Friday, March 22, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Value of a Space Station

The value of a space station

In this trip into space, you so far remain on an observation deck at 0.6 G, enjoying a refreshing drink of your choice, looking out the window at the "bicycle tire" in space, where you sit on the inner rim. Space circles around you at the rate of 1 turn every 80 seconds.

The question arises, "What is the value of a space station?"

Many space enthusiasts, in defending their interest, will try to list a set of instrumental values. They may mention benefits of space-based manufacturing, where weightlessness allows for a better mixing of elements that tend to separate under the influence of gravity. They may mention the spinoff effects, as learning to do this motivates inventions having a use outside the space program.

Some of them are far-fetched rationalizations.

Many will point out, "Every dollar spent on the space program is spent on earth."

It is true that the people who built parts for the International Space Station and who will build the parts for the next space station live in cities on Earth and spend their money at stores on Earth.

However, this would also be true of a program that paid people to do nothing for an hour each day but stand in an empty room and stare at empty walls. They, too, would spend the money they are paid at local stores. However, it does not follow from this that their time is not wasted, and the program that pays them for this time is not a waste of money. People who take this to be a valid defense of a space program have let their passions crowd out their reason.

A space enthusiast may assert that paying people to learn math and engineering is certainly better than paying them to stare at an empty wall. However, it would not answer the challenge of why we cannot have them learn biology and medicine or better construction techniques here on Earth instead. People should be inspired by the challenge of growing food in a growing desert on earth, rather than how to build a community in space. These people still learn something useful - but they also do something useful with what they learn.

An understanding of the nature of value makes it easy to recognize a value that even space enthusiasts often miss - yet it is an important part of their own motivation.

Between 100 and 200 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest. The actual number depends on what counts as "trying to climb Mount Everest". These were young and healthy people. In addition to this cost, we must add the cost in terms of time, energy, and money that went into these expeditions. These people also improved themselves - educated themselves and promoted their physical fitness (and the fitness of those around them).

However, if we looked only at the utility - the usefulness - of spending a few minutes on one square meter of land at the top of Mount Everest, we could not explain this behavior. It has no gold or oil. Not does it have a natural resource such as "Zero Gravity" that can be harvested. The technology of mountain climbing may or may not have developed spin-off effects useful to all of humanity - this hardly seems worth the investment and certainly does not motivate much of it.

An often neglected answer is found in the famous quote of explaining his interest in climbing a mountain. "Because it's there."

This says that we are not to look at the value of mountain climbing in terms of its utility - its usefulness. Or, at least, not entirely in its usefulness. The value of climbing a mountain is found directly in the proposition, "I have climbed a mountain." The value of building a community in space can be found in part in making true the proposition, "We have made a community in space."

A person need not explain - and cannot explain - the value of eating a chocolate cake in terms of its usefulness. It is the eating of a chocolate cake that has value - not its effects.

To some, standing on the observation deck of a space station, watching the universe spin around it, and knowing, "I helped make this happen," is their chocolate cake.

Here, we can still ask whether it would be better to choose another accomplishment. "We have ended childhood malnutrition," or "We have halved illiteracy rates" are better goals than, "We have built a community in space."

Desirism actually invites this question. The value of living on and helping to construct a space station is determined by its relationship to certain desires, the value of those desires are further measured by their capacity to fill yet other desires. While living in space is chocolate cake to some people, is this a desire to encourage or discourage?

In an earlier post, I pointed out that if we were to give up things on the grounds that there are more important things to be done with that time and resources, that space development is far down the list. Sports, computer games, movies and television entertainment, jewelry, cosmetics, dining - all of these represent many billions of dollars and countless hours of labor that could go into "ending childhood malnutrition" and "fighting illiteracy". There are a lot of interests to condemn before we get down to condemning an interest in living and working in space.

On this matter, the desire to explore - to push beyond the horizon - has served humanity well. Without it, we would at best still be a small and impoverished tribe in Africa - and probably extinct. At this point in our history as a species, Earth itself is the equivalent of that valley where the mitochondrial Eve - the biological mother of all humans - was born. For us to lock ourselves on this planet is no different than that tribe locking itself in that valley.

If the call - or the biological nature - of those beings had been, "Do not venture beyond the valley until we have first solved all of our problems at home," it would have remained forever primitive, small, and vulnerable. The land outside the valley holds some of the opportunities for dealing with those problems. Confining everybody to the valley denies them access to those resources.

It would likely be counter-productive to squash this interest with condemnation and ridicule.

There are not only utilitarian reasons to promote the desire to explore and to push outside of our current boundaries, there are utilitarian reasons to explore space. We need energy and other resources - and it is better to harvest them from space than to cut greater and greater scars into the living earth. Space development has contributed directly to improvements in communication, weather and climate monitoring, land management, and GPS navigation. Space development will help to ensure the very survival of the human race, and secure it from harms inflicted by a vast and powerful universe entirely indifferent to its continued existence.

All of these things contribute to the value of a space community. Yet, it is a mistake to focus exclusively on these and to forget the fact that one of the reasons a space community has value is, "Because it's there."

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