Sunday, September 18, 2005

NASA's Space Budget

We live in a universe that is entirely indifferent as to whether our species lives or dies. The universe does not care, so it is up to us to care. The development of space is the only way we have to protect ourselves – to protect the Human Race itself – from a disaster on a planetary scale.

NASA has submitted its plan to build the vehicles that will take men back to the moon by 2018. The plan will cost $100 billion over 12 years (starting in 2006).

Is it worth the money?

The Basic Argument

I have spent a great deal of effort trying to leave the world better than it would have otherwise been – trying to understand the most important issues so that I can offer useful advice on how to improve the quality of life for my fellow humans (and animals).

However, I have a concern. I worry that some planetary disaster may strike, destroying the human race, and the species that I have sought to help becomes nothing but a pile of archaeological relics for some other space-faring race to discover and to ponder. There are quite a few ways that the species I am seeking to help might suffer this untimely demise. It may come from a comet striking the planet, environmental disaster, or a global war that drags humanity so far back into a new dark age that we never see light again.

Hurricane Katrina has fed those concerns. It has told me that humans are capable of living in the face of imminent destruction for decades while doing little to prepare for prevent that destruction. New Orleans could have improved the levees or prepared and practiced a more detailed and comprehensive evacuation plan in the decades before Katrina hit. These were not done, and people suffered for it.

I fear now that humanity can stand in the face of still larger disasters – destruction on a global scale – and still do little to protect itself against them. Some day, the forces of nature, or the destructive side of human nature, will make them pay for their negligence.

The best protection we can have against the worst that nature can do to us, or the worst that we can do to each other, is to have the seed of humanity spread out so that some of it may survive any eventual catastrophe.

As long as we keep the eggs of our species in one planetary basket, we are more vulnerable than we need to be.

If we look at the huge expanse of this universe, and if the predictions of string theory that there are countless universes available, somewhere there will be a species of intelligent beings that will hesitate too long. It will listen to those members that say to do nothing. The remnants of their civilization will be the relics discovered by some other race that made the choice to step off of their home planet and out into space.

Will we be the race whose relics entertain the archaeologists of some other species? Or will we be the race that survives and does the discovering?

$100 billion is a lot of money. We could do a lot of good with that money right here. But what will we accomplish if we use all of those resources here, only to have ‘here’ suffer some catastrophic damage?

The IT Director

When I think about these concerns, I envision the plight of an IT director. In his budget, he has $1 million earmarked for a disaster recovery plan. The plan calls for building a set of servers offsite – where a local disaster cannot harm them – and backing up the key components of the local system onto that distant server. This way, in case of a disaster, the company is not utterly destroyed.

He looks at the plan and realizes that $1 million is a lot of money. He could use it to make substantial improvements to the servers in his office, and ignore the disaster recovery plan. In fact, some of the members of the Board of Directors suggest this.

However, he listens to these people and does not put some effort into a disaster recovery plan, if there is a disaster, the company is destroyed. All of those local improvements are now worthless. They died with the rest of the system and, ultimately, with the company itself.

This job of preparing for the possibility of disaster is not simply an issue of prudence. It is not a matter of saying, “It would be wise for you to do this, but it is up to you whether you do this or not.” It is a part of this person’s job to anticipate disasters and prepare the best (including the most cost-effective) response to them. The IT director who came to work the day of a disaster and said, “I decided not to prepare for this,” should not expect the employees to shrug and say, “That was your choice.” He should be prepared for the righteous anger of those who say, “That was your duty.”

Perhaps he could say, “I never anticipated anything like this happening.” If it were true, and it were true that no reasonable person could have anticipated such an event, the defense would work. However, in this case, we are talking about events that have already been anticipated. The only thing the individual can say now is, “I decided to ignore those possibilities.”

Another Look at Disaster Recovery

We do not need to imagine the complete loss of human life on Earth to see the benefits of space development. We need only to look at recent large-scale disasters to see a second benefit.

As bad as the Boxer Day tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were, the areas hit were able to benefit immensely from resources in areas outside of the damage zone. Nations around the Indian Ocean quickly received medicine, food, and other emergency assistance from a huge reservoir of emergency services outside the disaster area. With Hurricane Katrina, the people in Gulf Coast were able to benefit from the fact that Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the rest of the country, as well as the world, had resources to send to them in their time of need.

Any large disaster that sweeps across the entire Earth, from plague to environmental degradation to meteorite impact, to nuclear war, to supervolcanoes, will be less of a disaster if the Human Race has resources sitting outside the damage zone – in space -- that can be used to help those in need.

A Baseless Suggestion

I do not want to say that NASA’s plan is the best, most cost-effective use of that $100 billion dollars. I have a romantic fondness for the idea of having the government divide the money into four $25 billion prizes and say, “Each prize goes to a team that can accomplish the following set of objectives….” In this system, no two prizes would go to the same team as a way of inspiring multiple possible solutions to the problems of space development.

I would then like to see what ingenious plans private individuals can think of to solve the problems of space development. I would also like to have a situation where NASA can draw upon the resources of four separate groups, rather than tied to a single solution that stops the program dead for years every time something goes wrong.

Yet, I have no particular specialty in this type of planning, and nothing to offer but my intuitive idea that it would be beneficial.

The Core Moral Principle

If there is any idea that sits at the core of this essay, it is the idea that we are not under the protection of a benevolent God. Instead, we live in a universe that is entirely indifferent as to whether our species lives or dies. If we do not accept the responsibility and take the care to protect it, nobody else is going to do it for us. We will cease to exist. Everything that humanity is and was, will end up being a few empty husks of buildings of the planet, and lifeless machines floating in orbit, decaying in the dead, cold, darkness of space.


Boelf said...

It would be nice to know the reality of a moon base, or a Mars base for that matter.

Is it poossible for the base to be entirely self suffient? Are there resources available for the manufacture of further space exploration. Surely if so the cost of space exploration would go down a lot without everything haveing to escape earth gravity.

Finally I think the government is the most efficient way to undertake such an enterprise. I assure you that government scientist and engineers are as devoted and maybe more so in the private sector. Besides Bush with a furthe 100 B to spread arround?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It's hard to answer your questions in a few paragraphs.

One answer is that you can do virtually anything with enough energy, and empty space has a great deal of solar energy -- 24x7.

You will not find "ore deposites" like on Earth...veins of copper, silver, and gold. These were made by volcanoes and water. However, there are asteroids that are nearly solid iron, hydrogen and oxygen in comets that can be used to make most plastics, aluminum in the lunar soil.

The Earth is just another rock in space. Everything the Earth has can be found in space, in one form or another.

Boelf said...

I was thinking of the near term. With existing technology to what extent could a moon base be fully independent. How much would have to be lifted into orbit and sent to the moon on an ongoing basis.

The answer to this I think goes a long way to establishing whether we are ready to build a base there now.