Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 4, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

HUMANS IN SPACE....You know, I really really, really, like the idea of manned space flight. Exploring the cosmos. Colonizing planets. Taming the void. And yesterday I was hoping that somewhere I would read something that convinced me we should be doing this. So I scanned all the Columbia-related opinion pieces I could find, and did the same today.

Nada. Typical was this piece by Rand Simberg in NRO:

There are some space missions that will just never be jobs for robots. Building an orbital infrastructure that can both mine useful asteroids and comets, and deflect errant ones about to wipe out civilization, is unlikely to be done with robots. Building orbital laboratories in which biochemical and nanotechnological research can be carried out safely is unlikely to be practically done with robots. A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon, would be pointless, and find few customers, if we weren't sending up people. Establishing off-world settlements to get at least some of humanity's eggs out of the current single fragile physical and political basket is not exactly a job for a robot.

That's it? Mining the asteroids? The long-promised pharmaceutical revolution in zero-g? Sex in space?

But the worst part is the final sentence, which I've seen repeated over and over: we need to colonize Mars (or whatever) so that humanity will live on in case we blow ourselves to smithereens here on Earth.

There's really no polite way to put this, but the notion is simply nonsensical. Do space enthusiasts keep writing this stuff because their neurons stop firing before they put finger to keyboard, or is it just that they've been saying it for so long that it's become a habit? Do they have any idea how dumb the proposition really is?

I'd love to be convinced that a manned mission to Mars is a good idea. But a combination of mundane commercial exploitation, shaking our fist at the cosmos, and weary science fiction tropes isn't going to get the job done. If you want to spend $50 billion of my money, at least do me the courtesy of advancing ideas that aren't laughable on their face.

POSTSCRIPT: There seems to be an odd kind of left-right divide here too. Back in the 60s many liberals did indeed argue that the NASA budget would be better spent on earthbound problems, but that's not an argument I've read recently. Rather, conservatives seem to be arguing that we need a huge NASA budget because space flight is, you know, really cool, while liberals are arguing that we should evaluate the actual benefits before committing big buckets of taxpayer dollars. What's wrong with this picture?

Kevin Drum 3:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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