Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, isn’t the kind of place where you’d want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there’s the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut traveling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. “Space is not ‘Star Trek,’ ” said one NASA scientist, “but the public certainly doesn’t understand that…”
…Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner, that a manned Mars mission is next, that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible….
Right, and the Arctic isn’t the kind of place where you’d want to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit. Even leaving aside the cold, and sparseness of plants, there are the deadly polar bears. If the average person in temperate climates has to contend with wolves, an Arcticnaut traveling to that hostile clime would risk storms that might drown him in the frigid waters, or expose him to sharks.
No, space is not Star Trek, Anne, but it is an environment that is conquerable, and people exist who wish to conquer it. It’s only a matter of technology levels. African bushmen wouldn’t survive high latitudes, but the Inuit figured it out. Radiation can be shielded against. It’s very costly to do so now, given the high launch costs, but that’s a problem that’s solveable.
Earth may today be the only planet where human life is possible, but before we developed the right clothing and weapons, tropical climates were the only region of earth where human life was possible. This is not a persuasive argument for confining ourselves to a single planet, any more than it would have been to do so to a single continent.
Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak.
Meaning what? That it’s therefore impossible to send people into space? There are two errors here. First, she makes the mistake that many do in believing that it can’t be done any better or cheaper than NASA does it. But even if the station springs the occasional leak, so what? So did whaling ships. It didn’t stop them from whaling–they had pumps and repair techniques. Space vehicles will be the same.
It’s interesting in the way that the exploration of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is interesting, or important in the way that the study of obscure dead languages is important. Like space exploration, these are inspiring human pursuits. Like space exploration, they nevertheless have very few practical applications.
But space exploration isn’t treated the way other purely academic pursuits are treated. For one, the scientists doing it have perverse incentives. Their most dangerous missions — the ones involving human beings — produce the fewest research results, yet receive the most attention, applause and funding. Their most productive missions — the ones involving robots — inspire interest largely because the public illogically believes they will lead to more manned space travel.
This is simply untrue. Manned missions return much more science than robotic missions, at least when it comes to planetary exploration. We got much more science from Apollo than from all of the other lunar probes combined. The problem is that it costs a lot more money to send people (at least the way we’ve done it to date), not that they return less science.
And of course, she falls into the other trap of assuming that the only reason to send people or robots into space is for science, ignoring the potential for new resources, planet protection, and most importantly, new environments for the expansion of human freedom.
I can agree that it may not be a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer funds to send people to other planets right now, or into space at all, but the notion that it has no value to anyone is utter nonsense. We will explore and settle space, because there are many people who wish to do so, and the means to do so are growing rapidly as technology advances and wealth increases. The issue is not if, but how and how soon, and with whose money.
Mark Whittington has fisked this piece as well.
Linda Seebach (editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News) points out via email that the Applebaum piece is an opinion column, not a WaPo editorial. She’s correct, of course.
She also says that she’ll have an interview with Bob Zubrin up tomorrow–I’ll post a link when it happens.