Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Apollo - Spinoffs

In this, the week of th 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to put humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth, I am covering some of the common arguments offered with respect to space exploration and development.

One of my qualities that I dislike it when people agree and defend the same conclusion that I defend, but they use poor reasoning in its defense. One reason is because I worry that somebody would see the flaws in the other person's arguments and attribute those flaws to me. Another is because I think that sloppy reasoning is itself something to avoid, and I prefer to be associated with people who also prize sound reasoning.

A poor argument in defense of the space program has been the value of spin-offs. The American people acquired a lot of benefits from the technology that came from the Apollo project.

The reason that this is a poor argument is because spin-offs are going to be spin-offs any time the government puts a lot of money into a project.

An excellent example of this is war. Look at the spinoffs that came out of World War I and World War II. I am not talking about advances in military technology. I am talking about advances in technology that ended up providing benefits to the civilian population.

A prime example of this are the advances in aeronautics that came out of the two world wars. World War I took aviation out of its infancy. World War II gave us the jet engine. We got better radar which went into the tracking storms. Military research gave us the microwave oven, the global positioning systm, and the internet.

Even the space program itself is a spinoff of military research. Rockets were invented to deliver destruction behind enemy lines. This technology was then put to use putting a man on the moon.

If the government were to spend $100 billion digging a hole from Los Angles to New York, that would produce spin-off benefits. This is not a special property of the space program that it produces side effects. Therefore, it is not a reason to recommend space development over any other potential use for $100 billion.

Even $100 billion on a nonsense project such as digging a hole from Los Angeles to New York would produce spin-off effects.

So, while I like it that others are defending th space program, because I consider it well worth defending, I would prefer it if those defending the space program offered reasonable arguments in defense. The demand for better arguments shows a respect for reason over rhetoric.

It is also the case the people tend to do a much better job seeing through their opponents’ argument rather than flaws in their own. So, while the defenders of the space program uses the argument from spinoffs in its defense, the opponents of space development are nodding their heads thinking to themselves, "These people aren't thinking too clearly. I think all of that space as gone to their heads."

The question to ask is not whether it is possible to name some spinoffs from a particular multi-hundred-billion-dollar project. The question is whether or not the costs exceed the benefits. Are the spinoffs worth the $100 billion investment?

If we look around us we find ourselves surrounded by benefits from all sorts of private expenditure – from newer and better search engines to cleaner ways of burning coal to new drugs to help fight disease. These benefits did not require a multi-billion dollar government project. It required private companies wanting to make a little money.

So, the spin-off argument for the defense of space exploration is a bogus argument. It is one that a friend of reason will not use.

1 comment:

Guru of Chem said...

You wrongfully assume that private companies will do the same sort of broad R&D that NASA and other government agencies can do - they can't and won't because it is not justifiable ahead of time, and the costs and potential risks are too great. Companies are all about the bottom line, and the bottom line isn't predictable; I would agree that you are pretty much guaranteed to get SOME kind of spin-off benefit, but will it be useful to the company, can they capitalize on it, will the financial results come in time to pay back the resources invested in the first place? Often the answer to any one of those questions is "no," so private industry won't take the risks government agencies can. If Apollo had been run by a private company or consortium, it would never have left the ground, and we'd all be the poorer as a result.