Monday, July 20, 2009

The Past and Future of Space Exploration

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first manned Moon landing and Moon walk.1 To commemorate, Google has introduced Google Moon, which includes markers for the six manned moon landings (but what about the unmanned? robots are people too! haha). Here's a zoomed-in map of the Apollo-11 moon landing site. (Hat-tip to GoogleMapsMania, where there are a few more moon-related links.)

Apparently the Apollo 11 astronauts are on the stump today for the manned mission to Mars. I'm rather doubtful of the advisability of working toward such a mission now.

First of all, manned missions are "astronomically" more expensive than unmanned missions for the simple reason that we rightly value human life and want to return our astronauts to Earth alive. Equipment requires testing so that some spring doesn't fly off and puncture a spacesuit, for example. Even more, all the equipment to maintain an Earth-like environment is dreadfully heavy. Since increasing payload weight increases the amount of fuel required, which itself increases the weight and thus the amount of fuel needed, the total fuel required to lift a payload into orbit increases with the square of the weight. So life-support alone makes manned missions much, much more costly.

Secondly as any space scientist can tell you (privately), the vast bulk of space science comes from unmanned missions, e.g., the successes of Voyager, Mars Rover, and Galileo. Scientists remain silent in public because they want to keep their NASA funding. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, unmanned missions are scientifically orders of magnitude far more productive than manned missions.

Of course there's far more than scientific discovery at stake with a Mars mission: there's also national pride, firing the imagination of science students, etc. But can we really afford to spend billions of dollars simply to feel better about ourselves at this point? Can't we motivate our students in a more cost effective way, say, by promoting parental involvement? Besides, unmanned missions are exciting too: just look at the interest created by the pictures from the Voyager missions, or the Mars Rover.

Granted: our government has just given away close to $100 billion to unwise banks and failing businesses. The federal budget is over $2 trillion. A couple billion dollars a year seems a measly amount by comparison. Mark Thornton has a great response:

I have to admit that with all the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government is wasting, it is hard to muster the energy to argue against a few additional billion. I reiterate that the real cost is not just a dollar amount, but all the things that could be produced if the proposal is rejected. This is an enormous amount of scientific and technical ability that could otherwise be used in the private sector to produce important discoveries and help keep the US economy number one in the world. In contrast to conventional wisdom which sees government budgets as a benefactor to science, the economic view shows that every dollar government spends on science actually hurts the progress of science and scientific discovery because scientific resources are diverted away from where they are needed most into nonperforming bureaucracies. We must also consider the fact that estimated or projected budgets are almost universally inaccurate and vastly underestimate the true cost of programs. For example, the International Space Station was more than 500% over budget and is still incomplete after twenty years. The actual cost of the Shuttle moving resources into space was underestimated by a factor of twenty. Based on current estimates of the total cost of going to Mars ($170 billion) the true cost could easily mount to $1 trillion.

As history has shown, government bureaucracies are horribly inept at space exploration. (This is for the simple reason that it gets its funding from its citizens at gunpoint, as it were—bullies are horribly lazy.) Privatizing space exploration would be far more efficient way to achieve goals in space and to benefit society.

People arguing for publicly funded manned missions point to the legacy such missions will leave for future generations. But I think it is more likely that future generations would blame us for opting to pleasure ourselves (as our consumeristic society already does too much these days) with an inefficient effort that saddles them with more public debt.

I'm sure that someday we'll land astronauts on Mars. In the meantime public funding would be better spent on exploring with robots and maybe developing more efficient propulsion systems. But really it would be best to turn over space exploration to the free market.


1. There is an obvious joke here, but that poor man's memory has been held in public view far too long already.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Gap in the Mask

I heard on NHPR this morning that Massachusetts is challenging the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for impeding its enforcement of same-sex "marriage equality." (I can't find at link at NHPR, but here's another write-up.) Apparently, despite Obama's posturing as "moderate," his administration is "coming out" in favor of the suit.

Further, a group of Iraq-war veterans are advocating repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars homosexuals from openly identifying themselves as such in the military. We'll see what Obama does with that one.

American Papist notes a NY Times Magazine piece in which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg admits something extraordinary:

Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.

She could have said "populations that some didn't want to have too many of," but by saying "populations that we don’t want to have too many of," she makes it clear that she was in favor of directing abortion to eliminate certain (read: minority) populations. (Would any cue less subtle have made it through the spin machine?) Back in Europe there were times in the first half of last century when the populations targeted as undesirable would have included Jews like Justice Ginsburg herself. How quickly we forget the lessons of history!

Despite the massive spin control the media exercises on behalf of the liberal world order, the ugly truth occasionally peeks out from behind the mask. Or perhaps liberals feel secure enough in their mastery of our culture that they don't have to hide any more. If only the American people were less indoctrinated into the cult of "what difference does it make?"!

Update (7/19): Michael Gerson has an insightful analysis of the Ginsburg interview.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Priority of Ordinary Experience

I mentioned a few posts back that I have been reading Richard J. Connell's Matter and Becoming. I ran across an excellent passage that I thought I'd share.

Let me put the matter another way. The ordinary experience of men leads them to declare that they know real things and not [merely] images, concepts, or the impressions within their knowing powers. The burden of proof, therefore, is on him who opposes this view, and we may legitimately inquire as to how he is going to verify his statement that "we do not know realities (but only images, etc.)." How is he going to show this to be true? It seems to me that the proponents of this doctrine have too often escaped being made responsible for their declaration. It is, after all, true that positions which go counter to the experience of men must be established and not gratuitously stated. How then, unless truth is to be redefined so that it does not imply an extrinsic standard, is such a position to be verified?

That last sentence is very elegantly put! To unpack: truth is the correspondence between our minds and (exterior) reality, so we need exterior reality to confirm any claim; unless we redefine "truth" to omit the reference to exterior reality, there can be no (coherent) way to confirm the claim that we don't know exterior reality. Of course, philosophers ever since Descartes have been trapped in their heads and unable to speak of truth except by redefining truth as mere consistency.

Connell continues,

It seems philosophers are sometimes led to deny or doubt the fact that we know the exterior world because they cannot explain how. In so doing they fail to distinguish the fundamentally different questions which the mind can ask (or at least they fail to make use of these distinctions). It is especially true that certain epistemological difficulties have arisen because the question whether something is has often gone undistinguished from the questions asking what, how, or why it is. This point needs elaboration.

Everyone knows that some things are living; but most people will declare that they do not know what life is. Similarly, everyone is aware that he understands, sees, moves his arms, etc.; but the largest part of mankind is ignorant (even in part) of what these activities are and how they occur. As Professor DeKoninck of Laval University pointed out, this was Descartes' error with regard to motion: that there is motion is very evident; but what motion is, is very obscure. Thus, because it is evident that there is motion, Descartes thought it was also clear what movement is; he confused the two questions.

The last two sentences allude to Descartes' derision of Aristotle's definition of motion (Physics III.1) as superfluous: for example, in Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 24, 426, he calls them "magic words" and not understandable.

Actually the few pages in which this passage occurs are wholly excellent. I can't wait to get to the rest of the book.

Richard J. Connell, Matter and Becoming (Chicago: The Priory Press, 1966), 7.