The final frontier

Today – January 31 – is an important date in the history of space exploration. In 1958, Explorer 1 was the first American satellite to be launched into orbit; though of course it was not the first satellite ever, as the Soviets had launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. In 1961, the satellite Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched and, for only a few minutes, carried Ham the Chimpanzee into weightlessness and space; he returned safely and died of natural causes in 1983. On this day in 1966, the Soviets launched the Luna 9 spacecraft, which was the first man-made device to achieve a soft landing on the moon (though unmanned). And staying with the moon, on this day in 1971 Apollo 14 was launched and became the third manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Space exploration was something of a backdrop to my childhood. The launch of Sputnik 1 is one of my earliest memories – or rather, it is the first things I can remember that came in the news rather than in my own experience. Indeed it made such an impression on my very young friends and me at the time that one of our number, a particularly agile and fast kid, was from that day nicknamed Sputnik by us.

Today space exploration has lost some of that early glamour and excitement, maybe in part because it has become routine.But still there are occasionally voices that question its usefulness, and we should not listen to them. We enjoy the products of space travel constantly; we watch television programmes beamed from satellites in space, we use diagnostic and healthcare equipment developed in or discovered through space travel, computer chips used in diagnosis were produced through insights gained from the space programme, we rely on satellites for weather forecasting, and so forth. Even if we did not believe that exploration is part of human nature and is always a good thing, we should encourage the space programme for the many spin-offs it provides.

So whether it is conducted by NASA, or the European Space Agency, or the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Chinese or the Indians, we should welcome humanity’s ability to explore and develop, even out of this world.

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12 Comments on “The final frontier”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Oh dear,oh dear so we shouldn’t listen to people who question the usefulness of space travel? Thats a really bizarre statement. Well, actually I question the benefits so am I to be ignored? Doesn’t one have to demonstrate the benefits of it like everything else?
    Like yourself, I am a space fan. A visit to Cape Canaveral last year was my idea of heaven – next to actually going into space. I have a ton of books on the subject. But it does cost a lot of money and that money could be spent on other things and those things might also have benefits. I know that makes me sound like a boring economist [guilty as charged!] but, you know, it is someone else’s money. For example, the ISS program costs a ton (maybe $100bn) and yes you do research there that you can’t do on earth but for that kind of money you can do a lot of research on earth (leaving aside boring stuff like famine relief, education, health care etc). Remember scientists are very good at spinning things to make their work sound important so you often see reports about research that “may help find a cure for cancer” [very emotive-always works] or “explains the origins of the universe” [hey, clearly important, whats €10m for that].
    Now it is very difficult to put a value on these things but one has to somehow. Otherwise,why not 3 space stations? Why don’t we all have space shuttles?
    The examples you give are not that convincing either. For a start you don’t need space travel for satellite TV or weather forecasting: there isn’t a little guy up there, a kind of astronautic Gerald Fleming, checking out the weather you know?
    So a non-manned presence in space is here to stay and is clearly beneficial but the manned bit is vastly more expensive and the benefits much less clear.
    Now if there was an economist-in-space program…

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      I agree. Communication satellites are launched because people are willing to pay for the service they provide: much of space activity is commercial and needs no special pleading. Communication isn’t the only commercial part of the space industry and tourism and even mining may make manned spaceflight commercially valuable.

      Some other space projects are good science, detectors for observing the microwave sky, the planned gravity wave detector, earth observatories; the rest, including all of the manned programme is harder to justify, the spin-off argument works equally well for any challenging big-science project and other projects tend to have more interesting and ambitious scientific goals. St best, this sort of space exploration is a cultural activity, like museums, ballet, anthropology and palaeontology and there are probably more valuable cultural activities this part of the space budget could be spent on.


    • Kevin, I never suggested the benefits should not be weighed up. But the logic of your further argument is that research that produced antibiotics, or insulin, or your computer should never have been funded. Yes, space exploration is very expensive, but so far it’s benefits have been almost incalculable, affecting every aspect of modern life, from communications to healthcare. That’s how research often works.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Nope,doesn’t it imply that it all. Relying on luck to ex-post justify some research expenditure seems a rather poor strategy. You also seem to forget something that we try to drill into our undergrads that there are benefits to the other uses of the resources. So maybe spending a billion on space exploration produces some health benefits here by accident or luck. But then what if you spent the same billion on healthcare here? Isn’t it also likely (in fact more likely) to produce health benefits?
        If the benefits are incalculable, what basis do we have for making a decision one way or the other? And if they are calculable, well I’d like to see the numbers. But I am not aware of any serious attempts to so do.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I think that sending man into Space tends to concentrate the mind in a very different way to sending a box of electronics or a Chimp.
    As a sort of variant of Occam’s razor. Designs are made to respond only to what is expected. For instance, aircraft are not made for the transport of horses and as a result every so often a horse gets shot while trying to kick one to ribbons at 35000ft.

  3. Peter Says:

    I know it’s a rather obvious thing to say, but the economist perspective on this might be partly because many of them are already on a different world. ;-)

    • kevin denny Says:

      Peter,rumours of our other-worldliness are exagerated. Economists have jobs, families, go to the shops, football matches, the dentist just like everyone else. Boringly normal, I would say.
      But is it really so wierd to ask for a rational, evidence-based justification for spending hundreds of billions of €? And when one alternative to this expenditure is saving tens of millions of lives, isn’t it immoral not to?
      For example, I read yesterday (in Atul Gawanda’s book “Better”) that the Indian governement’s expenditure on health is $4 per capita per annum. Tens of thousands die there prematurely. Yet it is developing a space program. Form your own judgement.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Our, and I think I speak for everyone here, response to your economists-in-space proposal would depend on whether it is intended to return the economists to earth afterwards, or will they be making a Laika-like sacrifice for the good of space science and our future peaceful enjoyment of op-ed pieces in the Sunday papers.

  4. cormac Says:

    Great to see a science-related post Ferdinand. I firmly believe that science forms part of human culture just like philosophy or the arts and should be discussed far more often in public discourse.

    Re space programs, I think the NASA programs in the 1960s certainly did a lot of good for both science and education worldwide, but there is plenty to debate. For example, many scientists (including me) are opposed to Bush’s ‘boot-on-Mars’ initiative. It’s a huge amount of money for a program which will deliver little enough science that can’t be done remotely. It also uses up cash that could be spent on satellite programs that are less eyecatching, but could deliver far more useful knowledge about the entire universe.

    Then there is the whole debate about whether the money for such programs would be better spent directly on health and education etc. Even from a purely scientific viewpoint, the best scientific studies are of limited value if the general population can’t distinguish scientific fact from misinformation…

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Aoife: depending on who it was, the Laika strategy might well work. But I was rather thinking of myself so had in mind “Baker” the monkey who survived his space trip in 1959 by many years.
    By the way, I have a useful trick with Sunday op-ed pieces: don’t read ‘em.


  6. Kevin, you wrote: ‘Relying on luck to ex-post justify some research expenditure seems a rather poor strategy.’

    Not at all. Some of the most important discoveries in human history were made that way.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Don’t for a minute think I believe science needs to have an immediate application: the best science is deep rather than useful, it seeks to answer big questions, why are we here, what is life, rather than small ones: how can I make a better magnet? I also believe the spin-off argument, that trying answering hard questions, trying to do great science will produce serendipitous technological advances.

      The problem with a lot of space science is that it is neither useful nor deep. It is not a genuine frontier and one way to see this is to notice how arbitrary the goals are: will the ISS succeed if it can support three astronauts, five, if it stays in space for 15 years, 20? Who knows? It’s all made up. I agree people-in-space is fun, cool, a monument to man: a culture treasure, but it isn’t a scientific frontier and it is probably a waste: let us the same resources to fund ballet, archeology, neuroscience, mathematics, particle physics, food and vaccines.


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