Banner
    Should There Be A New Space Race?
    By Hank Campbell | March 5th 2012 07:55 PM | 29 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    In 1957, when the USSR launched Sputnik, it began a new era in the Cold War.  The Race to Space. Senator Lyndon Johnson worried the commies could rain nuclear bombs down on us from the high ground, making him the perfect guy to run NASA and because it was a military concern it got funded.  Only later it became a human exploration issue and much later became a science one.

    Since then, The Race To X argument is conveniently trotted out for whatever new plan a special interest has to get some taxpayer funding.  Last year, Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu said American taxpayers had to spend billions subsidizing cheap solar panels or America would lose The Race to Build Cheap Solar Panels to the communists.  It was the 1950s all over again.

    How can America win a low-end race against a communist country with a built-in peasant class and no environmental controls?  Apple had zero interest in manufacturing its products in the United States, Chairman Steve Jobs was blunt to the point of being smug in declaring that those jobs were never going to be in America - the hidden subtext was that, if the jobs were in China, Apple could speak out about human rights, child labor and environmental issues yet do nothing. If those issues happened in America it couldn't be ignored but no one will issue a boycott over Chinese labor because they want an iPad for 600 bucks a lot more than they want safe working conditions for people in another country. Solar power is no different.  If you want panels built domestically, they can't be cheap and that means people will not buy them without huge subsidies. It may be better to let the Chinese make those just like they make iPads.

    So it also may be with future space exploration.  Is this a 'race' and if so, do we need to win it?  Once a year, someone with a Big Idea trots out the claim that if we don't invest billions in the Big Idea, America will "fall behind".  If you are reading this and chuckle when the military says that to justify a rail gun, you can imagine how people outside government science feel about giant projects like the LHC or the James Webb Telescope or a colony on the Moon. It's cool and maybe it should be sold that way - but it shouldn't be sold as essential for science.  By this time next year, European politicians in a recessionary economy are going to talk to people running the LHC and find out there is no Higgs boson.  They will say, "You told us to build this because we would find this God Particle thing.  Now you say it does not exist?" and the reply will be "In science, what we do not learn is important too" and then politicians will shake their heads and remind scientists not having a God Particle for $12 billion is not superior to not having one for nothing.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is being a good advocate for space travel when he insists we are in a race with the Chinese to have a colony on the Moon but if the only politician who shares your belief is Newt Gingrich, is that a solid case? Ross Pomery in RealClearScience thinks so, writing
    No, the real reason why America should join in the upcoming space race is because we can't afford not to. Americans don't sit on the sidelines; we lead. We already do this militarily, so why shouldn't we do it in space?

    Indeed, the United States has an opportunity to turn the next space race into the most important example of international cooperation the world has ever seen.
    Not very convincing from either of them if your interest is actual science and not science funding advocacy or a hope for world peace.  It is instead philosophical, maybe even nationalistic. Why can't the Chinese be an important example of cooperation instead of us?  We also were told we could not afford not to build the LHC but it turns out we absolutely could afford to not discover that the Higgs Boson does not exist.  It isn't like we won't add leadership and brains and even some money but why do we have to be the leader?  The most important example of international cooperation should be the UN but Pomery is right for forgetting that expensive, irrelevant boondoggle.  Being a leader and even hosting it in the US did nothing much for anyone and just left New York City with a bunch of unpaid parking tickets they can never collect on because of 'diplomatic immunity'.
    Imagine what could be accomplished if the world's space superpowers pooled their resources to build an international space colony on the moon? The advancements for science and technology would surely be significant
    This is the reason why the domestic space program has collapsed. Even politicians no longer regard it as a science endeavor - and they are right, it is a tough sell from a science perspective and looks like more of a job works program. We do far more science with unmanned missions than we ever accomplished with the Space Shuttle. Unmanned missions are cheaper and safer.  It really is a stretch to fairly attribute much in the way of science or technology at all to the space program - you have to get second order and try to give them credits for things like MRI. It's like claiming we should spend trillions of dollars on useless research because one time the government did not know what to do with the Internet for 25 years and a guy at CERN figured he might as well share some pictures with his friends.

    I love races.  I grew up with the space program and I can name all seven Mercury astronauts without blinking. I watched a Moon launch and a Skylab and two shuttle launches in person. I can be as jingoistic as anyone about how great America is.  But if China wants to spend the money to put a colony on the Moon 'for all mankind' and 'world peace' why should we turn it into a Space Race?

    Comments

    vongehr
    By this time next year, European politicians in a recessionary economy are going to talk to people running the LHC and find out there is no Higgs boson.
    Are you in Doug Sweetser wishful dream land?
    Americans don't sit on the sidelines; we lead. ... maybe even nationalistic.
    Or just plainly stupid, since on many important metrics, the US lags behind third world countries.

    No race if nobody joins running. Let them put a red flag on Mars and dance the happy hippo dance. The less others join running on the same track, the more relaxed and reasonable this unreasonable, not science related project will turn out.
    Thanks for supporting unmanned missions; can't be said often enough: Science already is on Mars for several years now!
    Hank
    By this time next year, European politicians in a recessionary economy are going to talk to people running the LHC and find out there is no Higgs boson.
    Are you in Doug Sweetser wishful dream land?
    You remain confident they will confirm it?  Kudos to you. There's hope and then there is optimism and then there is being irrational. I'm not a zealot betting against it or anything, I was just never confident.  And knowing it would take an ILC to make any real sense of anything found was not a great confidence boost either.  

    Oddly, you don't like my saying avoiding the expense of the LHC was smart and then criticize America for funding other things because funding 'leadership' is not smart. Which is it?
    vongehr
    You remain confident they will confirm it?  Kudos to you. There's hope and then there is optimism and then there is being irrational.
    Ahhh - what?!? Did I somehow miss some important news last month or have you been hiding behind the moon since fall last year?
    Oddly, you don't like my saying avoiding the expense of the LHC was smart and then ...
    I don't? (Spending that amount on many small projects would likely result in more powerful bench top size accelerators while simultaneously resolving the Diosi-Penrose criterion and thus actually doing some fundamental science.)
    and then criticize America for funding other things because funding 'leadership' is not smart. Which is it?
    ?!? I lost you completely now. Sorry.
    UvaE
    Or just plainly stupid, since on many important metrics, the US lags behind third world countries.
    The U.S. has such a diverse population with such a wide spectrum of educational institutions. Obviously, when that average it's up against the elite of third world countries, it won't sparkle.
    But the country as a whole is far from being stupid.

    The race to build a colony on the moon is over. The nazis are already there:

    http://www.ironsky.net/site/#teaser

    Stellare
    Should There Be A New Space Race?

    Of course it should!
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank
    Okay, but why?  If so, why are Norwegian people not lobbying for this 'leadership' and saying you must beat China to it in the race.
    Stellare
    The answer is so obvious there is no need to spell it out. :-)

    It is in humankinds interest that the powerful nations take part in the race. Norway is too miniscule, we will anyhow be ignored. ;-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank
    It is in humankinds interest 
    Fair enough, my contention above is that it should be sold to the public that way. NASA keeps trying to sell programs on the notion that there is some science benefit and we will 'fall behind' (in what, no one can ever say) if we do not do it.  If it is instead humankind's interest, then humankind should participate in the funding - China is the best economy in the world so there need be no race.  They should simply lead in building the colony on the Moon.
    Stellare
    Still being the only superpower on this planet, I think the US has to partake in this contest. :-)

    Science is an important part of the deal. Some of the science can be previewed, other scientific results will be a nice surprise, as we experienced with the former space programs. This is the nature of science. Basic science for sure, but there are also a whole range of applied science results that were not anticipated.

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Gerhard Adam
    Still being the only superpower on this planet...
    My mistake.  I thought you were talking about you at first, then I realized you probably meant the U.S.  The first I could accept, the latter ... not so much :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    Ok, Gerhard. I feel responsible now - to act. Using my super powers. It appears it could be accepted...hahaha
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    A space race would drive additional funding and excitement towards science. The fame and fortune would come from a non science direction but who cares. Non science and entertainment needs to find its place in the world of science and exploration. This would be an easy revenue stream to acquire for new missions and extensions of old missions. I believe I could have funded MSL with a simple robot arm capable of planting a small American flag in Martian soil. This would be a Martian super bowl with great advertising and merchandising opportunities. I would also try to put some fireworks in if I could slip it past the scientists. I'm not sure if the Martian atmosphere would ignite a firework but it’s a gamble I'm willing to take.

    Hank
    A space race would drive additional funding and excitement towards science. The fame and fortune would come from a non science direction but who cares. Non science and entertainment needs to find its place in the world of science and exploration. This would be an easy revenue stream to acquire for new missions and extensions of old missions.
    The first sentence is not great for anyone - it's taxpayer money. If we let every special interest get taxpayer funding for the purpose of getting even more taxpayer funding, we end up with a Department of Energy and a Department of Labor, two ridiculously overstaffed boondoggles.  Though if we canceled both of this we could basically build a second NASA.

    The last sentence was the rationale for the space shuttle. If we simply did it the private sector would find a way to make it profitable.  Ummmmm...why again? And that is the problem.  Everyone believes philosophically we should do it but no one can figure out an actual good reason.
    Fiction is often stranger than fact. I explored the ideas of space exploration/planet settlement in my latest novel. My fiction says that no one government can afford the costs, and that no two governments can agree on what the outcome would look like.

    The seventeen largest corporations on this planet formed a joint venture and settled Mars. And, a fine job they did too.

    Enough for fiction. I do think it would be an easier sell for China to produce an extra-terra colony. The political climate within the US, and maybe a lot of other governments too, would complicate things so much that it would not be likely to happen. I'm not conversant on the political arena within China, but I believe that if their leaders were to say 'all of you folks pay up, we're gonna stake a claim on the moon', they would have the cash to get the job done.

    Hank
    It's a communist country, there is no asking.  When they wanted to build the world's largest dam, they sent in the army and moved all the peasants and that was that.  When they wanted less pollution for the Olympics, they banned cars for everyone but the government.

    Bush tried to take America back to the Moon and NASA said it would take 14 years.  Then Obama canceled it anyway because it has the Bush name on the plan and replaced it with an Obama plan that has done nothing. Why does it take 14 years to go back to the Moon when it only took 8 the first time, despite having no equipment then?  That tells you what is wrong with NASA.
    UvaE
    Why does it take 14 years to go back to the Moon when it only took 8 the first time, despite having no equipment then?  That tells you what is wrong with NASA.

    NASA is like the US deficit: too big and out of control, and you're absolutely right: at this stage, it would make no sense for Americans to get into a space race with China. And there's no guarantee that China will succeed on its own.
    Yeah, Hank. China can do it and we can't. It's not just a fault with NASA, in my estimation, it has to do with the times we live in now v.s. the times before. If the will of the people, read that as the political will, said to go to the moon, we could do it. NASA would get the funding, find the scientists, line up the logistics, and get it done.

    From my point of view, the feelings of the populace have changed. Changed greatly. At the time of Sputnik, we had just emerged from a costly conflict. Our ecomomy was booming. The general feeling was that 'things' were better and were going to keep getting better. Our kids would be able to go farther, faster, than we had.

    Not so much now.

    MikeCrow
    Not so much now.

    IMO things aren't so good because the "feelings" changed, not the other way around.
    Never is a long time.
    BDOA
    I can't see a space race happening again unless someone finds something economic useful out in space. But the space industry is already ticking over fairly nicely, with gradual development of new
    launcher and improvement to satellite capablities and the ISS. And at last with Space X and other there
    are private US space launch facilities.
    BDOA Adams, Axitronics
    MikeCrow
    Eros might be economically useful, how's  $492,187.5 Trillion just for the Platinum, plus ~$1 trillion in gold and that was @ $250/oz.
    Never is a long time.
    Yup. Lots of stuff out there that has present value here on Earth. The problems are: how do we get our hands on the stuff; and, how do we get it back here?

    The way I see it, problems come in three flavors. Those that are solved by skull-sweat and perseverance, those that require a break through, and those that may not be solvable at all.

    The two problems that I see as likely game breakers fall within the last two categories. They are the cosmic speed limit and the need for a (nearly) reaction-less drive system.

    I also don't think it's likely that another space race will begin. Although . . . humans are funny about things sometimes. It's like we are still children in grown up bodies. "Mom, look. Johnny gots a shiny new red toy. I want one!" "Hey Dad, Johnny and Mary have these neat shiny red toys. Why'nt I have one?" "Dear Uncle Joe, please send me a check for one gazillion dollars. I need to purchase a shiny toy that's bigger and better than those lowlifes have." ::shrug::

    MikeCrow
    I don't think exploiting the solar system requires many of flavor 2, and no flavor 3 breakthroughs.

    As for Hanks original question:
    Should we have a race? I don't know, probably not.

    Do we need to become a space fairing race? With all the diligence we can mustard.
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    Katherine Mangu-Ward is also not a fan of the pie-in-the-sky jingoism on this space race business.
    This isn't because the democratic consensus behind the space program has fractured, or because there's not enough money. It's because no one knows what we're doing up there, so they fall back on exaggerating the job creating/social justice promoting/kid inspiring that the space program is supposed to be doing down here. 
    Exactly the point. Lots of us were inspired by the early space program but that does not mean modern children are.  They may be inspired by Facebook. Yet old people insist that the space program should get unlimited funding for...what exactly?

    "Tyson turns out to be no better than a pork-grubbing congressman who wants to keep space jobs in his district" and that is coming from a fan of his, just like all of us are.  He's the worst person to lobby for a space program because, to him, money has no value.  Space is priceless. But of course there is a price. 

    It's silly that we recognize government is terrible feeding people and providing homes - the private sector does it better, plain and simple.  So it goes with science and especially technology, which is what the space program is.

    Gerhard Adam
    ....money has no value.  Space is priceless. But of course there is a price.
    Perhaps I could take that view more seriously if it weren't for the fact that it is clear that the majority of people must feel that "money has no value" since they see nothing wrong with using it to engage in endless wars and corporate bail-outs. 
    It's silly that we recognize government is terrible feeding people and providing homes...
    Actually what's silly is that we fail to recognize that "we" are the government and we tolerate such a blatant show of ineptness.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    You're making my point. If we let every special interest declare their interest 'priceless' "we" are out of business fast. You don't like wars - fine by me, people are calling for Obama to get in yet another one and I don't see the point - and you don't like bailouts, nor do I, but you seem to be portraying both of those as contrasts to a space program.  So do you think an annual bailout for NASA is a fine idea thought those other two are wrong to you?
    Gerhard Adam
    No.  I would like to see NASA engage in productive science.  However, if we're going to waste money [and not return it to the taxpayer] I'd rather a boon-doggle at NASA than one on Wall Street.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Surely rather than just racing to waste money reinventing the wheel it would be better spent on something like this that actually has some small chance of making a permanent difference to the economics of things:
    http://www.gizmag.com/startram-maglev-to-leo/21700/ 

    Thor Russell
    Our age is very cynical to the impact of Space achievement. The words 'millions', 'billions' & 'trillions' are glibly used as to how appropriations are done in this venue. Satellite technology has given dividends beyond just commercial application; losing 10s of thousands of lives to natural storm fronts happen to nations who don't have our systems... and keeping the peace during the 'Cold War' was another benefit. Man rating space travel is expensive & risky; seeing most of the losses have all been attributed in system failures. Coming with new ideas and a better understanding of how things work is how we make progress. The money is going to spend, projects and talents are out there... you get a horrible wake up call when you are behind. I'm not a nationalist xenophobe to the efforts of people around the world in Space exploration; China has ambitions.... and India... and many other countries when the options are on the table.
    We can make sober choices, Americans are not generally intimidated in any competition... but you need competence and resolve as well as money and sufficient hardware. The leadership of post Apollo Americans was the missing element. Our then Presidents and Legislative Officers worked as hard as the scientist and engineers on the same goals in those hay days. And now have the advantage of private ventures... the plan is to go beyond just government contracts... but to build independent companies who can actually grow in the public sector market place because Space can be as viable as oil production and pharmaceuticals... and there is plenty of top scientists who work in those fields too.