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« Continuing Mythology | Main | That Would Be New »

Mission Worth It?

Stanley Kurtz has been thinking about space recently, as evidenced by a Corner post he put up last week mentioning the sadly misinformed Anne Applebaum column in the WaPo. There, he wrote:

In any case, Applebaum?s attack on manned space exploration is worth reading. I?d like to see a serious rebuttal. In the end, though, these questions have more to do with what inspires you. That?s not a matter easily settled by argument.

After that post, I emailed him with a link to my critique of her piece, in response to his wish. He didn't respond directly, but he did cite me and my post in this column that ran yesterday.

He is right, in that it depends on what inspires you, but that's clearly not all that it depends on, because even many people who are inspired by space (e.g., yours truly) are not inspired by the government's approach to it. Similarly, people who aren't inspired support the government space program for reasons pragmatic and prosaic.

One of my pet peeves shows up in both his and Applebaum's piece's titles--the word "mission." The use of such a word betrays a narrow mindset of space as science, space as exploration, space as a government program.

While his essay is thoughtful, it misses the point, because space policy discussion can't be simply divided into "space lovers" and "space haters," any more than general policy discussion can be usefully dichotomized as an argument between "right" and "left." Though many simpletons in the media (though I'm not including Mr. Kurtz in that category) would like to make it so, policy is simply not that simple.

A "space lover" can love space and love NASA, or love space and be very skeptical of NASA and its ability to achieve the space lover's goals. A "space hater" can be opposed to NASA because it's a perceived waste of money, or because it's perceived to be part of the evil military-industrial complex, or they can be opposed to space, period, regardless of whether or not it's NASA, because the very notion of people leaving the earth and polluting the rest of the universe is heresy. There are going to be different arguments, and different policy solutions to deal with each of these viewpoints, and it's not particularly useful, or even insightful, to divide them between lovers and haters.

Here is what I think is the nut of his concern:

Space lovers rest an awful lot on visionary inspiration. What the space program lacks, say the lovers, is vision. The shuttle is a useless link in a nonexistent chain of vehicles and settlements that is supposed to point us to the moon and Mars. Like the shuttle, the space station lacks any real purpose, and is consequently plagued by cost overruns, delays, and technological promises that don't pan out. Set a bold goal for the space program, we're assured, and the purpose and efficiency of the original NASA will return.

The administration has bought this argument. And up to a point, I think it's correct. The shuttle and the space station have no clear purpose. A difficult, inspiring goal will attract new blood and reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies. Still, I wonder if "the vision thing" fully explains NASA's post-Apollo blues.

It doesn't. I do in fact think that we are lacking vision, and that coming up with one with broad appeal is a necessary and sufficient condition to coming up with sensible policy to carry it out. But, as I've written before, and will again (probably tomorrow, depending on what the president says) a destination is not a vision.

I don't expect people to be inspired by the thought of government employees going off to the moon and Mars. I would expect them to be inspired by a vision of a new frontier in which they can participate, first as tourists, and then, if they wish, as settlers. The New World analogy may not be appropriate, but we won't find out until we seriously attempt it, and the arguments put up against it are weak, and often disingenuous.

Clean energy from space, moving mining and industry off planet where it won't pollute, herding errant asteroids that may have our number, providing a new venue for the further development of the vital experiments of freedom and self government--all of these are aspects of a vision that could appeal to a broad swath of humanity. Yes, it may turn out that these don't pan out, but no one can say with any credibility now that they cannot. As Rick Tumlinson writes, the "why" is critical to any new space policy, particularly in determining the "how" (including "who"--NASA or some other government agency or agencies, or private industry or some optimum blend of these), and I've heard lots of "where" and "how" discussed, but no "why."

But my sense is that the "vision" offered by the president tomorrow won't include any of these things, because there's probably a perception that they'll sound too pie in the sky. That's too bad, because absent that, I see little different in what I've read so far from the policy announced by the president's father fourteen years ago, and we know what happened to that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 13, 2004 11:24 AM
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This article inspired me to relate my own experienc in the evolution of my vision for space.
I grew up during the Apollo days, and like so many of my generation, I watched the moon landings as a child and have fond recollections of pretending to be an astronaut, and playing with the astronaut GI Joe (my best friend had the mercury capsule). But somehow, there was a sense of incompleteness, and a sort of sterile isolation that emanated from the NASA organization regarding the space adventure. My memory is one of a sort of bland government experiment, with whatever excitement I felt coming from imagining that, perhaps someday, I could eventually do what I wanted up in space, once NASA got things ?squared away?, and allowed the rest of us to go. For me, the 1970?s were remarkable in their blandness and seeming utter lack of vision.

But then something amazing happened in the summer of 1977: I saw ?Star Wars?. In this movie, I immediately recognized that it represented the type of space future that I wanted to be a part of. I went to this movie on the night I graduated from ninth grade, and it galvanized me in a way that NASA never could, because it represented a future in which individuals had immediate access to space, to other planets, to other species. You could own your own cargo ship, maybe even make a little extra by smuggling. This vision was different even from other space fantasies, such as Star Trek. It was Star Wars that motivated my pursuit of multiple engineering degrees, and fed my desire to create propulsion systems and aerospace vehicles that could carry me, and all of us, off the planet, and to the stars someday. As a high school senior, I once wrote that my life goal was to create a ?space exploration and exploitation company?. Intuitively, I felt that if we could just get off the planet, all the other stuff would come, because it would yank the linchpin from the psychological constraints that have kept us planet bound.

Over, the years, I have often wondered why I could never connect to the NASA vision, and why, even having worked as an aerospace engineer within the military-industrial complex, I felt like an outsider to the space adventure. I now recognize that I was an outsider in more fundamental ways that I could have even imagined regarding the current state of American Aerospace, and always will be.

But, there is??A New Hope? , and that is the emergence of a new spirit of aerospace, one that springs from personal initiatives trying to make of go of sub-orbital and orbital flights: The XCORs, and the Armadillo Aerospaces, the TGVs and the Scaled Composites. These efforts will carry us into the future, a future that we create with our own blood, sweat, and tears. These are the projects that will allow us to become the Lukes, and the Hans. Star Wars reminded me that the space adventure was within me, and not a government agency. I am not a child of Apollo; I am a child of Star Wars.

Posted by John at January 13, 2004 02:50 PM

We do need vision. By itself, a destination is not a vision, but it can certainly be part of one. Some might discount low cost access as just a method, but it too can be part of a vision. Vision is the ability to imagine what might be.

Thank you, John (and always Rand), for sharing some of your vision.

Posted by ken anthony at January 13, 2004 06:25 PM

I am a child of Columbia, the progeny of Challenger. On a warm April sunday morning in 1981, I sat with my dad before church and watched Columbia soar into a clear blue sky. On a frigid Tuesday morning in 1986, I watched Challenger blow itself to bits while soaring through a clear blue sky. I was born 10 months after Neil Armstrong made his step. Coincidentally, my birthday is May 25, the birthday of Apollo. However, I have no reminiscent fondness for the "Apollo days". As such, I have no memories of glory days or really anything other than disappointment from NASA. If anything, I resent Apollo, and the whole "Moon Race" charade. It wasn't a stepping stone on the path to becoming a spacefaring civilization. At best, it was a one-time feel-good project that, in the end, led to stagnation and a national unwillingness to explore outward. Apollo prevented me from having a chance to go to Mars. Unless, that is, the new space policy comes to fruition.

Today, President Bush, derided by such "visionaries" as Howard Dean as stupid and visionless, will offer the nation a vision far grander than that offered by President Kennedy, and perhaps the greatest vision ever. It's been in work since even before STS-107, started by Administrator O'Keefe in the summer of 2002, who himself was ridiculed for not being a "rocket scientist".

This plan, contrary to what some say, is NOT a mirror of the former Pres. Bush's plan. If you look at what he proposed, a monolithic, all-encompassing massive program with huge space stations and moon bases, it should be clear that this plan is akmost totally different, under the surface. It will be focused on tehnology development, not on "Moon bases". The lunar outpost will be an end-result of the tech development, but it is the ends to the means, not the means itself. This is a totally different focus from what was proposed in 1989.

Manned moon trips by 2013. Is there any private company, and is there any CHANCE of there being any company that could accomplish this? Pie-in-the-sky spcae conference Powerpoint Presentations aside, there simply isn't any reasonable chance that private industry alone will get us to the Moon that quickly. That's not a statement of lack of vision; it's a statement recognizing reality.

There is another truth. Public support for commercial space activities mirrors public support of NASA. While there are those that wish it werent' so, and I'm one of those, the fact remains that to the public space = NASA. If you think that you can shoot down the new space policy at the same time as winning public support for private space activities, THINK AGAIN. The realities of politics, public policy and sociology dictate that we have three choices. We can support this new policy and work to involve the private sector so that NASA and private industry can go to the Moon. We can shut up and let NASA go to the Moon and leave the private sector behind. Or we can work to kill this new policy, prevent NASA from exploring (but i thought that was what we've all been calling for, a reutrn to real exploraiton) and atthe same time kill off any chance of government and public support for private exploratory acitivties. Those are the only choices. There is no option that leaves NASA on Earth and has privately owned Moon bases in the 2010-20 timeframe. It's simply a recognition of reality, something that space advocacy movement and its ideological leaders seem to have been lacking for the past couple decades.

I'm disappointed. Just weeks ago Rick Tumlinson made remarks that NASA should focus on translunar and planetary exploration, that that area is NASA's proper role, and leave near Earth space to the private sector. I read quotes the past few days where he expresses doubt and suspicion of NASA doing EXACTLY that. Now he's worried that the private sector will be shut out from the Moon. It's disappointing because weeks ago he said the complete opposite. According to what he has espoused the past few years, NASA is planning to do exactly what Tumlison wants. Now he's decided that "something's wrong". Have we become so inured to disappointment that we refuse to believe that anything good will ever happen? Do we assume that NASA is just plain bad and because of that assumption refuse to accept when it wants to do somethi8ng right? WAKE UP! The President is wanting to give us advocates what we've always wanted, and in the manner we've wanted it. NASA doing what private industry can't, leaving LEO behind for the private sector to use, focusing on fundamental technology development to aid future exploration and the private sector. And doing it without breaking the bank. Isn't that exactly the kind of policy we've been screaming at the White House to institute? Maybe we should stop screaming long enough to hear their reply. We just might like it.

(PS, I actually have great respect for Mr. Tumlinson and think he's a great asset to the community)

Posted by Matthew Travis at January 14, 2004 09:29 AM

> I don't expect people to be inspired by the
> thought of government employees going off to
> the moon and Mars. I would expect them to be
> inspired by a vision of a new frontier in which
> they can participate, first as tourists, and
> then, if they wish, as settlers.

How about virtual space tourism, Rand? One might argue that the images sent back by Hubble and Spirit indeed inspire many people, and that there are countless ways of "participating" in space exploration apart from becoming an astronaut or space colonist. For example, I find extrasolar planets quite interesting although I do not expect humans to visit them during my lifetime.
if "personal experience" really is so important, I think David Gump's LunaCorp virtual rover plans will have a bigger impact than some $100,000-a-ticket space tourism RLV. The latter is only affordable to the chosen few, after all. So it's not a given the public will be all excited by Kankoh Maru & co..


Posted by Marcus Lindroos at January 14, 2004 11:32 AM

Virtual tourism will play a role, but people still get on airplanes and fly to foreign countries. National Geographic and the Travel Channel somehow still fail to suffice for all.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 14, 2004 12:08 PM

What do you think of combining virtual tourism and something akin to a theme park? I read the comment above and the first thing I thought of was Disney's Mission:SPACE attraction. Maybe there's benefit to combining realism with the "wow" factor instead of just getting red-eye staring at a computer for hours. People like to feel like they're actually "doing" something.


Posted by Matthew Travis at January 14, 2004 01:04 PM

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