Doing Spaceflight right

Slashdot.org is running a story on the next NASA space launch system – which I commented on the following way:

What is NASA going to do with those two flights and what are they going to do next? There is no credible plan at all. Fly to some asteroid, then maybe to mars. But in order to do what? Put a flag in the sand of Mars so that half a century later somebody can fly a space probe to the planet and make a picture to combat the conspiracy theories that the Mars flight was all fake?

There is no vision in this other than giving even more money to the firms that provided overpriced space ships and rockets in the past. There is no research in this, other than whatever happens to be picked up along the way by some great coincidence, just as with Apollo that had a grand total on one scientist flying to the moon.

If you want to do manned spaceflight, you need a vision or it doesn’t work. Because manned spaceflight in and of itself is stupid. As stupid as plonking down huge stones after dragging them for kilometers through the dirt in order to build Stone Henge. As just as stupid as breaking out stones in a quarry, carrying them along the Nile and building pyramids. Or wasting your time to write a symphony, playing football, chess or go (my favorite).

There is no credible economic reason. There is very little indication, that the scientific gains of manned spaceflight will be worth the monetary expenditure for centuries. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, if that is what you decide to focus on. If you say, we think it’s worth it, because human nature sometimes requires a higher goal that doesn’t have a lot to do with the individuals of the society, but the society as a whole – and as such can truly be enjoyed by all because nobody has any tangible benefit – then this is a good enough reason.

But unfortunately our societies have devolved to the point of regarding everything that doesn’t have a tangible benefit to identifiable individuals as a waste of time – unless it is part of those practices that were grandfathered in from eras when people thought otherwise.

Or in other words, the economy is not merely a tool to allow human society to keep dragging on and functioning. It is also what allows us to fulfill those desires that go beyond that. Be it that sports car you want, that isn’t exactly necessary or even justifiable, a visit to the opera or the latest gadget – which generally serve to fulfill an individuals desires (and only those).
There are others, that serve general interests – like a lot of the popular sports and associated events. And those that just make us feel to be part of something greater. But I’ll leave it to Neal Stephenson’s recent novel Anathem to describe this in a more eloquent way:
“Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will.
The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents [a kind of monastery for science in the book] or into jobs like Yul’s.
All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part?”
Past societies have always stuck in our collective minds not for the more-or-less mindless and perishing work of everyday life, but the things they did beyond that – because it takes confidence and vision to plan and go beyond those things. And yes, they are those things that make up a story and inspire us to tell them to this day. Spaceflight is one of those stories and so was the exploration of earth and so is science in general.
But we live in a society in which the fulfillment of the individual desires of some people to fulfill their own desires have come to dominate to the point of incapacitating society as a whole to pursue their shared goals and desires. – As evidenced by rising profits of corporations in declining economies with cash-strapped governments and insufficient jobs paying insufficient wages in the richest societies the planet has ever seen.

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