Saturday, August 26, 2006

Humans In Space: Bad Arguments

With Space Shuttle Atlantis sitting on the launch pad, I go to the space science sites. I look for news, but I also encounter worn questions about space development. Such as, “Why go to all of the risk and expense of sending people into space? We should just send robots. They’re cheaper, and nobody dies.”

I would like to say that I like it when people agree with me. It makes me feel like I am not the only idiot on the planet – and that comforts me. However, that comfort is tempered when they give reasons for agreeing with me that do not make any sense. When I read the arguments that people sometimes use, I read a lot of arguments in favor of sending humans to space that make no sense.

Humans Do Better Science

On the space science discussion boards, the standard response that I see to this question is, “Because humans can do better science than science can.” They bring up all of the shortcomings with robots – particularly, their inability to determine what is ‘interesting’ and what is not. Robots will roll right past something that a human would have recognized is important. And, if a discovery leads the investigation down a new path, the machine is stuck with its original design specifications. It cannot improvise. Humans can. So, we should send humans. Right?

How many machines can we send for the price of sending one pack of humans? Let us accept that we will not get the same data. We will, on the other hand, get lots more of it. Lots . . . lots . . . lots more. For a trip to Mars, we are not talking about one robot versus one human. If we were, then, by all means, send the human. We are talking about 100 different robots versus 1 human. Even though that human can out-perform any one of those robots, can it outperform all of them combined? The human may see some things that the robots would miss. However, the human with his finite limits, is going to miss a lot of stuff that 100 different robots would have been able to find.

The Spinoffs Argument

Another argument that does not work is the “spinoffs” argument. This is the argument that says that space development is worth the money because of all of the neat things that the Apollo program, to use the most often cited example, has given us. Things like Velcro and microwave ovens – things that we otherwise would not have had.

It is ironic how people who like to use the spinoff argument cite Velcro and microwave ovens, when neither of them came from space technology. Velcro was invented by a mountain climber who noticed how plant burrs stuck to his clothes. Microwave ovens was discovered in the course of studying radar technology – they noticed how microwave radiation would heat food carried across the beam.

There are, of course, legitimate spinoffs from space science. Some of them are pretty expensive. However, those who use the spinoffs argument tend to ignore two major assumptions that are required for the argument to work.

(1) Those spinoffs would not have come about without the space program. The only benefit that can properly be credited to NASA for any spinoff is the benefit accrused between the time NASA provided the spinoff benefit, and the time that somebody else would have provided that benefit independent of NASA. NASA does not get to put in its credit book the value of the spin off until the end of time.

(2) We would not have acquired more and/or better spinoffs if we had spent the money someplace else. Let’s say that you have $1,000 to invest. You have two investment options; A and B. You choose Investment A. At the end of the year, Investment A made $100. However, Investment B would have made $200. Now, you can brag about how Investment A made you $100. However, this does not change the fact that Investment A did not make you as well off as you would have been if you had put the money in Investment B instead.

Just about any huge and expensive program will generate spinoffs. A program to build a bridge from Los Angeles to Hawaii, or an underground bullet train from LA to New York (or Tokyo) would produce spinoffs. But, is it worth the expense?

In fact, there is one type of project that has been responsible for a huge number of technological spinoffs – wars. War is what actually gave us the microwave oven. However, the spinoffs argument would be very poor justification for starting a war.

The best way to produce spinoffs is to create a huge and expensive program that, itself, aims to accomplish something that would be a positive contribution even if it did not produce spinoffs – a project like eliminating malaria, converting some substantial portion of the American economy to some American based renewable energy source, or a project that aims at teaching a large number of children how to tell the difference between a valid and an invalid logical argument.

Robots in space produce a number of direct effects independent of their spinoffs. They monitor the Earth’s climate, weather, land-use, and oceans. They provide us with communication around the globe and a global positioning system. They monitor the sun to help us avoid the adverse effects of solar storms. They collect data from the moon, planets, and distant bodies in space – but this is not nearly as valuable as saving the lives and livelihood of people on earth.

The spinoffs from this are “icing on the cake” as it were. This is as it should be. However, these spinoffs are not spinoffs that can be used to justify sending humans into space. These are the spinoffs that come from sending robots into space. They provide no argument for sending humans.

Earth-Based Jobs

Another argument that I often here my co-defenders of space development make says, “Don’t worry about the money. Every dime of NASA money is spent right here on earth. Even the astronauts buy cars (and their gasoline) here on earth. None of this money is disappearing in space. So, you should not be concerned about how much the space program costs.”

So, I have a plan. I am going to introduce a bill into the government that will pay everybody in the United States $10.00 per hour to clap their hands as fast as they can for 40 hours per week. We should not worry about how much this costs, because every dime I pay them is money that they will spend right here on earth.

But, costs does matter. It’s not enough that these people are working. They have to be working on something productive – something that is worth paying for. Otherwise, like paying people to stand around and clap their hands all day, the money is wasted.

Where does this money come from, anyway?

It comes from you and me. Every dollar that NASA spends on a Space Shuttle launch is a dollar less that you or I can spend on iPods, plasma televisions, scented candles, or an online course in computer programming. This means fewer jobs in the iPon or plasma screen manufacturing business, or the retail scented candles business, and the education business. We gain jobs in the industries that governments pay for producing things that the government does not really want or need, but we lose a comparable number of jobs in private industry producing things that people are actually, voluntarily willing to pay for.

So, yes, the money is being spent here on Earth. Yet, that does not answer the question of whether the money is being spent as well as it could be spent.


Remember, I am a major proponent of sending people into space. I simply do not think that some of my fellow proponents have given any serious thought to their arguments. They have some romantic idea of space development and, to justify it, they clutch on to whatever argument floats by, without considering the merit of the argument. The merit of an argument does not seem to matter,if it supports one’s romantic dream.

It does matter. Even if the romantic dreamer cannot see the flaws in his own arguments, others can, and they see this as reason to dismiss the romantic dreamer. “Okay, buddy, you have this dream that has blinded you to reality. I wish you the best of luck, but not on my dime. I have asked you what gives you the right to take money from me to support this project, and instead of a rational response, you give me this.”

If we are going to send people into space, we should end them for the right reasons. If we do have good reasons to send people into space, then we do not need the excuses of “humans do better science,” “spinoff”, and “jobs.”

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