By Request: Space Flight

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Max asks about the great beyond:

I, sir, would like to now what your issue with the space program. And by issue, I mean, what exactly are you beefing about? NASA itself? Launching people into space in general? The ‘no waste’ argument of black boxing the solar system (already done, actually)? The argument that the money could be spent on other expensive science projects (known as ‘we could fund MY project with that money instead’ argument)?

The first place to start is that, of course, we have two different space programs — one military and one civilian. The existence of some sort of military concern with outer space is natural for a great power, but this is an area in which we tend to go too far. Instead of agreeing to abide by and help enforce the existing international law on the demilitarization of space, the United States has in recent years been pushing the envelop toward the militarization of space complete with a Bush administration National Space Strategy that sets perpetual military hegemony in space as a national goal. The upshot of this sort of policymaking is to help create a self-justifying “space arms race” with the Chinese in which Chinese responses to our moves become the justification for further moves that lead to further Chinese responses and further moves. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for me, it’s bad for the world, but it’s good for the aerospace industry.

Then you have the civilian space program for science and exploration purposes. This is a fine idea. My only beef with it is that the program has been disproportionately focused on the idea of manned space exploration. Human beings, being fragile creates who evolved on the planet earth, turn out to be hard to send into space. They also, being humans, tend not to be interested in taking extremely long trips even though many interesting things in space are very far away. Under the circumstances, it’s just not very practical to send human beings into space unless there’s something important that only human beings can do. And in recent decades, there just having been the sort of compelling projects that justify the difficulties of manned space flight. Instead, we’ve been making up missions — most recently the preposterous idea of a manned mission to Mars — in order to justify the human-oriented space program.

But what we ought to do is leave the manned space flight to eccentric billionaires looking to do something weird, and focus our civilian space activities on doing science and exploration through unmanned probes and telescopes and the like. There’s lots of perfectly legitimate things for NASA to be doing, including sending vehicles to other planets to tell us more about them and establishing better systems for tracking (and better understanding) the asteroids and comets that are flying around.