Sunday, August 27, 2006

Humans In Space: More Bad Arguments

It looks as if the Space Shuttle launch is being postponed for a couple of days.

Yesterday I discussed some bad arguments used for sending people into space. Today, I want to discuss some bad arguments used against sending people into space.

One such argument ties in nicely with one of the arguments that I gave yesterday.

Bad Argument: We can do more science with robots than we can by sending people.

Yesterday, I agreed with this. Byte per byte, robot science is cheaper than human science.


Science is not the only reason to do things.

Have you ever taken a vacation? Have you considered going to Hawaii, Athens, Egypt, or someplace similar? If somebody would have told you that you could save a lot of time and money if you just stayed home and looked at the pictures sent back by some robot, would you not have marveled at the degree to which some people can simply miss the point of an activity? If we pooled the money of all of the people who wanted to visit Hawaii this year, and sent a robot instead, we could probably save a lot of money. However, the robot simply cannot give us any of the things that makes a trip to Hawaii worthwhile.

If you were to take a survey of all of the people going to Hawaii, or to Athens, or to the Bahamas, or on a cruise this year – spending all of that money – I am confident that you would discover that “doing science” is not even on the list of reasons. This suggests that we can do things (and spend money doing things) without having to justify it in terms of how much science we can do. The fact that something is not the best way to “do science” does not imply that it is not worth doing.

The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, is one of the greatest investments that NASA has made. These pictures (as well as the data collected from the other instruments on the Hubble space telescope) are certainly valuable to scientists. However, this is only a small part of the value that this telescope has provided. Nobody even pretends that Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa only has value because of the science that we can get out of it. Nobody even pretends that Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon has value to those who visit it because it expands their scientific understanding of scientific knowledge of the effects of water. Consequently, it is absurd to claim that the value in images such the Eagle Nebula, V838Mon, or the Cat’s Eye, only have value because of what scientists can learn from them. These two have value above and beyond their scientific value.

In fact, my own interest in space has little to do with “doing science.” I do not have the skills to make any meaningful contribution to space science. Yet, one of the first things that I do each day is visit the site for the Astronomy Picture of the Day. If I like what I see, it becomes the background for my computer for the day. When I evaluate the picture of the day, I devote very little consideration to the quality of its science. I care about the science, but it is only one source of value.

If it can be worthwhile to actually visit Athens and actually see for oneself the Acropolis, or to visit Egypt and actually see for oneself the Pyramids, then clearly it can have value to travel into space and see for oneself the whole Earth from orbit, or to simply experience space itself. Indeed, if we can marvel at the construction of the Acropolis in Athens or the Pyramids of Egypt, we can marvel at the construction of a space station.

I will agree that to be worth public money, sending people into space has to produce some sort of public good. It would be hard to argue for a national program to spend billions of dollars per year to send people on Caribbean cruises or vacations to Hawaii, Egypt, or Athens. There are, however, public goods to be recognized in sending people into space. There is the public good of saving the earth; we will be doing the earth a huge favor if we can learn to harvest the resources we need from dead worlds rather than carving even deeper scars into the only living world we know. The is also the public good of saving the human race; developing space is the best insurance we can buy against the possibility of human extinction by getting all of our human eggs out of one planetary basket.

Neither of these can be accomplished by sending robots alone. We must learn to live in places other than Earth to accomplish these things. The sooner we do, the more secure our future as a species will become.

Bad Argument: Because people might get killed!

Another reason not to send people into space that I often hear is that people might die. In fact, people will die. This fact is as certain as sunrises and sunsets.

Wikipedia reports that, out of 442 people who have reached space, of which 18 people have died in the attempt.

According to MountEverest.Net, before 1990, 284 people ascended Mount Everest, and 106 died in the attempt. I doubt if any of them attempted to climb Mount Everest strictly because of the science. Yet, nobody argued for closing down the mountain for three years after each fatality while we tried to find a way for people to climb the mountain without dying.

Since 1990, another 73 people have died out of 1640 attempts. It is getting safer, but it is still not safe. Yet, the mountain remains open. “Because people might get killed!” is not considered a viable reason to stop people from climbing mountains. It is not a good enough reason to prevent them from going into space.

Climbing Mount Everest, driving race cars, skydiving, crab fishing, all get people killed. However, we do not hear the argument, “People might get killed!” as a reason not to do these things. None of these produce such a unique value that we cannot get by without it. Space development produces the unique value of helping to preserve the Earth and the human race. Of all of the things to prohibit “because people might die,” space development should be far down the list.

This does not imply that we should care nothing about the fatalities. It is absurd to argue that a fatality should either be shrugged off as insignificant or bring an activity to a complete halt. Protecting the lives of participants is important. However, it is not the only thing that is important. If the only thing people cared about was protecting life, then nobody would ever climb a mountain, race a car, or parachute out of an airplane. To some people, there is a lot more to life than mere survival.


There are a lot of things we can accomplish by sending robots into space. If our only goal was to do science then, in fact, perhaps we should only send robots. However, science is not the only thing worth doing. In fact, if we look at most of the things people do and the reasons they do it, “doing science” is far down the list. In general, I would argue for more science. Yet, even I will not argue that activities be evaluated solely on the criteria of how much science we can do. There are a lot of other things that are worth doing. For some people, some of them even justify taking some risks from time to time. Cleaerly, saving the Earth and helping to preserve the human race might be worth some risk.

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