Here’s another fun, somewhat provocative comment, made by a member of aRocket:
All of this discussion assumes that space exploration is, of itself, a valuable goal. As I see it, the only real deliverable of space exploration is that it keeps that VERY SMALL percentage of the population not content with beer and football entertained.
I would argue that the only demonstrated net social value from space has come from defense and communication and for that, “going round in circles” is fine.
While space exploration is something that I find personally very fascinating, I’m definitely a member of the “not content with beer and football” crowd. I know that a lot of unmanned space exploration sorts like talking about how “you can get so much more science for the buck with robots”, but at the end of the day, even unmanned exploration is just a form of edutainment for most people. Sure, there are occasional side benefits that come up from these programs, but at the end of the day, it leaves you wondering why space exploration for exploration’s sake really deserves so much more government support than say exploration of oceans, or other National Geographic-like expeditions.
Now, I think that exploration could be done in a way that it was more meaningful to society than just another, rather expensive form of edutainment. Which was the point that Marburger made a few years ago:
If we are serious about this, then our objective must be more than a disconnected series of missions, each conducted at huge expense and risk, and none building a lasting infrastructure to reduce the expense and risk of future operations. If we are serious, we will build capability, not just on the ground but in space. And our objective must be to make the use of space for human purposes a routine function.
Exploration that is not in support of something else strikes me as somehow selfish and unsatisfying, and not consistent with the fact that we are using public funds for this enterprise, no matter how small a fraction of the total budget they may be.
If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons.
I just bring this up, because I’ve seen time and time again a lot of the wasteful decisions NASA makes is due to being myopically overfocused on maximizing the specific mission they are trying to carry out, without putting any thought into the big picture of how to make this relevant to the rest of us. In many ways this ties back to my first real blog post on this blog–your focus really does determine your path.
If your aim is to help humanity incorporate more and more of the solar system into its economic sphere, and to make space beyond communications, GPS, and weather satellites meaningful beyond mere edutainment, you’ll make decisions differently than if your only goal is to optimize some narrowly defined mission.