Saturday, February 13, 2010

My take on the Space debate

'By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We're not talking about Mars or the moon here. We're talking about low-Earth orbit, which the U.S. has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.'

I am a huge fan of Charles Krauthammer. I disagree with him very infrequently, but I do disagree with him about NASA. Equating American space efforts solely with NASA is very 20th century and very statist. Just as the NHS totally dominates healthcare provision and the healthcare marketplace in Britain; and the BBC totally dominates broadcasting and the broadcasting marketplace in Britain; NASA has dominated American activities in space. It has sucked up the talent, it has determined the culture of space exploration (extremely risk-averse), it has decided to a very large extent space priorities (science over commercial) and it has made Americans believe that only government has the resources to do things in space.

The Apollo program and the Space shuttle program were both very exciting. But how useful were they? Were they the best use for the gigantic resources poured into them? It is hard to say definitively, but we can say without fear of contradiction that the decision to put resources into them was made by government apparatchiks who had no board of directors or shareholders to answer to. They had no bottom line to worry about. What did the US get out of either the Apollo program or the shuttle? A few hundred KG of moon rocks? Some unbelievably expensive trips into space to deliver satellites which could have been delivered for a thousandth of the cost by an unmanned rocket?

If men are going to go into space, there must be some reason to. There must be some concrete goal, something of value which they will go there for. Like to bring something back to earth of value, some rare metal, or valuable resources. If not, don't go. The original American frontier drew people to its gold, its land and its forests. People didn't populate it because they wanted to do gravitation experiments or better astronomy. Until these obvious but highly neglected truths are given due attention, govenment space programs will continue to be highly wasteful luxuries.

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