Not in Our Stars

Wayne Eleazer has an excellent article over on The Space Review this week, that I highly recommend. He talks a lot about the question “why manned space exploration”. I think the points he makes about stunts and programmatics is dead on. People need to realize that just guaranteeing the pork gets spread around doesn’t immunize a program from Congressional cancellation. How many NASA programs in the past have spread the pork around, but still eventually been canceled? Just doing an unrepeatable stunt, while exciting for a time is going to lead to the same place Apollo did.

I also agree with his point that life will go on if we don’t go back to the moon in my lifetime. The environment isn’t going to be destroyed because lunar platinum isn’t being mined to enable the Hydrogen Economy. Human civilization isn’t going to stagnate much worse than it will anyway. We aren’t likely to be wiped out by a huge meteorite impact. I’m not too worried about those “Chinese Communists” taking over the free world by first wasting vast amounts of money building bases on the moon to prevent plucky space startups from accessing it. In fact, life would even go on if NASA closed its doors tomorrow, or if it completely canceled its manned spaceflight program. I don’t think that Western Europe is going to convert to Islam and join the Evil Caliphate o’ Doom (TM) if we don’t continue to show “technological leadership” by flying people very expensively into space on government run boosters.

There’s probably nothing in the public or private space program that is essential to human survival over the next century. Life would go on without it.

But it would also go on if say Hawaii ceased to exist tomorrow. There are all sorts of things that people find subjectively important to them that transcend mere survival. And now that I’ve had someone explain to me that that is what Wayne was trying to say by calling those subjectively important but non-life-critical things “self-actualization”, I agree with him 100%. It’s unlikely that space exploration and development can be sold on strictly survival terms, because the case just isn’t that strong. But life is about more than mere survival.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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8 Responses to Not in Our Stars

  1. Christine says:

    A NASA return to the moon isn’t going to get platinum mined.

    Quite to the contrary, the budget crunch caused by the ESAS interpretation of the VSE is causing management to rape and pillage from research programs which otherwise would have developed the propulsion, tether and power system technologies necessary to make extraction of lunar resources economic.

  2. Monte Davis says:

    Yep. The payoffs are Out There, and are huge — but the time scale is so long that we should use the same spirit and language we use in connection with the goals of churches, foundations, national parks and reserves, etc.

    Attempts to spin and handwave the payoffs into a “practical” time scale are so flimsy as to be counterproductive: people may not know the detailed reasons, but they can smell a con job.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Monte,
    I agree with you somewhat, but I think that there can be some near term payoffs–they just are more likely to be for developing the infrastructure along the way, as opposed to tapping an actual lunar market. For instance, long before the next set of bootprints are made in the lunar regolith (by anyone), someone will likely make money flying people on translunar cruises. Or by selling propellant to someone in LEO, or by leasing station space to a company trying to sell propellant in LEO, etc.

    There very well *might* be some near-term payoffs, but it won’t be for directly lunar surface markets. Those are still probably subeconomic.

    ~Jon

  4. Monte Davis says:

    I look forward to and welcome the kind of nuts & bolts, incremental ROI you’re talking about. I was speaking of payoffs at the level of scale and impact discussed in Eleazer’s article, those “big enough” that they are advanced (as they have been for 50 years) in the effort to grow the political constituency for space: self-sustaining colonization (for its own sale and/or as species-level insurance)… a “new industrial revolution” based on energy/materials from space, and so forth.

    See the artwork on pp. 36-41 of the new Ad Astra… wow, just as pretty as the pictures stimulated 30 years ago by publication of The High Frontier!… and very nearly as far away, because it’s easier to fund The Space Shuttle! or The Space Station or Return to the Moon! than the hundred gritty little steps (like those you’ve cited here) that would produce fewer glamorous illustrations, but actually add up to progress.

  5. Jon Goff says:

    Yeah, castles in the sky have their place, but only as motivators while you build the foundations up to reach them. I think that we could see some of those “big payoffs” within our lifetimes, just only if we focus on the nitty gritties of getting from where we really are now to there, and don’t waste our time going off on dead end stunts.

  6. Anonymous says:

    For instance, long before the next set of bootprints are made in the lunar regolith (by anyone), someone will likely make money flying people on translunar cruises. Or by selling propellant to someone in LEO, or by leasing station space to a company trying to sell propellant in LEO, etc.

    Jon, NASA has made it quite clear that they have zero interest in developing or using NIH fuel depots, and they are doing absolutely no technology or business development to help bring down costs and make those translunar cruises possible.

    Secondly, the entire article is logically inconsistent. At the beginning of the article the author rightly slams jingoism for creating the monsterous bureaucracy which has stifled space development for the last half century, then in the last paragraph he’s back justifying space exploration as a “glorious, unending quest that will make us better both individually and collectively”, jingoism.

  7. Josh says:

    This is all the more reason to continue developing the technology into commercial products. Eventually smaller groups and consortia will be able to directly fund spacecraft. Transportation to orbit and LEO access are done deals, it looks like Bigelow may produce the standard for general habitation modules. What can you contribute/develop? Do you, personally, want to go?

  8. Monte says:

    the monsterous bureaucracy which has stifled space development for the last half century

    This is where I tune out. It would be swell if NASA were the only reason, or even the main reason, for slow space development. It isn’t — and the belief that it is is a distraction from clear thinking, whether about how to improve NASA or about how to proceed along other lines.

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