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Pride and Priorities

So yeah, you’ll have gathered that I was kind of excited about the Curiosity rover landing on Mars. Even though I had nothing to do with it personally in any direct way (I do nag my elected representatives about keeping up the space exploration budget, but that’s as involved as I get), I felt pride that my country had accomplished such a dificult and ambitious project. Hey, we’re a team-oriented species, we identify with groups and take pride when our group does well; Curiosity made me proud to be an American.

Prior to watching the real thing, though, I’d watched the classic science fiction film 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you haven’t seen it, it isn’t as realistic as the first film in that many of the details of the spaceship interiors are a bit cheesy. (The Russian ship in particular seeems to have had an interior designer who was a defector from Fisher-Price). However, as far as the technology goes, it all seemed pretty plausible. With the possible (though not in my opinion probable) exception of shipboard AIs like the HAL 9000, nothing seemed like something we couldn’t accomplish in the next quarter century.

In fact… it really didn’t seem like anything we couldn’t have accomplished in the last quarter century, roughly the time between when the film was produced and the eponymous year. With again the exception that we don’t yet know if it is possible to create artificial intelligence, much less how, and the drug-induced “artificial hibernation” that we could probably pull off but not very safely, not a single thing on board either the Discovery or the Leonov requires discovering any new laws of physics. It’s just straightforward extrapolated engineering; that’s not to say it wouldn’t be remarkably difficult and costly, but given the will and the funding we could almost certainly do it.

So why haven’t we? Well, the movie was produced in 1984, and no one at that time foresaw the Soviet Union collapsing at the end of the decade. Hell, no one saw it coming until it was already here! So the plot naturally assumes that the intense Space Race competition between the US and USSR had continued for most of if not quite all the intervening time. When you consider how rapidly that competition ratcheted up between Sputnik and Apollo, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine that by 2010 both superpowers would have been able to produce manned ships (one each, anyway) capable of visiting the gas giant worlds.

That competition didn’t last, though, and without the impetus of competing against a big scary Other neither space program maintained the kind of ambitious courage or willingness to invest that would be required.

It isn’t that we can’t afford it. The London Olympics cost the British government six times as much to put on as the Curiosity mission, even including the remaining costs of running the rover for its projected lifetime and collecting and analyzing the data it retrieves. The ongoing costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars equate to a bit more than a Mars rover a week. We’ve got the wealth to explore the Solar system properly.

The trouble is, people persist in seeing space exploration (and science in general) as a big pointless boondoggle that wastes taxpayer money without any obvious, immediate return on investment other than the prestige of it – while spending money on hosting Olympic games is rarely questioned, despite their being genuinely boondogglish.

There certainly is no comparison in terms of the technological returns on investment between space exploration and sports competition; the latter might provide a slightly improved running shoe or boat hull perhaps, if we’re lucky, but no breakthroughs, nothing of genuine lasting value. The Olympic Games are harmless enough if you overlook the opportunity costs of what else the money might have been spent on, but they are in the end only games, only a way to strut and preen over essentially meaningless achievements.

Wars can also do that, sometimes, but at a truly horrendous cost in both blood and treasure; it isn’t really possible to make real gains by building precision machinery and then blowing it to pieces, along with the bodies of huge numbers of expensively trained human beings. Even when we don’t actually blow the stuff we make for war up, the bigger-dick foreign policy of always one-upping your opponent is both a dangerous and an expensive way to compete.Imagine how far we’d have progressed by now if we hadn’t spent so very much of our wealth on wars! I believe we could have eliminated most of the causes of wars.

Let’s give space (more of) a chance!


~ by BT Murtagh on August 9, 2012.

current events, Difference-making, government, History, movies, Sci-fi, Science, Technology, United States

One Response to “Pride and Priorities”

  1. rAmen, brother.

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