August 10, 2007

Wasting money on space

I just wrote a long answer over at Metafilter to this question: Why are we wasting lots of money on space research and astronomy which could be better spent on other things? Here's my answer:

If history has shown us anything, it is that "pure research" doesn't exist. Everything we learn eventually becomes useful to us, but...

...but it's nearly impossible to predict when or how it will do so.

That said, it turns out that there are significant practical applications of astronomical data. The first major confirmation of the General Theory of Relativity was through telescope observation, for example, and the General Theory is the only theory of gravity we have which has stood the test of time. (In the mid 19th century astronomical observations had already demonstrated that Newton's theory of gravity didn't correctly predict the orbit of Mercury. That was part of the impetus leading to the development of the General Theory.)

Several predictions made by physics researchers working on new theories in subatomic physics could only be tested through astronomical observations.

"Yeah, but what good are those theories?" Well, they're not ready to be turned into engineering practice yet, so we can't really tell. But the last major revolution in physics, the hat trick of the Special Theory of Relativity, the General Theory of Relativity, and the Quantum Theory, gave us atomic weapons and atomic power, modern plastics, and semiconductors among other things.

Take modern polymer chemistry as an example. In the 19th Century chemists did some amazing things, but most of it was the result of brute force experimentation. They didn't understand what they were doing. The Quantum Theory gave them the tools to really explain what was happening, and once they began to utilize that knowledge, they stopped groping around in a fog and began to march in useful directions. The result was things like mylar and kevlar and cyanoacrylate and synthetic ceramics. Not to mention gallium arsenide.

The Special Theory told us that mass and energy were the same thing and that each could be converted into the other. The research going on now is attempting to explain how that is the case, and if it succeeds, it could be just as revolutionary as the Quantum theory was. For instance, we could learn how to directly convert mass into energy without having to muck around with indirect approaches like fusion and fission.

What use was the Galileo probe? One thing it did was to give us a good long look at the weather on Jupiter. All those cloud bands moving at different speeds relative to one another? Well, we've got those here on Earth, too. They're called the "trade winds". Seeing another, larger, more well defined example of that may teach us things about weather here.

Cassini? Saturn is like a great laboratory experiment for gravity. The grooves in the rings are the gravitational equivalent of the trails of smoke in a wind tunnel. No one can explain the grooves right now, and part of the problem is that the Voyager probes didn't really return enough data about that. Cassini will give us years of data about the rings, and if someone eventually figures out a way to explain where the grooves are (and where they aren't) that could begin the process of developing a replacement for the General Theory. (Which is known to need a replacement, by the way.)

But utilitarian explanations like that miss the real point: When a culture stops dreaming, it starts dying. When it stops looking to the future, it becomes part of the past. If we concentrate entirely on utilitarian aspects of "taking care of things here, now" then we lose something precious that we cannot spare.

The most important result of astronomy and space? It's the pictures that kids look at and go "Oooh! I want more of that!" It challenges our children, gives them something to dream about. That alone is sufficient to justify it.

We aren't doing these things for ourselves. We're doing them for our grandchildren.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Engineer's Disease at 03:22 PM | Comments (11) | Add Comment
Post contains 677 words, total size 4 kb.

1 Pixy: bug alert? Just now I tried commenting on your most recent post and I couldn't do so. The comment frame comes up but I couldn't get focus into the composition area in order to type anything. You mentioned that you've been messing around with things and that IE7 (which I'm using) is misbehaving. I think you broke comment entry.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 10, 2007 03:45 PM (+rSRq)

2 Now this goes to show how sick I still am: the Wiki page about Bell's Theorem made my head spin. Me, physics geek extraordinaire. (or at least "ordinaire"....)

Still, all your comments about space exploration being necessary are dead on. It's not just about what we can learn, although that alone is more than worth the money we spend on space exploration; it's about inspiration.

Another interesting point is that the combined welfare and entitlement expenditures of the US Federal Gov't currently amount to TWO MILLION DOLLARS A MINUTE, more or less. NASA's budget is--what, $20 billion? The welfare apparatus would spend that in a week, for crying out loud; and that little bit extra would not "solve" poverty any more than the current funding level does.

Posted by: atomic_fungus at August 10, 2007 04:34 PM (p1hg7)

3 PS Comments work from Netscape.

PPS During the Apollo era, every dollar spent on space exploration ended up returning EIGHT dollars to the US economy. You don't get that kind of multiplier from welfare spending!

Posted by: atomic_fungus at August 10, 2007 04:37 PM (p1hg7)

I think you broke comment entry.
Yes, I was trying something clever that didn't work out so well.  I was planning to change it back for other reasons - I didn't know it was broken for IE as well.

Anyway, all fixed, I think.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 10, 2007 06:23 PM (PiXy!)


Pixy: OK, it works now.

AF: it was only Ambient Irony which was affected.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 10, 2007 06:44 PM (+rSRq)


There will always be more space to explore and new things to see and learn, out there. There will always be poor and/or lazy people eager to leech off their fellow man, down here.

I know where I want my money spent.

Posted by: Will at August 10, 2007 09:09 PM (olS40)

7 Totally agree that we have to keep exploring space.  I doubt that it's truly the final frontier, but it's certainly the *next* one.

That said, sometimes I think that NASA is hindering advancement more than helping it.  They seem to be doing their best to convince everyone that only they can safely get people into orbit using custom rocket designs that cost billions to put on paper and often are scrapped before flying.  With an official goal to restart exploration by going back to the moon, they decided to essentially re-create Apollo (which was optimized to "get there this decade", not to build a sustainable infrastructure), using a pair of brand new rockets (the Stick is looking like a failure even on paper).

(rant mode off)

At least there are some other folks, with fortunes a fraction of NASA's spaceflight budget, who are also working on the problem now.

Posted by: BigD at August 11, 2007 05:38 AM (JJ4vV)


"if Man is merely an Animal then he must fight for every scrap of happiness he can, but if he is something more, then he must strive for more - the Universe or nothing - which shall it be?"

Oswald Cabal-"H. G. Wells' THINGS TO COME"

Even with the socialist tendencies of the film I'll take a "Space Gun" anyday

Posted by: David McKinnis at August 11, 2007 04:47 PM (AreTj)

9 Over twenty years ago, only a few years after he graduated from high school, a friend of mine did a very dumb thing with a bandsaw.  By his own admission, it was stupid and unthinking, and it resulted in the blade severing his right index finger at the first knuckle, and cutting tendons in two more.  He was incredibly lucky that the finger was held on by a single artery and scrap of flesh, and his mother was fast thinking.  She iced it, and his father drove him 20 mi. to a hospital (this was a rural area).  They were able to reattach the finger.  Later surgery implanted an artificial knuckle, and over a few years of therapy, he got back 90% of the use of that finger.

The knuckle was made of a special type of silicone, and was the exact same material developed for the airlock seals of the Apollo moon rockets.  Don't tell him that we're wasting money on space.

Posted by: ubu at August 12, 2007 12:15 PM (maFgw)

10 NASA is doing exactly the right thing by ditching the shuttles. Too damned expensive and too dangerous.

You need exactly two vehicles to begin exploring the Solar System:

1) A big dumb booster to get unmanned stuff and vehicle assemblies into orbit

2) A dead perfect launch vehicle + a 100% re-entry vehicle to get people into and out of LEO.

Everything else is chrome ... using a shuttle to retrieve things is insanely expensive ... it would always be cheaper to just loft another object.

Get the manned vehicle and the big dumb booster into continual production, and costs will start to drop.

Posted by: kbarrett at August 13, 2007 07:51 PM (eMN3a)


Unfortunately, they haven't ditched the shuttles yet, and now we may lose Endeavorr.

The heat tiles on the belly of it were gashed by a falling piece of ice during the launch last week. Here's hoping it can come back safely anyway.

It's making the second attempt to carry a school teacher to orbit. I hope that's not a jinx.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 13, 2007 08:51 PM (+rSRq)

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