Outer Space

Rethinking Outer Space

Far out
Far out

Despite having been hooked on the glamour of it all, I’ve found there’s something vaguely unsettling about the philosophy that drives our need to explore the universe. In fact, I’m not so sure it’s really “our” need at all.

When I was barely out of shorts I was captivated by moon missions, lunar landscapes and thrilling detailed images sent back to earth across millions of miles of cold, empty space. But somewhere along the way the appeal has lost its shine. It seems I’ve legitimately been developing an alternative philosophy of my own. It turns out I’ve no fundamental interest in crossing the frontiers of space. But for decades I was led to believe I should. So it was time for a rethink, a shift in my opinions.

It’s too easy to buy into a pattern of misinformed cynicism and negative criticism. But even so, I’ve now decided that the tangible returns from decades of commitment to space projects is a mere sideshow when measured against the mind-boggling expense. OK, I freely confess: I can still get a thrill from exciting pictures taken in space, but I now sober up quite quickly. With my feet back on the ground I’m forced to remember that suffering earth is riddled with issues that need ameliorated sooner rather than later. It’s a part of the anti-space cliché, but it’s valid.

I’m sure you would agree that from childhood astronomy is very much in our faces. We get it fed to us at school and in the media. But what is it? Do we really know what astronomy is all about? Why does space exploration happen? What’s the philosophical motivation that simmers away in the background? Well, here’s one version of it from someone who should know:

“Why do we study the planets? Why do we study astronomy at all? We someday need to go beyond the planet Earth if we expect to survive as a species for a very long time. We need to know what’s out there and what the nature of the Universe is” (Dr. Meers Oppenheim, Boston University).

And here’s another: “If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before. Spreading out into space will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine if we have any future at all. We could have a base on the Moon within 30 years, reach Mars in 50 years and explore the moons of our outer planets in 200 years” (Stephen Hawking). A disquieting flight of fancy.

It’s been claimed that space exploration tells us a lot about our planet and its environment. But over the years I’ve balanced myself out and now question the value and practical usefulness of much of this knowledge. To what extent does it impact and enrich our daily lives? And even if we reap tangible benefits, are they all really worth the colossal expenditure? How much money needs to be spent? Shouldn’t we be asking what scientific research can actually accomplish here on Planet Earth by comparison

Trite questions?

The picture that heads out this essay was taken by the famous (and arguably infamous) Hubble telescope. It was pointed at a really small area of black space and over 400 orbits it recorded 800 exposures lasting 11.3 days. This is very far back in time. Experts believe it to be “the time shortly after the big bang when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe.”

The final image you see above, which shows around 10,000 galaxies, is in fact two separate images taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer (NICMOS). The NICMOS reveals the farthest galaxies ever seen.

Although the hi-tech Hubble Telescope is said to have enhanced “our” understanding of astronomy, the astronomical cost is an uncomfortable legacy. Originally estimated at a total cost of $400 million, “…US expenditure is currently an estimated 4.5 to 6 billion US$” (Hubble Information Centre). That’s billion. Does this matter? And to be specific, does it matter to you?

The Hubble Telescope
The Hubble Telescope

We want to believe our space scientists have skills and knowledge that are grounded in documented experimentation and its proven results. But should we blithely accept all of their opinions and recommendations? I’d say not. Can we apportion blame here? Space scientists bond loyally in-house. They are bound together in one big fraternity. They effectively confirm one another’s legitimacy without being usefully accountable to those outside the loop. Where is the policing here?

Is there anything wrong with me asking why we are spending billions in the hope we can secure our long-term survival “out there”? And here’s another question: Should entrenched space exploration philosophy be supported and funded by our governments to the current extent? Financing space fantasists isn’t an option.

Finding real answers to these questions isn’t easy for the common cynic. Some with their feet rooted firmly on the ground remain unconvinced by many of the pro-space arguments they are hearing. But perhaps they are just uninformed philistines who believe bedfellows astronomy and space exploration have been out of control for decades.

I’m no longer entranced by this so-called thrilling ride into outer space. On the contrary, I have legitimate concerns. It goes against the grain, but I don’t “need to know what’s out there”. I’m not alone in this. Many are much more concerned with what’s going on down here. Inner space needs more work.

They often think the world would have been a better place if the hundreds of billions that have been spent on space exploration and research had been intelligently funnelled into health, care of the elderly, emergency services, education, unemployment, the Third World, urban development and local community programmes. Those in favour of space exploration are surely tired hearing this line of reasoning. Perhaps there are good reasons why it’s heard over and over, year after year.

There’s sometimes a lot wrong with how governments allocate funds. But even so, if the will is there to stand up and make brave decisions, prioritisation strategies become essential. Recent history shows that few politicians[1] have grasped the nettle. We shouldn’t wonder at this — political clout matters to leading space scientists. If nothing else many of their jobs may depend on it! It doesn’t help that space program ideology is deeply entrenched in our western psyche and actual infrastructures are well established.

Thanks to a global financial downturn, pegging back the world’s unnecessary budgeting habits became a reality. It must have been bad news for proponents of space exploration. Forgive me voicing the cliché another way: We need to get funding that’s mainly centered on our earthly problems rather than falling into the trap of spending billions trying to solve heavenly riddles. We are losing out to expensive obsessions.

Advocates of space exploration and research may well point to the number of people who are employed in the industry. “Jobs are good,” they say. Well yes, but is this a totally logical line of reasoning? Not really. Couldn’t we justify pornography in much the same way? In California alone the porn industry employs 12,000 people, but unlike many space-related initiatives it isn’t financed by vast sums of public money. Both are addictive and controversial.

The “Wow!” factor of space bewitches even intelligent people. (It happened to me, if I qualify as intelligent.) It’s fantastic! It’s right next door to science fiction! In fact, the distinction between the two may get a little blurred. We need to step back. Stephen, we may not need to boldly go anywhere.

Speaking to protesters before the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, Thomas Paine, NASA’s administrator, said, “…if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” At best this is a peculiar logic, justifying a massive and questionable expense (over a 10-year period the Apollo programme alone cost around $24.5 billion) because it would allegedly have little impact if spent differently. Is that the point? And of course, the issue isn’t just poverty. Cherished predilections can easily blind us to the bigger picture.

Paine, who was already getting carried away thinking of a $10 billion trip to Mars[2], suggested to the protesters that NASA might be able to help address our problems some day. But what do we find? Over four decades later we continue to hand out billions to space scientists so they can satisfy their curiosity.

Exploring Saturn’s biggest moon Titan is a particularly good example. They hope to send some kind of incredibly expensive submarine to it, and according to an enthusiastic member of the mission team, “That first picture from a submarine… on the surface, on a sea, on another planet in our solar system, changes the world… That is why we do any of this… That first picture alone makes the entire mission worth it” (Michael Paul, Director of Space Systems, Penn State University). Changes whose world? Some people inhabit different worlds.

That sinking feeling in 2047 or so. Taking a dive in liquid hydrocarbons.
That sinking feeling in 2047, or thereabouts. Taking a dive in liquid hydrocarbons, don’t you know.

Let’s not forget that the outrageously expensive space race of the 50s and 60s was fuelled by Cold War paranoia. Everything possible was done to better the perceived achievements of the Red Menace in Moscow. Prestige was paramount. A huge amount of cash was handed over to scientists and the military to further develop the V-2 rockets originally designed in Nazi Germany and dropped with deadly warheads on Britain. Sound scientific reasoning was virtually nonexistent, not that it mattered. Getting a man on the Moon became synonymous with global superiority:

Prestige, a thing which neither filled bellies, nor kept people warm, nor kept predators at bay, was suddenly the number one priority of an embattled nation… If the United States wanted to regain world prestige lost to the Russians because of their achievements in space, it should embark now on a trip to the moon. Here was a race that Americans might just be able to win…Few paused to consider how walking around on the Moon in a space suit brought progress to mankind. How, exactly, did it help the starving in Africa?…

Whitney Young of the National Urban League, commented at the time… “A circus act. A marvellous trick that leaves their poverty untouched. It will cost thirty-five billion dollars to put two men on the Moon. It would take ten billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere” (extracts from Gerard DeGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest).

On the 12th September 1962 President Kennedy made a speech in which he famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…” But it’s been said that in private he asked his advisers, “Can you fellows invent some other race here on Earth that will do some good?” (Rocket Men, by Craig Nelson.)

I remember coming across an online essay that attempted to defend space exploration expenditure by highlighting how others spend their cash and how governments generally allocate funds. The author (a big fan of science fiction it should be noted) defended space ‘investment’ by pointing to society’s wastefulness in general.

This is an astonishing opinion when you think it through. Two wrongs will never make a right, especially in space. Why not justify NASA’s funding by highlighting the fact that the Pentagon’s annual space budget has been even higher? Or how about the mega-fortune spent globally on junk food that’s playing its part in shortening lives each year? A daft rationale if ever I heard one. No, we must assess this problem on its own merit.

(As a sobering aside on the subject of waste – several years ago “workers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama accidentally threw away parts of the International Space Station worth almost $1 million” [James Oberg, Houston, we have a problem, New Scientist magazine, April 2000]. And let’s not forget the $100,000 toolkit lost in space.[3])

No doubt somebody will pull text off the pro-space sites and tell us that we’ve got better frying pans (a myth in fact), stronger hip replacement joints and indestructible materials for bulletproof jackets worn in Iraq, or whatever it is. Someone’s sure to mention how lucrative moon-mining could be – but the logistics!

It’s true that we now have thermal blankets (opportunistically shown by NASA wrapped around earthquake victims), improved defence technologies and scientific satellites providing indispensable telecommunications and vitally monitoring earth’s weather patterns and solar storms. And so on. We can appreciate such benefits. But the glowing PR can have a hollow ring to those whose thinking isn’t compromised by bias and favouritism.

We have no good reason to doubt that there have been over 1000 useful spin-offs, but where in the world are we going if we think such constructive productivity gives credence to the excessively financed space sciences as a whole? Such compromised rational is akin to buying a homeless man a fully staffed luxury hotel to live in all by himself. The lavish expense would be vastly out of proportion to the needs that would be met. It’s impossible to justify space expenditure. Perhaps many of those who are enthusiastic about it are content to turn a blind eye to the outrageous cost, whether it’s public or private money.

It’s both logical and realistic to assume that billions can be intelligently and systematically ploughed into scientific invention and innovation here on terra firma. We really don’t need the prop of most space-related endeavours to get the job done, so crowing about it can be considered something of a ruse. As is so often the case with space exploration, the locked-in mindset and scant utilitarian returns overall, after untenable expenses, prove to be unsettling.

The selfish need to do very expensive stuff in space is the mother of NASA’s contributions[4]. It’s a fact that there are brainy highly qualified people in hairnets in labs who will deliver similar results in most fields if only they could get the resources they need. When Hitler took a shine to Europe and Russia their enemies’ technological advances played a significant role in driving him back into his bunker. Let’s hope we don’t have to rely on WW3 for the next far-reaching wave of revolutionary science and engineering. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking into space either.

Spotty Jupiter
Spotty Jupiter

Space exploration and astronomy are arresting subjects. It’s certainly interesting seeing pictures from the edge of the universe. It was fun watching the Great Red Spot swirling about in Jupiter’s poisonous soup. But my mother just lost a lifelong friend to an incurable illness. Where on earth do our priorities lie?

Lifeless on Mars
Lifeless on Mars Photographs captured on other planets are the most expensive in history. This is Mars of course, an endless rocky desert as lifeless as a prehistoric fossil, but even so our scientists are spending huge sums primarily to discover just how dead it really is. This is part of a composite image of Victoria Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. The far side of the crater is about half a mile away. At one time there were a couple of these machines beavering away in the iron-red dust. To date each cost around $400 million to develop, test, build, deploy and utilise. Naturally, being unique to the mission, the digital cameras on each Rover don’t come cheap. Due to the extreme conditions they don’t have mechanical shutters, adjustable apertures or delicate focussing mechanisms. Each camera has a 12x12mm 1MP CCD sensor that delivers high quality images.

[1] “The Space Shuttle is the most effective device known to man for destroying dollar bills” (congressman Dana Rohrabacher).
[2] It’s worrying that someone in such a position of authority as Paine should fantasise about getting to Mars as early as 1983. Today such a mission would cost countless $billions. If it never happens, which is probable, $10s millions (or $100s millions?) will be largely wasted in R&D.
[3] In November 2008 spacewalker Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let a tool bag float off into space. “Despite my little hiccup, or major hiccup, I think we did a good job out there,” she said.
[4] To date NASA (an agency of the United States government) has received over $430 billion (actual dollars) since it was established in 1958. It currently gets a staggering $17 billion each year from the United States federal budget. Its percentage of the overall budget is low, a fact used by many supporters of space sciences and exploration to justify the expense. But, inevitably, they present the stats in a way that serves their bias. It’s a colossal government budget to start with. Emphasising NASA’s .7% share can never mask the fact that annually it soaks up a stupendous amount of public money.