whether with public or private money, can be worthwhile. These are the people who fall for the line about how we have to solve Earth’s problems first.
    What to do? The author of The Art of Mathematics suggests that math begin to be taught to non-technical types (especially artists) for its aesthetic value alone, thereby allowing Type M to encroach on Type N. I have elsewhere encouraged Type M people to go the extra mile in explaining how science works. Such memetic-engineering projects, however, are not quickly completed. We have many more years of Type N incomprehension ahead of us.
  3. Terrestrial vs Celestial — I contend that classical and medieval notions of a cosmic dualism, that is, of supralunar perfection opposed to sublunar corruption (a nice summary is here), have reappeared in the modern mind.
    Such memes are a product of A) the utter unfamiliarity of present-day urban and suburban dwellers (many of whom have never so much as glimpsed the Milky Way, and 99%+ of whom cannot reliably identify any celestial object other than the Sun and Moon) with even the most elementary knowledge of astronomy; B) the operation of publicly-funded space exploration, with its elitist atmosphere and deliberate lack of everyday, especially commercial, referents; and C) the promotional activities of amateur astronomers, who find it expedient to imbue the hobby with a sense of the sacred, even while encouraging public participation (I’ve done this a few times myself).
    The stage is set, I believe, even in the absence of US ratification of the infamous Moon Treaty, for an approach to space analogous to that taken toward Antarctica, where any attempt at resource extraction would surely result in a worldwide howl of protest (though this irreverent site notes that “the main purpose of the United States Antarctic Program, as stated by an external panel report published by NSF, is to establish a physical and political presence. This presence is kind of like hopping out of the car to stand in a parking space so no one nabs it while your friend drives around the block. Our friend in this metaphor would be the as-of-yet nonexistent technology to cost-effectively extract minerals or hydrocarbons from Antarctica”). Thus the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” line is applied to space.
    I have suggested elsewhere that if life is discovered on Mars, the entire planet may well be set aside as a “scientific reserve.” But even in the clear absence of life, as on the Moon or among the asteroids, the first concern of any for-profit organization must be public opinion and the regulatory environment back on Earth. An aroused polity is capable of entirely foreclosing scientific possibilities, or at least exiling their support activities to less fastidious nations, as may be occurring in the US with somatic-cell nuclear transfer (25 kB *.pdf). Will a medievalist backlash abort America’s destiny in space?

2 thoughts on “The Struggle for Space”

  1. The last time I saw a pie chart of federal expenditures NASA was receiving approximately 0.5% of the budget. Social programs were at about 60% and defense about 25%. Shutting down NASA completely would only free up enough money to increase any other part of the budget by 0.5% (1/2 of one percent). Another way of looking at it is that for each federal dollar spent, we’re allocating 1/2 of one cent to NASA.
    NASA should be thought of as a research and development (R&D) activity into space and aerospace sciences, as well as into astronomy and the physcial sciences. Not bad for half a penny on the dollar.
    If anything disappoints me about the lunar/Mars initiative, it’s that it fails to push ahead on vehicle and propulsion technology. If I understand correctly, the proposal calls for a return to Saturn 5 type rockets and space capsules. A giant leap backwards, if you ask me. We could just hire Boeing or Lockheed for that. It’s off the shelf technology. If we’re going to replace the shuttle, let’s do it with something better.
    I’m also right with you on the development of miniturized fission reactors. Long overdue. Radio-isotope theraml generators (RTGs) have been around since the sixties and power virtually all of our deep space, long duration space probes. They’re reliable and crash worthy. Miniturized reactors are the obvious next step. Hell, I support quadrupling the number of fission reactors providing commercial electrical power in the US. But I fear I’m in the minority, and will remain there until Bush or Dean have the guts to make a national priority of it.

  2. I’m very type M and I’m not interested in space research, because there’s a whole lot of cheaper and more productive research down here on earth which fascinates me.

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