Why Fund Space Exploration / Astronomy?
August 10, 2007 3:27 PM   Subscribe

What is the best reason to fund expensive astronomy / space exploration projects? Many projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Couldn't this money be better spent elsewhere?

Just, I am a big fan of science but I got asked this question recently and I did not like my own answer. I am hoping you can all have a better one.
posted by chrisalbon to Science & Nature (55 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Because expanding the scope of human knowledge is one of the few things worth doing.
posted by smackfu at 3:30 PM on August 10, 2007 [5 favorites]

the government wastes tons of money in all that it does, for good or for naught

space exploration...seems fun and interesting....worth the money? Ha! It hardly seems worth it, let alone doing it in piece of shit shuttles with an f'd up space program...at least spend the money well
posted by Salvatorparadise at 3:31 PM on August 10, 2007

NASA has to answer this question all the time. As a result, they release a publication called Spinoff every year in order to justify their existence.
posted by redteam at 3:37 PM on August 10, 2007

What smackfu said, plus: national pride, the side benefits of the technology developed for space travel (medicines, materials, communications, etc.), and to keep the military industrial complex busy when there are no wars going on.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:37 PM on August 10, 2007

I'm sure this subject has been touched upon many times over at Centauri Dreams.
posted by popcassady at 3:39 PM on August 10, 2007

The spin-off benefits of the space program are immense. Literally millions of people across the world are alive today thanks to the dialysis machines developed as part of the space program. CAT scanners were originally built by NASA to quality check components. The list is practically endless... software QA methods, building materials, Tang.
posted by nomisxid at 3:40 PM on August 10, 2007

Well...I'm sure others will disagree, but for me it's a question of decreasing resources and increasing demand. Eventually this planet won't be able to support the amount of life on it. Instead of going through a large-scale die-off (either through famine or war -- or both), space exploration serves two potential long term goals.

First, certain areas of space are rich in minerals that could be used in a multitude of ways. Instead of strip mining and destroying our own rock, we can strip mine and destroy one that is otherwise uninhabited by intelligent life (if there is life at all).

Second, space exploration may eventually serve to find us more space in which to spread out and give us more room to grow. Presumably this is much farther off than mining asteroids, but as a long term goal, not a bad idea.

Agreed that both of these are a long time away. Some might say too far off to be helpful, as we're a lot closer to that tipping point than we are to space-mining (even if we did have an efficient well-run space exploration/research program.) But I still think these are laudable goals, and maybe one day we'll get our act together enough to make real progress.
posted by saladpants at 3:46 PM on August 10, 2007

Much of the money spent by NASA is money poorly spent. Here's an epic mefi comment on the space shuttle. The International Space Station is also a boondoggle.

But the Mars missions and other unmanned missions have sent back useful information. And all that is separate from big astronomy projects: those are not part of NASA, and not necessarily administered by the US gov't. Those also bring back useful knowledge.

So you know, some of the money is pretty much flushed down the zero-gravity toilet. But that doesn't invalidate the whole enterprise of astronomy.

Here's the quote that gets trotted out in situations like this: "When Wilson was in front of a Senate or House Committee, they would often ask him 'What will your laboratory [Fermilab] do to improve the defense of this country?' And basically what he said was, 'What this lab does is make this country worth defending.'"

In short, what Smackfu said.
posted by adamrice at 3:46 PM on August 10, 2007

Bad Astronomy answered this admirably the other day, via a link to a good article in Parade.


1. Spinoffs.
2. It's actually pretty cheap.
3. The money might be spent better elsewhere, but it would be spent on boondoggles, not hot lunches.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:47 PM on August 10, 2007

Not being factious, but wouldn't millions of people across the world also be alive today for less if we just spent money on inventing a dialysis machine instead of sending the money through a space program?
posted by magwich at 3:47 PM on August 10, 2007

Not being factious, but wouldn't millions of people across the world also be alive today for less if we just spent money on inventing a dialysis machine instead of sending the money through a space program?

This is a bit like begging the question - imagine, if you will, trying to invent television in the year 1600. There's no understanding of magnetism, radio waves, ions, cathode ray tubes, transistors, phosphor luminescence, voltage, current, resistance, etc etc etc. But a peasant in these days could just easily ask "What's the use of spending all these ducats on figuring out why this metal spins funny?" because he cannot see the potential which does not yet exist.

The true power of things like abstract math and experimental science is not that it enables to invent things which we have conceived of but do not have, it is that it enables us to conceive of entirely new things which previously did not even exist in imagination. Just look at two amazing technologies: Public key cryptography (specifically RSA) and the GPS system. There are two very powerful inventions which rely on abstract and experimental things like prime factorization and special relativity, but before we could invent these useful things, we had to first the invent seemingly-useless things. I doubt even Einstein imagined he'd see a practical application of his theories in his century, but now I can buy a GPS receiver for $100 and do what was previously unthinkable.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:56 PM on August 10, 2007 [7 favorites]

because astronomy and physics interest me, i want to know the answers to these questions and i'm perfectly willing to spend your money to satisfy my curiosity. thank you for asking!
posted by bruce at 3:59 PM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

If history has shown us anything, it is that "pure research" doesn't exist. Everything we learn eventually becomes useful to us, but...

...but it's nearly impossible to predict when or how it will do so.

That said, it turns out that there are significant practical applications of astronomical data. The first major confirmation of the General Theory of Relativity was through telescope observation, for example, and the General Theory is the only theory of gravity we have which has stood the test of time. (In the mid 19th century astronomical observations had already demonstrated that Newton's theory of gravity didn't correctly predict the orbit of Mercury. That was part of the impetus leading to the development of the General Theory.)

Several predictions made by physics researchers working on new theories in subatomic physics could only be tested through astronomical observations.

"Yeah, but what good are those theories?" Well, they're not ready to be turned into engineering practice yet, so we can't really tell. But the last major revolution in physics, the hat trick of the Special Theory of Relativity, the General Theory of Relativity, and the Quantum Theory, gave us atomic weapons and atomic power, modern plastics, and semiconductors among other things.

Take modern polymer chemistry as an example. In the 19th Century chemists did some amazing things, but most of it was the result of brute force experimentation. They didn't understand what they were doing. The Quantum Theory gave them the tools to really explain what was happening, and once they began to utilize that knowledge, they stopped groping around in a fog and began to march in useful directions. The result was things like mylar and kevlar and cyanoacrylate and synthetic ceramics. Not to mention gallium arsenide.

The Special Theory told us that mass and energy were the same thing and that each could be converted into the other. The research going on now is attempting to explain how that is the case, and if it succeeds, it could be just as revolutionary as the Quantum theory was. For instance, we could learn how to directly convert mass into energy without having to muck around with indirect approaches like fusion and fission.

What use was the Galileo probe? One thing it did was to give us a good long look at the weather on Jupiter. All those cloud bands moving at different speeds relative to one another? Well, we've got those here on Earth, too. They're called the "trade winds". Seeing another, larger, more well defined example of that may teach us things about weather here.

Cassini? Saturn is like a great laboratory experiment for gravity. The grooves in the rings are the gravitational equivalent of the trails of smoke in a wind tunnel. No one can explain the grooves right now, and part of the problem is that the Voyager probes didn't really return enough data about that. Cassini will give us years of data about the rings, and if someone eventually figures out a way to explain where the grooves are (and where they aren't) that could begin the process of developing a replacement for the General Theory. (Which is known to need a replacement, by the way.)

But utilitarian explanations like that miss the real point: When a culture stops dreaming, it starts dying. When it stops looking to the future, it becomes part of the past. If we concentrate entirely on utilitarian aspects of "taking care of things here, now" then we lose something precious that we cannot spare.

The most important result of astronomy and space? It's the pictures that kids look at and go "Oooh! I want more of that!" It challenges our children, gives them something to dream about. That alone is sufficient to justify it.

We aren't doing these things for ourselves. We're doing them for our grandchildren.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:03 PM on August 10, 2007 [19 favorites]

The question really isn't whether you could spend the space program's money "better" somewhere else. The question is why the space program gets singled out for this.

Almost every dollar that's spent in the economy could be better spent somewhere else. Every dollar that's spent on movie tickets could be put to medical research. Every dollar that's spent on individually-owned cars could be put towards education. Every dollar that's spent on rock and roll records could be made to better serve mankind by caring for the homeless and destitute. Every dollar we spend on professional sports could be put to better use providing us with free-to-use medical care.

The simple fact is that in a big, diverse society, we can afford to do lots of things that don't directly address the direst of human needs, but provide one or another sort of human enjoyment. Space programs are one of those things.

So my real answer is: it's a bullshit question, because you could apply that logic to anything and everything that isn't immediately ameliorating the worst suffering that humans endure. Turn it around and ask the person asking if the money they'd spent on their fancy new car, or their fancy meal out, or their new whatever, couldn't have been put to better use.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:03 PM on August 10, 2007 [4 favorites]

To preserve our species. A virus or a meteor or catastrophic climate change or other nightmares -- any could mean the end of homo sapiens. We have a strong drive to keep our tribe alive and so we should distribute ourselves so that a single planet failure doesn't mean we fail.

With the ISS, we are now an extra-planetary species. From now on, we will always have people who are not on Earth. When that number becomes a few hundred people, we might actually have a chance to survive the next million years.
posted by cmiller at 4:09 PM on August 10, 2007

the internet itself was born from space programs. when they first started launching satellites, no one could have predicted that those satellites would lead to communication forums like metafilter. metafilter would have been inconceivable to the people who first launched sputnik. and those people had to answer the same questions you are asking now. yet, because they launched those satellites, a global communications revolution occurred. and the internet is not the only technology born from space programs.

space exploration is an investment in our future. there is no way to predict what technologies and advancements will come out of these efforts today.

clearly, we have to invest in our future. clearly, some of that investment needs to be in high risk/high yeild investments. doesn't every diversified investment portfolio have at least some of high risk? space is the ultimate high risk/high yeild societal investment. the only question is what percent of our investment in the future should be in this high risk area.
posted by Flood at 4:21 PM on August 10, 2007

You might find this interesting: the Death and Taxes visual guide to federal expenditure. You can see the NASA "meatball" at about 4:30 on the dial next to the American Flag. As a proportion of spending, it's miniscule. And yes, the gigantic circle that barely fits on the page is the national debt.

One argument I've heard several times from NASA scientists themselves about waste is that a lot of it (ie the waste not due to the bureacracy itself) is because of the manned flight programs. You can't fit humans into teeny tiny robots and fly them halfway across the solar system; they need expensive air and water to sustain all that meat. Robotic operations such as the Mars rovers are much cheaper to run and allow us to expand father, faster. To my mind, the only reason to keep doing manned flight is to learn how to build sustainable biospheres.
posted by media_itoku at 4:23 PM on August 10, 2007

NASA, aside from its numerous problems, is like most other large-scale scientific endeavors: it's an investment. Short-term, the engineering to make the project itself work creates a variety of aforementioned spinoff technologies that wander down to the market. This may take a decade or two. Long-term, what we learn from the pure science perspective could go just about anywhere. That's closer to the fifty year mark.

Gravity Probe B is helping us confirm some of the odder predictions of general relativity right now. This means that we can't just pitch it out the window, and whatever theory we come up with to properly succeed M-theory (don't get me started) is going to have to mesh with GR pretty well. It might not pay off, it might be as kick ass as the explosion of technology created by QM.

That having been said, it's no help for overpopulation. Completely off the wall calculations here, but given Blue Oyster Cult's "forty thousand men and women every day," and the fact that the population is increasing, we can make a baseline of at least that many births per diem. Let's imagine a seven-person "crew" of people leaping out into the inky black to colonize space on each ship. We're looking at a shuttle launch once every roughly fifteen seconds - the atmosphere would never stop booming with the sound of shuttles trying to take away our population. And, oh, yeah, you'd have to build a shuttle every fifteen seconds, too. And that's with nowhere for them to go. Space exploration could do a lot of neat things, but unless we find a way to teleport 40,000 people off of the planet onto some other biocompatible pristine planet, per day, it's not gonna help with overpopulation.

Unless we, you know, send up one of these bad boys with a nice nuclear engine and it blows in such an unlikely fashion that everyone on Earth gets a tiny twinkly lungful of plutonium dust, then we all die. Just sayin'.
posted by adipocere at 4:23 PM on August 10, 2007

heh. one of the reasons i gave up astronomy (apart from not being a very good astronomer) was that i felt it was an abuse of public trust and a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere(*).

astronomy is very much "sold" to the public. within the profession there's a general recognition that it is funded because people think it is important, and a consequent drive to produce good pr, nice pictures, do public outreach, etc.

as i have argued elsewhere (self link to tedious rant), we already understand "normal" physics very well. on one hand this seems like a justification for "big science" - the only way to learn more about how the world works is to look at the most extreme conditions. this means either huge particle accelerators, or astronomy (the conditions in astronomical objects like quasars and black holes - or the early universe - are much, much more extreme than anything we can generate on earth). and it is certainly true that astronomy is really pushing physics - the latest observations raise very hard questions about "dark" energy and matter that could be key to a unified theory of physics.

but. on the other hand, the same arguments suggest that any breakthrough will have very little effect on everyday lives. we already understand nature well enough for all practical purposes. if that wasn't the case then we wouldn't need astronomy or particle accelerators - the flip side of "needing" big science is that whatever we learn from this extreme science is likely to have very little relevance to everyday life.

this isn't wild speculation - we've already seen the same thing with general relativity. i was re-reading pais's biography of einstein just the other day and there's a discussion there about how long it took to find good (1% level) confirmation of general relativity. the (precession of the) perihelion of mercury was certainly a big sign, but apart from that - very little. and how has understanding the perihelion of mercury changed anything?

so astronomy won't help us. nor will it help our grandchildren. not in any practical way.

finally, the only argument that counts (as far as i can see) is that intellectual exploration is an end in itself. i certainly cannot argue with that. but it does suggest that astronomy should get no more funding than, say, poetry....

i remember that i used to argue about this many years ago on sci.physics. one of the people i argued with repeatedly challenged me "well, if you don't think it's a good idea, why are you still doing it?". some time after i quit i sent him an email explaining i had done so. i got the impression he didn't really care - i had confused "you would be more convincing if you behaved as you talked" with "i want to win the argument by making you look bad".

(*) full disclosure: i should add that years later i did work again for an observatory, as a software engineer.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:27 PM on August 10, 2007

The key to humanity's survival is space exploration. Think of it now: all our eggs are in one basket, and we have limited resources. Spreading out and gathering more resources is the key to survival and evolution of humanity. Me and mine have had many discussions that boil down to this.
posted by Meagan at 4:31 PM on August 10, 2007

Space can save economies. My astronomy prof told me that the Chile space telescope has generated so much money for Chile - astronomers are moving there to get spots to use it, great profs are moving to the Chilean universities, thousands of Chileans are becoming employed by the center itself and all the housing/food/etc that the astronomers need.
posted by k8t at 4:34 PM on August 10, 2007

"Increased competition for diminishing resources" isn't why NASA exists, but it is why we explore. As was mentioned above, the results of that work today may not be relevant for many years if not decades. But it will eventually be the foundation for our existence in that time.

I think people get screwed up in their thinking, because there is no seeming immediate relevance. Those endeavors probably look like "science porn" to some.

This is off topic, but I was teasing my kids that by the time they are in college, they will probably be doing field work on the moon.
posted by snsranch at 4:35 PM on August 10, 2007

According to this recent article, NASA's share of the federal budget is 0.58%. Is it regrettable that the federal government doesn't do things in the most efficient way and ends up wasting tons of our money on bureaucracy. Of course. Is that a reason to defund one type of program in favor of another? Not really. As others have said, it's not like cutting NASA's 17b from the budget altogether will result in 17b in new FEMA trailers and bridges. Bureaucracy is pervasive in government, because we haven't figured out how to run such a huge organization any other way yet.

Also consider NASA's economic impact. It doesn't exist in a vacuum, and NASA labs employ top scientists who are well-paid for work that keeps the US at the technological forefront, a position we're in danger of losing as our educational standards slip. If any thing, we need more federal funding both for science education and R&D programs like NASA. U.S. technology use NASA tech all the time, and it helps them to compete and prosper in the global marketplace, which theoretically means they pay more taxes to the government which it can use to fund programs.

One last note: NASA's budget is $17 billion. The Iraq war is costing about $200 billion annually. So if we cut waste in Iraq spending by 8.5%, we'll have saved NASA's entire budget. The space program is an easy target for cuts because it's easy to point at and say "Hey look here folks, these guys just wanna load your hard-earned cash into a rocket ship and blast it into Outer Space! We'd be better off if we just burned it to keep warm, dontcha think?" whereas any proposed cuts to Defense can be attacked as "soft on Terror" or naive about National Security. Defense spending is out of control and accounts for a huge chunk of the total budget. Defense contracts are still awarded in shady and wasteful ways. That's where we need to cut.
posted by contraption at 4:38 PM on August 10, 2007

You can read all the comments about research & science benefits, so I won't duplicate that.

Two things:

First, people that ask tend to compare spending on space exploration to spending on social issues. The point to make is that the solution to social issues are almost always politics, not money or resources. For example, there is plenty of food in the world for all, but due to politics, people starve daily.

Second, spending on space exploration is dwarfed by defense spending. The point to make is why are you asking about NASA's budgets, when the budget for a single kind of aircraft for the military is multiple times larger?
posted by Argyle at 4:45 PM on August 10, 2007

These government programs don't just take $100 million and throw it in a river just to have a satellite magically appear the next day. The money is spent largely on labor and R&D costs, and in any one project it may be spent across a wide variety of economic sectors. Some programs may spend too much on overhead, some others may not. This is a point to be argued on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, the economic return from any individual project is likely unknown. This is not true for basic science R&D in general--the fact is it's a pretty good investment in the economy as a whole.

"Couldn't this money be better spent elsewhere?" I have no idea. You have to define "better." If the best use of money is to provide direct relief to the starving, certainly we could be spending it better. If the best use is to train stock brokers to go out and amass millions for themselves, we could probably do better. Some apparently think the best thing that can be done with money is waging war, and so we're spending well over a hundred million a day in Iraq.

Similarly, if you think that society should only have a place for those who can provide something practical for people to buy--that talented scientists, artists, and similar individuals should be put to work making things for others to buy and eat rather than teaching and exploring--then the funding of science (and particularly esoteric science) is fairly wasteful. But once you adopt such a position, you really have to throw away much of the economy and almost the entirety of our system of higher education.
posted by dsword at 4:46 PM on August 10, 2007

Space can save economies....

chile certainly gains something from astronomy, but it's not saving any economies here, i promise. local labour is used, certainly (that was me) and they pay decent wages (although americans doing the same jobs are paid more - there is a double wage scale). and they do eat local produce. but it's hardly a huge economic impact.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:47 PM on August 10, 2007

People want to know about the universe we live in. Not just astronomers, but the ordinary taxpayer. I'm an astronomer because I love to show people what's out in space. I love to take people to a telescope and show them the planets, stars, and galaxies. I love to show people the research I'm doing, the pictures we spend months and years obtaining, and the process of understanding the data we obtain. And people are fascinated by this. Not because they think it will help to create some commercial product, but out of a simple curiosity about the world around us. That's all the justification I need. If understanding the universe is not worth doing, then really, what is?
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:26 PM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

For space exploration in particular (as opposed to astronomy), I think that, yes, the money could be better spent elsewhere in many cases. Even if you still wanted to spend that money on something scientific, I think you could do a lot better investing in earthbound research. Maybe I'm wrong, but the huge expenditures to launch people into space seem pretty high for the scientific payoff.

The value of space exploration is in promoting patriotism, rah-rah [your country]!, and so on. NASA is many things, which certainly includes a big advertising project for the USA. Witness the portrayal of astronauts in popular culture (esp. movies).
posted by ssg at 5:44 PM on August 10, 2007

Not being factious, but wouldn't millions of people across the world also be alive today for less if we just spent money on inventing a dialysis machine instead of sending the money through a space program?

The space program is far more than the space station. What science has learned from Hubble and going to Mars will benefit mankind. It is the best money we ever spent even if there is waste involved.

And for your information there is a dialysis machine that can be used at home. Science does progress.

The space program is about the only exciting program that government is involved in.
posted by JayRwv at 5:50 PM on August 10, 2007

If you believe global warming is occurring-- whether or not you agree human activity is the preeminent cause-- and that it will have significant consequences for human beings all over the world, you are virtually compelled to favor spending for NASA.

The behavior of our atmosphere cannot be measured exclusively from ground observation, nor understood. In particular, dynamic atmospheric models, which offer the best hope for predicting the trajectory of climate, and thereby the best prospect of effective planning to provide for vulnerable populations around the world, require observations from space to confirm or deny their predictions.

Observation of other planets are also extremely important for this work. The surface of Venus, for example, is hot enough to melt lead presumably because of a runaway version of the sort of greenhouse warming which is the basis of theories that attribute our current warming to burning fossil fuels, and close observation of Venus' atmosphere could be vital for understanding what is happening here.

The output of the Sun is variable; not only has it changed dramatically over geological time, it's varied rather sharply in recorded history, and the Sun seems to be doing some surprising things right now. Understanding this and trying to predict future behavior is only made more critically important by the prospect of global warming. Ground observation is woefully insufficient for this purpose.

Nor is the value of space exploration from this point of view restricted to the solar system or even our own galaxy; if you favor exploring nuclear power as part of the solution to our problems, you will want to know everything you can find out about the behavior of elementary particles. One of the more intriguing scientific developments of the last decade has been the extent to which the structure of the universe as a whole is now seen to constrain theories of the interaction of the most elementary parts of that universe.
posted by jamjam at 5:57 PM on August 10, 2007

I work on a telescope project (Pan-STARRS) that is searching for Earth-crossing asteroids, anywhere from take-out-your-favorite-city to end-of-civilization size. There are thousands of them out there that haven't been discovered yet. While I love astronomy and am sympathetic to arguments that much of the space program is frivolous (especially human space flight), it seems a stretch to say that searching for civilization-ending asteroids is not useful. While the cost of our project is small compared to most current space projects, it stands on the shoulders of decades of "useless" astronomical research that came before it.

The software we use is able to predict positions of Solar System bodies millions of kilometers away to within tens of meters (yes, meters) years into the future. This kind of accuracy is directly a result of requirements from big, expensive space missions. That we even know where to look is a product of hundreds of years of asteroid research.

So don't discount research purely for the "pursuit of knowledge" -- turns out sometimes that knowledge has some practical use.
posted by ldenneau at 5:58 PM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

andrew cooke writes "the same arguments suggest that any breakthrough will have very little effect on everyday lives. we already understand nature well enough for all practical purposes. if that wasn't the case then we wouldn't need astronomy or particle accelerators - the flip side of 'needing' big science is that whatever we learn from this extreme science is likely to have very little relevance to everyday life."

You have no way to that breakthroughs will have little everyday effect. What if the money being spent on particle accelerators leads to matter teleportation? Quite the paradigm shift that no one is currently working on as a directed project. Maybe the money being spent on blackhole research enables development of a gravity shield. That's the thing with pure research, you're never really sure what'll come out the other side.
posted by Mitheral at 6:20 PM on August 10, 2007

Chrisalbon, I do see where you're coming from. I ask myself why the US feeds other countries when there are hungry and homeless in our own country... and why do we have space programs when there are so many problems on our own planet. Good question.

I like Bad Astronomy's article, linked above.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:21 PM on August 10, 2007

Because Tang was totally worth billions of dollars in research.
posted by idiotfactory at 5:38 PM on August 10 [+] [!]

That Tang was a product of NASA's R&D is a weird urban legend so far un-debunked by Snopes, but still completely made-up. Tang was invented by the guy who invented Cool Whip and Pop Rocks, one William A. Mitchell, a food chemist for General Foods. NASA used it in space missions to mask recycled water's taste, which astronauts didn't like.
posted by cgc373 at 6:21 PM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Couldn't this money be better spent elsewhere?

Consider also that while space exploration is useful for all sorts of reasons, all projects are not equally useful. For example, we now know that human space exploration is fraught with all sorts of danger. The whole notion of Captain Kirk zipping amongst the galaxy is not just science fiction, it's science fantasy.

At the same time, we also know considerably more about robotics than we did decades ago.

So, for this:

I did not like my own answer. I am hoping you can all have a better one.

The answer isn't "all space exploration is good, and we should spend kajillions on every idea that pops into our little primate heads."

The answer is "all space exploration is good, but it's really f'n hard and dangerous, so we should encourage the development of projects that provide us with the most bang for the buck, like these little guys here and here."

In other words, Buck Rogers is dead. No. 5 is alive!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:55 PM on August 10, 2007

we already understand nature well enough for all practical purposes.

Awesome! So, please explain how to make a cure for AIDS and Alzheimers. I'll wait right here...


Like someone said above, there's still a lot of research to be done, and we don't always know where the breakthroughs will come from. But we have a pretty good idea where they won't come from, and they won't come from a society that discourages exploration.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:59 PM on August 10, 2007

You have no way to that breakthroughs will have little everyday effect.

maybe i wasn't clear enough.

physics is amazingly consistent. that's what makes it so cool - that everything fits together so well. the only things that are going to change in the future will involve processes at non-human scales, because everything that happens "normally" can be explained.

so yes, sure, maybe there will be a way to do transportation. but if it requires astronomical amounts of energy then there's no way it can be practical.

heck, for that matter we already have transportation. we got it with general relativity. the old "take a wormhole for a walk" trick. and the reason we don't all have personal transporters is because of exactly(*) this - we don't have any way to construct such things (got a squillion tons of anti-matter on you?) with normal human-scale resources.

(*) well, it is one of the likely problems that such a scheme would face.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:02 PM on August 10, 2007

Awesome! So, please explain how to make a cure for AIDS and Alzheimers. I'll wait right here...
i wasn't arguing against medical research (quite the opposite in fact).

we don't always know where the breakthroughs will come from
we can make a pretty good guess that a solution to problem involving proteins isn't likely to come from studying processes that only differ from current physical models at extreme energies.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:04 PM on August 10, 2007

we can make a pretty good guess that a solution to problem involving proteins isn't likely to come from studying processes that only differ from current physical models at extreme energies.

Might it come from super-computing breakthroughs that allow advances in research on protein folding? Might those super-computing advances come from aerospace research into ... I don't know ... nuclear technology? Materials technology? Exobiology research?

The "astronomy won't help us" answer is just awfully limiting.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:36 PM on August 10, 2007

You ever watched Connections andrew cooke? Stuff comes out of left field all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 8:54 PM on August 10, 2007

I've always thought it was because it allows people in the government to channel large amounts of money to people who can latter donate to their campaigns or hire them at much larger salaries.
posted by 517 at 9:59 PM on August 10, 2007

No, that's the defense industry. Not NASA.
posted by smackfu at 10:04 PM on August 10, 2007

Well, landing on the moon gave us something optimistic and nice to hope for in the middle of the cold war. I think it was a way to get the nation to rally around something positive.
posted by idiotfactory at 10:50 PM on August 10, 2007

"No, that's the defense industry. Not NASA."

Ah yes, 11.2 billion is a pittance.

I fully support funding space exploration but I also fully doubt the motives of politicos and think this is why it gets funded.
posted by 517 at 11:00 PM on August 10, 2007

One day, the sun will explode, and Earth will be vaporized. If humanity hopes to escape the same fate, we must work on space exploration. Cue also... meteors, aliens, solar flares, global warming, nuclear holocaust.

Expanding our civilization beyond this planet is a necessary step in ensuring its survival. Plus it's cool. There are much worse ways the government could be spending my money.
posted by sophist at 12:15 AM on August 11, 2007

You ever watched Connections andrew cooke?

you're missing two things - a sense of history and a distinction between physics and engineering (or chemistry, or medicine, etc).

physics has grown, over the last three centuries, from practically nothing, to a beautiful, self-consistent, and almost-complete system. you can think of it like a web of inter-tangled ideas. at the centre of that web, which corresponds to our every-day experience, the interconnections are amazingly thick, delicately interwoven, and pretty much indestructible. whatever new comes along will not change that, just as it remained constant through special and general relativity and quantum mechanics.

out at the edges of the web, things are less constrained. there are tears, errors, spaces for improvement. but these edges are far from our every-day experience (the centre). they correspond to, for example, the fantastically high temperatures and pressures that occur when stars collapse. in conditions like that we believe that physics becomes simpler - and that will lead to a unified model of physics.

but such a unified model will not change the practical, every-day use of physics, because the only differences will, by necessity, be obvious at those extreme conditions. in normal conditions, the new physics will give the same answer as the old physics. it has to - the old physics works perfectly in normal conditions. and this is exactly what we see with special relativity (same results as newtonian physics at speeds much less than the speed of light), general relativity (same results as newtonian physics at energy densities much less that, say, a black hole), and quantum mechanics (same results as newtonian physics at scales much larger than an atom).

now "Connections" is largely a story of how the centre was built. it's a cool program. but the centre is now built. it's done. finished.

if you watched a really cool program that explained how we came to understand mathematics, would you argue that, because we finally came to understand that 2+2=4, in the future we will continue making new discoveries to show that 2+2=5? of course not. maths will continue to grow in sophistication, but for everyday use, it's already complete. same with physics.


that's history. i also mentioned the difference between physics and other sciences.

physics describes the basic facts about the world we live in. it's the broad sweep, not the fiddly details. when you get down to practicalities, things can be horribly complex. other sciences are, largely, the application of physics to complex systems.

it's not easy dealing with complex systems. you need to make approximations - decide what is important and what can safely be ignored. you need to find rules that apply "in general" and then see how far those rules can go. this kind of work - on complex systems - gives us chemistry, (modern) medicine, engineering, etc. all important fields that will continue to grow and develop.

BUT. these are all based on physics. physics sets the ground rules.

so we are in a situation, now, where there are many things we don't know how to do, in practice, with complex systems. but, at the same time, the ground rules, the "laws of nature" are pretty much fixed.

it's as if physics defines the edges of the map, and then the other sciences fill in the details.

so we already know that with "human scale" resources, travelling to another galaxy will require a voyage that must last millions of years. no amount of advances in chemistry, engineering or medicine can change that. we don't yet know how it will happen (maybe medicine will find a way to indefinitely suspend life, say), but we know the basic requirements.

enough about people's foolish ideas of space travel.

what i wanted to argue, finally, is that the sciences of the complex (chemistry, medicine, engineering, etc) don't need any particular special conditions to grow. you just need problems and money. and they tend to give general results. that's why putting a man on the moon really wasn't that hard - i don't mean to diminish the effort, but it simply applied the then-current technology to the problem at hand. and current space exploration (shuttle, space station) uses old technology.

so there's no need to push spaceflight to improve engineering - engineering will improve anyway, because it's hugely important in so many areas of our lives, and it has space to grow.


in case it's not obvious, i want to hammer home the conclusion: we gain little of practical use from astronomy or space exploration. astronomy is driven by a need to explore extreme conditions because that is where our knowledge of physics is weak. as i have explained several times above, the flip side of that is that the new physics will not be different from the old physics for "every-day" practicalities. but at least astronomy has a logical justification - those extreme conditions are only found "out there"

space exploration, in contrast, doesn't even have a decent reason for existing. there's nothing particularly special about most of the engineering required (or the medicine, or chemistry). and even if there were, today's space exploration isn't really pushing the boundaries anyway.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:01 AM on August 11, 2007

ps. i forgot to say: i still have no argument with the approach that astronomy deserves funding just as much as poetry. we should never forget to invest in out souls.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:03 AM on August 11, 2007

in normal conditions, the new physics will give the same answer as the old physics. it has to - the old physics works perfectly in normal conditions. and this is exactly what we see with special relativity (same results as newtonian physics at speeds much less than the speed of light), general relativity (same results as newtonian physics at energy densities much less that, say, a black hole), and quantum mechanics (same results as newtonian physics at scales much larger than an atom)

The general bent of your posts is that we don't really need the new physics for anything. Except, if we never bothered to make new physics the last time, we wouldn't have lasers. And without understanding and correcting for relativity, GPS would be off by kilometers within a day.

But lo, these are both things that happen at human scales with human energy levels and that affect human life.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:37 AM on August 11, 2007

not quite. i'm saying that it's diminishing returns. you can see that quite clearly - there has been quite a significant practical return from quantum mechanics, less from relativity and, for general relativity, you have the only example (which could have been worked round quite easily with an engineering fix).

on the other hand, none of those required the levels of investment that are put into astronomy and spaceflight.

i'm not saying that there should be no progress. but given finite resources we should intelligently choose where to invest. by far the biggest opportunity for gain is in the complex sciences, which, as i explained above, don't depend strongly on the "direction". so we could, for example, get similar wins by throwing money at health rather than spaceflight.

and, of course, there is still the argument based on beauty. i am not arguing that there shouldn't be "some" investment in astronomy or spaceflight. just like there should be "some" investment in poetry. my only disagreement is with "returns-based" arguments.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:56 AM on August 11, 2007

Well, hrm. I'll agree that space exploration is yielding minimal returns in terms of basic physics, and the hopes of finding another home for humanity is slim to none. But at least to my mind the real science advances from space exploration is that the solar system provides some extreme cases for geophysics and atmospheric science. I didn't think Galileo and Huygens really had much to do with basic physics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:59 AM on August 11, 2007

[last comment, i promise]

another way of seeing this, more directly, is to notice how the size/scale of "experiments" correlates with "results". quantum mechanics was motivated by, for example, the effects of placing radium salts on photographic paper. so it's not that surprising that there are products related to qm that affect everyday life. special relativity is what - atomic bombs and nuclear power? the "experiments" and "products" are pretty much equivalent. general relativity has little in the way of experiments except for astronomical observations (mercury's orbit, lensing, redshifts) and the application is satellites (orbits again). unified theory requires experiments so extreme we need to strain to see the earliest moments of the universe, yet people here think it will some how solve aids...

on preview: do we really need to go to another planet to find interesting problems that aren't related to basic physics? if it's not basic physics then, as i've said, it's "complex science" and there is plenty to explore/learn locally at lower cost.

and finally, to the original poster: being a fan of something doesn't mean you don't have to lie about it. the best thing i have ever done was learn physics. it has coloured my whole life-view. it would be a betrayal to not consider physics research itself with the same clear vision.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:12 AM on August 11, 2007

rats. ignore the "don't". so much for rhetoric (and promises).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:17 AM on August 11, 2007

Does anyone here use satellite tv/radio? If you say yes, then I think thats enough practical use for most people, don't you? I find the whole anti-space argument sort of silly. After all, many people believed Columbus would fall off the flat edges of Earth. Whoops.
posted by Jacen at 9:23 AM on August 11, 2007

andrew cooke: on preview: do we really need to go to another planet to find interesting problems that aren't related to basic physics? if it's not basic physics then, as i've said, it's "complex science" and there is plenty to explore/learn locally at lower cost.

Well certainly there is a universe of discovery that can be done with just a can of agar-agar, a few reusable petri dishes, and some basic reagents. So no, space-based research is not needed to do basic science. But space-based research IS useful to answer some specific questions about our planet, and its relationship to other planets. Orbital remote sensing networks for example were developed to fill in the gaps left by ground-based sensing networks. Satellites can measure something about every point on the Earth on a regular basis, including areas that are prohibitively expensive to send manned expeditions into such as the Arctic and Antarctic.

Data collected from lunar exploration was critical for developing theories about the early history and structure of the Earth. There is a big gap of planetary history that we can't get here on Earth because the evidence has been obliterated by plate tectonics, and evidence from the moon served to falsify some theories about how our planet developed.

And of course, there is a component of planetary physics that seeks to create theories that can be generalized beyond just the Earth. The fact that the Earth is the only planet among the rocky inners that appears to have plate tectonics has some implications for understanding plate tectonics. Is liquid water necessary? Possibly. But discovering that pate tectonics is (probably) unique to the Earth wouldn't have happened without mapping/imaging missions sent to Mars and Venus.

Jacen: After all, many people believed Columbus would fall off the flat edges of Earth. Whoops.

No one that mattered believed Columbus would fall off the flat edges of the Earth, because the round Earth theory had come to Europe independently from the Greek philosophers via Christian and Muslim sources. Many people did believe that Columbus had under-estimated the size of the Earth by a large degree, and that the Indies were well out the range of the ships he had available to him. It turns out that Columbus was wrong, and died in deep denial of the fact he was wrong.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:57 PM on August 11, 2007

"‘Cause it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next."

West Wing.
posted by nthdegx at 8:05 AM on August 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

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