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As We Say Goodbye to Neil Armstrong, Should We Also Let Go of Our Space Fantasies?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The death of astronaut Neil Armstrong arouses memories and mixed emotions.

In the summer of 1969, my family and I spent a month on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Our cottage lacked a television, so on the night of July 20 we walked to the house of a neighbor. I lay on the floor of the crowded living room, my head propped up on a pillow, and watched a flickering, black-and-white image of Armstrong stepping off the Eagle module and onto the Moon. I remember thinking, if not saying, Science fiction is coming true! Next stop Mars! Stars! Galaxies!

I was a sci-fi junkie then, addicted to books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, films like Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and of course the television series Star Trek, which Captain James T. Kirk introduced every week by intoning, “Space, the final frontier.” Space was the outward projection of our inner dream world, where we encountered alien realms and beings that embodied our deepest fears and most sublime aspirations.

In the early 1980′s, when I began my career as a science journalist, I still believed that space represented our destiny. I wrote an admiring article about Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton physicist who designed huge cylindrical spacecraft in which humans would dwell in geosynchronous orbit. I thrilled to the prediction of another visionary physicist, Freeman Dyson, that our bionically enhanced descendants would fan out through the cosmos colonizing other solar systems and galaxies.

Gradually, my space dreams faded. President Ronald Reagan’s plan to build a space-based defense against Russian nuclear missiles made me wonder whether our space program had always been mere Cold War saber-rattling. President John Kennedy had initiated the Apollo program, after all, in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

After the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986, NASA’s manned-flight programs seemed increasingly risky, expensive and pointless. Moreover, doing a story on astronomers’ search for planets beyond our solar system, I came across a dispiriting calculation: a spacecraft traveling one million miles per hour, 20 times faster than any current spacecraft, would take 3,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. Barring the invention of faster-than-light warp-drive transport, which the theory of special relativity seems to rule out, or of methods for overcoming senescence, humans will probably never leave the solar system, let alone the Milky Way.

Even before the recent recession, I began questioning the morality of taxpayer-funded manned-space programs. Early in his tenure Barack Obama paid lip service to the goals of returning to the moon and visiting Mars, but Obama didn’t give NASA nearly enough money to achieve these goals in the foreseeable future. Nor should he have. How can we justify costly missions in space when so many people here on earth lack adequate health care, housing, education and other necessities? Given all our terrestrial troubles, our infatuation with space seems more than ever like escapism.

And yet, I still love space-oriented sci-fi films, whether they are scary-grim, like Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien flicks, or cheesy-fun, like the Star Trek films. A couple of years ago I happily watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series (of which I’m reminded whenever I hear the word “fracking”). I’m thrilled by the success of the Mars rover Curiosity, and I wish entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk all the best as they try to create a private space-travel industry. Some day, maybe, my kids, or their kids, will get to walk on the Moon, like Neil Armstrong, or look down at Earth from an orbiting space hotel. Some dreams are worth holding on to, even if we’re not sure that they will—or should–come true.

Note: This post is adapted from an essay originally published in BBC Knowledge Magazine.

Image: Premier Inn.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science, 1996, re-published with new preface 2015; and The End of War, 2012, paperback published 2014. Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sugmullun 11:41 am 08/26/2012

    Seems a pretty simplistic thought-train.

    You had been writing science articles for years before understanding how difficult it would be to go to the stars?

    Doesn’t occur to you that with all this militarist reason for spending money on space, America’s military industrial complex for some reason didn’t put a single weapon operational weapon in orbit…why?
    Because political motives are rarely the same as public motives and, so far, it’s still the public’s will which determines what what we do. The great accomplishments of America, in space, weren’t enabled by militant thought, but by dreamers.
    What’s the connection that shows that investing in the future is the same as starving the poor? Myself, I fail to see the connection, unless you also believe that spending public money on anything that doesn’t serve the purpose of buying the votes of the least productive sectors of society is a crime.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 12:05 pm 08/26/2012

    In the summer of 1969 I was a boy in Europe living about 25 miles fron Soviet troops along our border…many of your fellow Americans were in Vietman..others in much of the world had never seen a television and others were starving in Biafra.

    Today the thought of ‘MAD’ is over, there are call centers in India , and young people in Biafra have cell phones…..

    REAL science has happened big time. There never was much actual science in most of those science fiction books or space movies. Few people, even today, understand ‘space’ science as opposed to some fictional fantasy of cowboys in space.

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  3. 3. starmanjones 12:52 pm 08/26/2012

    If you truly understood the writings and motivation of Gerard O’Neill then you would understand he provided the first comprehensive path to solve human problems on Earth. Make everyone affluent.

    More than that… it was an engineering plan to solve our problems… not the same tired old lock step social engineering that has been tried and failed over and over. We don’t get along well but we are awesome engineers.

    In 200 years we will have gone from subsistence to stepping on Mars. Someone in the next 20 years will do it if it kills them. We have built machines to dismantle the fabric of space. We are looking back to the beginning of time.

    Following his lead I could, on my laptop, produce a plan and a schedule I could hand to anyone in the third world telling them the date which they could feed their children. That date may slip but it is never the less a schedule… a promise that can be kept.

    With that in mind your loss of faith belongs to something else… its not reality. Reality is the time is now. We sink or swim as a species in the 100 years if an extinction event doesn’t get us tomorrow or the next day.

    I would like you to look at the folks participating in the Google Lunar Xprize. Ten years ago they were amateur rocket clubs. Now they are working hard to land rovers on the Moon by 2015. Those people are following the dream O’Neill instilled in many of us.

    I predict somewhere around 2022 you’re going to see a one way mission to the Moon by one or more of these former rocket clubs landing colonial astronauts on the Moon to seal up a lava tube and bring O’Neill’s vision into being.

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  4. 4. Percival 1:07 pm 08/26/2012

    John, you wrote:

    “…I… question… the morality of taxpayer-funded manned-space programs… How can we justify costly missions in space when so many people here on earth lack adequate health care, housing, education and other necessities?”

    I question the depth and breadth of your reasoning, which I’ve heard since long before Armstrong et. al. walked on the Moon. Despite decades of political parties’ trumpeting their “wars” on poverty, homelessness, and so on, these problems still exist.

    You single out “expensive space missions” as the critical drain on the Federal budget preventing us from solving our social problems.

    You also decry the military component of the space program, but ignore the enormous military budget itself.

    Consider that as always, despite modernization efforts our military is designed to fight the last couple of wars, and is much larger than is actually necessary in today’s world.

    No, I’m not one of those “if we’d only stop annoying foreigners we’d have World Peace” idiots. It’s an imperfect world and just as individuals must have ready defenses against attackers, so must nations, but I’m a fan of Sun Tzu, not Clausewitz. The best way to win a war is not overwhelming force, but convincing would-be attackers that the game isn’t worth the candle.

    Got a problem with “fantasies”? Try the fantasy that we really need a twentieth century military in the twenty first century. We spend an obscene proportion of our gross domestic product funding an antiquated military that isn’t designed or equipped for today’s threats.

    Free up that budget and there won’t be anyone whining that “ObamaCare” is Socialism.

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  5. 5. sethdiyal 1:39 pm 08/26/2012

    You have the same name as a prominent British Columbia politician. Hopefully he’s nowhere near as dumb.

    ” How can we justify costly missions in space when so many people here on earth lack adequate health care, housing, education and other necessities”

    How indeed, when we seem to have lotsa money to spend on really useful things to the country, like new cars, homes, renos, family pets, new clothes, cottages, Big screen TeeVees, videos, movies, restaurant meals, and Caribbean vacations, defense against what? and of course prisons for drug users.

    Since the Fascist takeover of our media and government with Reagan’s coup d’etat, virtually no part of the economy invests more than a pittance long term in things like basic research, space programs, nuclear energy – stuff that promises enormous payoffs in the near future.

    In tune with our corporate leaders – nearly all attorneys – whose planning never sees past the next quarterly bonus, there is no sense wasting money on road, bridge, power, police, fire, hospital, health care, transit, telecommunications or education infrastructures.

    Even though the levelized cost of nuclear power is less than gas by a long shot for public power and about the same for private, today’s utility executive would likely to be fired for proposing a nuke. The corporate fascist doesn’t want capital and his bonuses tied up for 5 to 7 years before a nuke produces in our Big Oil dictated regulatory scam, while a gas plant killing hundreds of folks annually with air pollution and potentially millions from GHG’s can be up and running in less than 2 years at a quarter the upfront cost.

    So we are left with a few rich visionaries like Gates, Allen, Musk, Schmidt, Branson, and Cameron that are willing to take a 10 to 30 year long views – maybe more for fun – at a future for mankind. Fortunately they are competing with China, a country run by visionary engineers rather than our corrupt attorneys, that see investment in the future as a necessity, not a rich man’s play toy.

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  6. 6. Bob_CA 2:43 pm 08/26/2012

    I think some of the criticisms of this writer’s opinion is a little harsh. I don’t think he’s decrying ALL space missions, but is questioning the cost/benefit ratio of the manned program in particular and he has a point. The world collectively spent some $100 billion on the ISS, and while it was a fantastic engineering exercise and is an amazing facility, it has not produced the stream of science that its supporters promised. OTOH, when I personally compare the expenditures on the ISS with those of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I have no trouble deciding which ones were the more wasteful. In comparison, the ISS seems cheap, but the country was ready to fight those wars because they bought into the claims made at the time.

    My point here is that it’s right to question assumptions. Many who support the manned space program also complain about massive spending and deficits, and brush off efforts to help people as “buying the votes of the least productive sectors of society.” Yet I wonder if those people have ever watched the child of a poor person die from some preventable disease? Perhaps the family seems unproductive at present, but have the critics ever considered that some of mankind’s great accomplishments were created by individuals born into poverty? How many great achievers died before they had a chance to be productive?

    How to prioritize government spending is not an easy question, and trying to force easy answers on it is not useful. Horgan raises valid issues, and they deserve thoughtful consideration.

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  7. 7. Polednice 6:01 pm 08/26/2012

    It’s always depressing when the argument about money is used against space exploration. If you’d rather prioritise the alleviation of human suffering, then why don’t you combat the obscene amount of money spent on the military? NASA’s budget is pitiful in comparison.

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  8. 8. feralBoy 6:09 pm 08/26/2012

    @Bob_CA. Thanks for that. I think that the author makes some important points about where we put our collective energy/ideas/resources. And in the end, he isn’t writing off the idea of space travel in the future, just suggesting that we prioritize other things in the meantime and keep the dialogue about it open.

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  9. 9. ijdavis 6:20 pm 08/26/2012

    Almost everyone misunderstands relativity. There is no limit to the speed that a space craft can go at. If it travels fast enough it can from the perspective of those aboard reach Alpha Centuri in mere hours according to the travellers watches. The real limitations are current means of achieving such near light speed velocities, external radiation experienced when travelling at such a speed [every atom in the universe would be hitting you at near light speed], and the ability to tell anyone living about arriving at Alpha Centuri a few hours hence.

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  10. 10. bamw21 6:51 pm 08/26/2012

    I wonder if any of you who responded were children or young adults when the idea of going to the moon was first expressed by Pres. Kennedy.
    I was a brand new teacher of 8 + 9th grade kids not too long after the start of the space program.
    When the first few trials at flight occurred the kids were talking about them on the playground. Yep, kids actually went outdoors during school in those days. We held long discussion in class about what this men needed to know to become astronauts.
    It was easy to get them to study math and science then because now they wanted to grow up to be scientist or engineers to invent things that astronauts would use. So they studied all those subjects that kids normally shun.
    Compare this to what the children of similar age are thinking about now. The Hunger Games– where kids kill each other and it’s good.
    Why? Because they no longer have any heroes.
    No more the comment ‘when I grow up I’m going to be just like —.
    They have no one to emulate and no goal for a better life.
    Yep they can go to college and then join everyone else in the humdrum life of listening to some guy on tv telling them that things are going into the dumper.
    Look at the ranking of America’s schools today. We now are at these levels. We now rank 14th out of 34 in reading, 25 out of 34 in math and 17th out of 34 science.
    We are developing students that can’t keep up with the rest of the developed world.
    If you ask the children what they want to do when they’re adults the answer is almost always, ” I just want to be rich and maybe famous”.
    When asked how they want to be famous they often say ‘like an actor or something’.
    No one ever says I want to be famous for inventing something or flying to Mars or even the moon.
    Where are their heroes?? I’m afraid we haven’t given them any.
    We seem to have lost the ability to believe that we can do great things.
    Can we be great again?

    I hope so.

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  11. 11. geojellyroll 7:03 pm 08/26/2012

    BobCA…excellent perspective.

    Re militaty expenditure. Yes, I think the USA spende too much on the military but military spending should be what it needs to be whether it is 1% or 99% of a western country’s total budget….the people elect leaders who to make that decision based on the security needs of the country.. Should the US be involved in Iraq? Afghanistan? Water under the bridge.

    Perspective. The cost of one manned Shuttle mission averaged out to more than the total cost of all three non-manned missions that were chosen from last week. Personally I would have preferred the announced Mars probe AND a splash down on Titan AND a landing on an asteroid with change left over than the final Shuttle mission.

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  12. 12. Roto2 7:31 pm 08/26/2012

    Neil Armstrong was a one-of-a-kind that succeeded in being the first human on an object within the universe that is not Earth! For that he will be always remembered. However, the public and many enthusiasts have been deluded to think that space is a reasonable, economical, and necessary objective for settlement by humankind in short order. It may yet be over the MUCH longer term, but certainly not in the short term. Robocraft yes, human craft no for the foreseeable future!

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  13. 13. danblake 9:34 pm 08/26/2012

    The sound reasoning behind prioritizing exploration is the same as it always has been, to perpetuate our species and/or improve our quality of life (not my idea). There are secondary benefits as well, IE, miniturzation, comunication, advanced materials, etc. IMO, a strong military is one of the necessities of exploration.

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  14. 14. dwbd 10:33 pm 08/26/2012

    The real goal should be to Terraform Mars. The ISS was an Bill “I hate tech” Clinton International “polico-cooperation boondoggle”. We could have men on Mars now for the cost of that fiasco. Elon Musk will put people on Mars for a good deal less than the ISS cost. And Nuclear spacecraft (Clinton & Obama don’t like Nuclear) can make it to Mars in 39 days.

    There is not and never has been a more important endeavor of our civilization than the exploration and development of Mars, ultimately to terraform Mars. Nothing we have ever done compares to that in magnitude. And that would be the most eco-friendly act ever undertaken by the human species. By far-and-away the most important impact humans have ever had on terrestrial life or biota. Compared to that, global warming & climate change are a minor triviality, a minor blip in the evolution of terrestrial life.

    The Terraforming of Mars is something well within our present technological capability. The greatest and most Responsible Endeavor Human Civilization can undertake is to carry Terrestrial Life to other planets & moons in this Solar System. The #1 goal of Life is to expand to new environments. In order for Life on Earth to expand it needs the help of humans, who can Terraform other planets to make them suitable for Terrestrial life. If you look at Mother Earth as a Living Organism, often called Gaia, then one can consider that the SOLE PURPOSE of humans is to take the PROGENY OF GAIA to other worlds. Thus Humans are the agents of reproduction for GIA. A truly NOBLE goal, to bond all people of Earth together in a singular quest. Humans may come & go, but we could create a wonderful legacy that would last BILLIONS OF YEARS. An achievement that would be the greatest event in the history of Terrestrial life since the Precambrian explosion.

    Mars is actually an easy planet to Terraform, and can be done in a trivial one hundred years. Expanding Terrestrial Eco-systems to another World, makes up for all the damage humans have done to the Earth by a billion-fold. We have abandoned our duty to Mother Earth by our failure to embrace Space Colonization. The most environmentally responsible action the human species have undertaken, ever. Indeed our failure to embrace our ability to achieve this goal is the greatest act of environmental destruction in human history.

    Robert Zubrin shows how we can Terraform Mars in a few decades:

    “…In a matter of several decades, using such an approach Mars could be transformed from its current dry and frozen state into a warm and slightly moist planet capable of supporting life. Humans could not breath the air of the thus transformed Mars, but they would no longer require space suits and instead could travel freely in the open wearing ordinary clothes and a simple SCUBA type breathing gear. However because the outside atmospheric pressure will have been raised to human tolerable levels, it will be possible to have large habitable areas for humans ..simple hardy plants could thrive in the CO2 rich outside environment, and spread rapidly across the planets surface. In the course of centuries, these plants would introduce oxygen into Mars’s atmosphere in increasingly breathable quantities..”

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  15. 15. LeeMc 4:13 am 08/27/2012

    As a second grader in 1953 I thumbed the New International Encyclopedia looking at pictures of steam locomotives and Mr. Armstrong was probably graduating from pilot school and rockets reaching Earth escape velocity were being built.

    We can look at the intervening years as the time when many different space rockets, vehicles, methodologies and mission purposes have been reduced to practice.

    What hasn’t changed as of the date of Mr. Armstrong’s passing is the proliferation of small player mid-level political military economic conflicts.

    The economics of space travel are rather stiff due to the opposing force of Earth’s gravity.

    But the economics of the small player political-military conflicts is equally or even worse. Even thousand year old religious texts are being used as frameworks for conflict.

    The wars drag on and on and new wars start up with every plane load of guns that lands in Africa. There is no science or system for defusing cultural, religious or ethnic conflicts.

    The big value system conflict between capitalism and communism was escaped from by a series of cultural and intellectual accommodations that is still not well understood. The Shanghai accords, cultural exchanges of Russian ballet and classical music, American jazz and Western pop music are simply clues to how a world annihilation conflict was scaled down.

    It all makes space travel look like a bright wonderful world where all you need is enough rocket fuel and rockets.

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  16. 16. nonreturn 4:22 am 08/27/2012

    Two totally different topics. Armstrong was a pilot who was used for an experiment on how survivable the vacuum of space would be. On the other hand…Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination would have us skipping through the universe as if we were children who took their first trip to the zoo. But incredible pressures, gravity so powerful it swallows light, heated poisonous gases that would fry you and your spacecraft in a nano. There is nothing out there folks but God. Stop looking. However this physics of neutrinos and God Particle’s would lead people to believe it is just the curiosity of the scientist that we follow these dreams and unproven science. It’s not. It is the age old greed for power. Energy so great it creates and destroys galaxies. It is their mission to try to harness this supernatural force for our own energy source. Ridiculous.

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  17. 17. Errick5678 4:33 am 08/27/2012

    We can have cheap manned space travel when we embrace nuclear pulse propulsion. Heck we can have single stage Earth to Mars and back for $1/kg (see Project Orion)! Chemical energy is obsolete as a means of power generation and irrelevant as a means of space propulsion. If nuclear pulse propulsion is too high for your skin then nuclear thermal is the only other option. You either go nuclear or stay home. We choose not to go nuclear so we are going to stay put right here on planet Earth.

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  18. 18. dwbd 2:03 pm 08/27/2012

    noreturn, ease up on the caffeine, lets just see if we can utilize the incredible potential of our solar system for colonization – Mars & the Moon, mining asteroids, vacuum manufacturing, geoengineering, energy, tourism, some of which is already underway. No military giant conspiracy to get “supernatural force”, who needs that? Plenty of energy in already practical Fusion and Fission.

    Errick Fission Fragment is looking like the best means of space based propulsion:

    Of course you won’t see ANY articles in SCIAM on that, since it uses “the N-word”. They don’t publish on that unless it is about Fukushima.

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  19. 19. TheAnalyst 3:36 am 08/28/2012

    For those somehow against the Military, you should note where a vast majority of our Mercury, Gemini and Apollo heroes came from. Without the U.S. Military, including a Veteran President, we would’ve never had a NASA (Not to mention a WWII Combat Veteran President who pushed us towards the Moon!). The U.S. Military has the best training program in the world which directly translates into space flight, and it along with NASA are by-in-large the two greatest investments ever funded by tax paying Americans. I also noticed a cheap shot at President Reagan regarding the funding of scientific endeavors, well, you couldn’t be more off-base, as he greatly believed in science, and he in fact attempted to secure a major project within the United States involving the construction and operation of a collider which if it had been funded by Congress would’ve dwarfed CERN. Now, in terms of so-called terrestrial and domestic issues, we will always have such things! If you cannot look past these problems and multitask, though, then I more greatly fear for our future than previously concerned me. When we landed on the Moon before we were in the midst of Vietnam and massive social upheaval (Our President and a great civil rights leader were also assassinated), we faced the sudden emergence of global terrorism, and an oil crisis. Yet, somehow, we pulled it off!!! In all honestly as well, anyone who doesn’t understand ambition, exploration, and greater purposes need only to stand out of the way, as anyone who lacks such vision is truly offering nothing in terms of the betterment of all Mankind. Let’s do this people, let us push forth as we once did, and allow for nothing to restrain us from formulating our own destiny as we progress forth, for now and ever more! Godspeed.

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  20. 20. rara25 9:53 am 08/28/2012

    What the writer said makes some sense to me. Yes the world is full of hungry people and they are dying day by day and we might lost brilliant minds along the way. However, space science is indeed a great thing and will someday solve our problems.

    Bottom line, it’s all about spending wisely. And military spending should absolutely be reduced.

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  21. 21. Diesel67 10:25 pm 08/28/2012

    Man is innately curious about his surroundings and willing to accept challenges. We inherited these traits from our primate ancestors. Let’s keep Neil Armstrong’s legacy alive and continue to reach for the stars and soar with the eagles rather than peck at the ground with the chickens.

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  22. 22. HubertB 11:13 am 08/29/2012

    For centuries the governments of England and France discussed a tunnel, and kept deciding it was too expensive. Finally they decided to allow private enterprise to build it. Private enterprise build the Chunnel.

    Government scientists will soon have learned most of what they can probably learn from space vehicles. Congress must decide where it can best spend its money. Still, private enterprise should have the right to decide if it can make a profit in space vehicles. If some multibillionaire will pay a billion dollars to visit the moon, why should not some company be permitted to provide that service? Why could that not be just as legal as carrying him or her from New York to Moscow?

    Others with better ideas may come up with better uses other than communication satellites. Still, servicing communication satellites might prove more cost effective than the current system of replacement.

    Private enterprise should have a chance.

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  23. 23. JohnKemp 12:33 pm 08/29/2012

    When I read John Horgan’s article, my first reaction was to respond with a bee in my bonnet – and say something about terraforming. I’m 100% – no 1000% if that’s possible – AGAINST it. But I see dwbd – Comment No 14 – got in first – on the wrong side of the argument!

    Physicists and engineers fall into two camps. There are many who have read – to coin a phrase – “liberal studies in biology” and who have as good a ‘feel’ for the subject as anyone. These people make a valuable contribution to the discussions, debate, and research on issues such as climate change, and its biological consequences, bringing a new perspective, and, since they are often more deeply numerate than many biologists, can make a valuable contribution to data analysis and quantitative predictions.

    There are other physicists and engineers who have a total lack of feeling for or comprehension of the nature of a biosphere – or at least of the only one any of us knows anything about – our Earthly home. These are the people who propose terraforming as the answer to humankind’s serious problems. Hell, we can’t even look after our own planet properly, who on earth would seriously think that we know enough to turn Mars into additional lebensraum? And it worries me that NASA sees fit to even fund such studies as that by Zubrin and McKay . Yes, I’ve read it – and other similar articles – someone else I seem to remember was suggesting manufacturing (on Mars) sulfur hexafluoride – the most powerful and chemically stable greenhouse gas to do the same job as CFCs.

    The stability of our biosphere depends on our massive oceans and – to the best of our knowledge – there isn’t nearly enough water on Mars to maintain a stable biosphere. To make a significant dent in our terrestrial overpopulation problem, you would have to send BILLIONS of people to live on Mars, having first created your biosphere. It doesn’t make engineering or economic sense. It really really worries me that intelligent people can think the way the terraformers do. Actually, these people demonstrate a total disconnect between intelligence on the one hand, and common sense, wisdom, and judgement on the other.

    Thatsaid, I agree with John Horgan’s little article up to the last paragraph – where he seems to be wanting to have it both ways. I personally believe we should be spending some of humankind’s wealth on space travel, but certainly no more than we do at present, and that for the foreseeable future, these should be unmanned. We should abandon further manned flights – and white elephants like the ISS. Manned space travel is very very poor value for money for now. WHEN we have achieved all we can with robotic exploration, then maybe we can re-visit the question of manned space exploration again. I think that the only question worthy of manned space exploration, and indeed the only one that, in the end MIGHT just need it to answer it, is whether there is or has been life on any of the best (I nearly said likely – but that’s too optimistic a word) candidates – Mars and some of the moons of the giant planets. I actually think that we will be able to answer this question robotically, and that if the answer is positive, THAT’S when we’ll want to send men there to have good look!

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  24. 24. Daniel35 4:51 pm 08/29/2012

    Instead of thinking of our limitations, such as speed, think of how long it would take to get to another star at one gravity of continuous accelertion (or halfway and decelerate), and what it would take to maintain something like that. Perhaps solar sails plus nukes? There’s also the option of experincing distant places by communictiong with those who live there. Think of the future of your race rather than as an individual. Consider also what our ancient ancestors thought to be possible.

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  25. 25. dwbd 9:17 pm 08/29/2012

    JohnKemp claims:”.. nature of a biosphere .. propose terraforming as the answer to humankind’s serious problems..”

    An absurd statement. I don’t know ANYONE who believes in your fabricated statement. Terraforming is not “the answer” to our serious problems. Why don’t you take the trouble to read what I said?

    Terraforming is about replicating the biosphere of the Earth on another World, reproduction, advancement of that INCREDIBLE thing, complex living ecosystems on long dead, polluted, toxic World’s – turning a dead, dull, bone dry World, devoid of Life into a BEAUTIFUL, Wonderful, SPECTACULAR Eco-system. You would have to be a blithering idiot to not see that as the greatest achievement of humans, EVER! So many world’s in this Galaxy, 100′s of billions, but we know of only one with the wonderful, beauty of LIFE. And we could make that one out of hundred’s of billions – two. How impressive is that? JK would rather we build more Pizza joints and drill lots of Oil wells and insist on making the obscenely rich even richer.

    I don’t know anyone wanting to send BILLIONS of people to Mars, like your own make-believe and nonsensical notion is. I suppose some hundreds of years in the future it would be possible, but seems rather a dubious and pointless enterprise. But we COULD create a NEW & INDEPENDENT human civilization which just might be a whole lot better than ours. Maybe they would emphasize cooperation, and working for the betterment of the World rather than our Earth World leaders who are obsessed with “what can we do to make the rich even richer”. And if Earth civilization collapsed, disease, war, natural cataclysm, asteroid collision, who knows, Human and Terrestrial life could continue on Mars and perhaps even return and build a better Earth, from the ashes. A point that Stephen Hawkins has repeatedly emphasized. But he doesn’t know anything – you know better.

    JK claims: “..there isn’t nearly enough water on Mars to maintain a stable biosphere..”

    Wrong. There is huge amounts of water in the Ice caps and under the soil, ample to make many large oceans, less than on Earth but certainly more than enough.

    JK claims: “..we can’t even look after our own planet properly..”

    An irrelevant statement. Humans could protect the Earth from an asteroid or comet collision like the one that decimated North America 10,000 years ago. Space Industrialization/Colonization would give us that ability.

    By Terraforming a new World we would be CREATING LIFE, I know you are a LIFE HATER, who would like the Earth to return to the “pristine” barren land it was before life created what sensible, and FEELING humans consider the Wonderful bounty of a LIVING WORLD. You hate that.

    JK claims:”..for the foreseeable future, these should be unmanned..”

    Nonsense. Already there are several projects underway for space tourism. And China & Russia are both planning Moon colonies. And a major planned for Asteroid mining is underway. Humans in space will be essential for the industrialization of Space. But instead JK wants us to Rip Open vast stretches of the magnificent Tropical Rainforest with Giant Open Pit mines and massive Hydro Dams so we get increasing low grade minerals on the Earth. That’s JK’s plan. So much for his “not looking after our planet”. JK IS Mr. Earth destruction. I bet he doesn’t even have the remotest idea how to improve the Earth’s environment. Unlike JK, I want to and often comment on how we CAN improve both the ecosystem of the Earth and expand that wonderful ecosystem to other world’s. Jk, on the other hand, would prefer we spend 10′s of $trillions fighting Oil wars.

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  26. 26. sfosberg 4:53 am 09/5/2012

    Interstellar travel requires development of artificial intelligence. We can not expect that each and every probe to go to the stars will be manned, and sending out probes who are not intelligent and without ability to communicate with Earth instantly but with delays of years – is not viable.

    So artificial intelligence is a condition for space travel outside the Solar system. Without it is will be meaningless. However, should it happen that artificial intelligence becomes a reality, the role of humans are probably over. We can participate in the space travel as genetic codes – together with all the other species of the biosphere – and humankind may be reestablished elsewhere in the galaxy if the new masters think it interesting and conditions suitable, but we will not ride spaceships to the stars in the physical shape we have now and the task of colonizing space will be left to the new masters by application of self replicating, intelligent space ships (van Neumann machines), working in total independence of its origin (Earth).

    Such machines can operate without having to sustain biological life over very long time spans and can therefore travel slow, solving the propulsion energy issue which would be critical if the spaceship was to be transporting humans. A few million years and they will be all over the galaxy, transforming it to sustain replication and development of still higher and higher intelligence.

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  27. 27. engineer238 11:23 pm 12/6/2012

    sethdiyal you wrote

    “Since the Fascist takeover of our media and government with Reagan’s coup d’etat, virtually no part of the economy invests more than a pittance long term in things like basic research, space programs, nuclear energy – stuff that promises enormous payoffs in the near future.

    Even though the levelized cost of nuclear power is less than gas by a long shot for public power and about the same for private, today’s utility executive would likely to be fired for proposing a nuke. The corporate fascist doesn’t want capital and his bonuses tied up for 5 to 7 years before a nuke produces in our Big Oil dictated regulatory scam, while a gas plant killing hundreds of folks annually with air pollution and potentially millions from GHG’s can be up and running in less than 2 years at a quarter the upfront cost.”

    Coming from the nuclear industry I can tell you that these statements have little to any truth to them. Yes nuclear fuel is cheaper but the capital cost of building new plants is enormous, nearly $4billion. These tremendous cost come in significant part from regulatory costs. Nuclear energy vendors make money not from building new plants but from the fuel. In face vendors may take a loss in selling a new plant to a utility. The electric utilities obviously make money from selling us electricity. Nearly all electricity sources are subsidized including nuclear so there is not necessarily a preferential treatment towards fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are preferred by many utilities for economic reasons. A new plant must make sense for the local power demand. It does not make a lot of sense for instance to build nuclear plants in most places in the mid-west because the demand for electricity is not high enough. Current generation nuclear plants produce electricity appropriate for large base load demand, meaning highly populated and highly industrialized areas. Nuclear plants also require more capital than nuclear vendors have so they must secure massive loans to build the plants. This entails a huge risk both from a regulatory stand point and economic stand-point. For instance look at Watts Bar unit 2 on which construction was halted in 1988 and has yet to be completed. In order to hedge the risk the Federal government guaranteed loans when the nuclear power plants were constructed. Utilities and vendors need to make a profit and this is a good thing that they are driven by these goal. Now I am an advocate for nuclear power but the story is not as simple as you would put it and certainly has nothing to do with so called fascists. The lack of new nuclear builds is related to regulatory needs and the economics.

    As far as corporate research goes, your idea that they do not invest in fundamental research is incorrect. You must keep in mind that industry and academia have different purposes for research, both of which are important. Industry research is driven by producing new products or improving old ones so that we may consume them and live the highly technology lives we love. Academia is driven on a more pure science basis or in support of regulatory work. Some new technologies arise from academia but most come from corporate research. A great example of fundamental research is IBM. Over the years IBM has invested millions of dollars in fundamental physics related to their interests, including work in ion implantation technology to create better semi-conductors. In fact an IBM employee created the first semi-conductor the design of which is now reflected in the symbol for semi-conductors in electric circuit diagrams. Other companies including Cree invest in fundamental research into solid state physics. Companies target the fundamental research they invest in to areas where they may profit. If companies researched like academia we would nearly never get new technologies and corporate research would not be profitable. This is because in academia a significant portion of research performed has no practical value past prestige. For instance as much as we all love particle physics or string theory, they themselves have little to no value to any technologies we may build in the foreseeable future. This does not mean we should not invest in these sciences but it does mean that corporations should not invest in this research. Corporate research is funded by the profits brought in by products if the success rate of research decreases then a corporation must either cut research expenditures or increase the cost of their products. If the company cuts research then they risk having becoming irrelevant to the market as their competitors invent better technology based on new science. If the company raises costs they again risk being under-priced by a competitor, and maybe eventually be run out of business. So you can see that corporations have to intelligent with their research money and target it towards things that make them money. It misses the point to call this type of funding fascist because at the end of the day it is what has allowed us to live the type of consumer life-style we all enjoy. If the internet we know today is a result of corporate research into computer science, and the computers we use are a result of corporate research into how to make more efficient and smaller processors. If you play video games the high quality graphics card you probably use has been impacted and shaped by corporate research. At the end of the day we benefit from both corporate and academic research but in different ways.

    The space industry is going to become commercial. Now while this may not fit our idealistic classic science fiction view of space travel it is in many way better than we originally imagined. Corporations will allow us all to one day be able to travel into space, orbit, or even one day the moon. We will have to pay for the service but that’s okay cause it means we actually get to go. If the government tried to run it only a select few people could go because the cost to allow anyone to go to space on tax payer money would be astronomical. NASA does good work but is not well suited to run a commercial-type space transport system. They may have a role to play in managing that system across all the companies, but this role will not be new to industry. The DOE for instance does not build reactors and sell electricity to the public, it would cost too much and the money would have to come out of taxes. The DOE, however, does help support reactor technology including new reactor concepts, detectors, or even better understanding of how materials behave in a radiation environment. Because the DOE is not motivated by profits they would not be able to offer electricity at a rate competitive with private industry. The same holds true for NASA. NASA should take up a role as a national lab in support of the private space industry. The space industry should then focus on providing the best products and services for our money. Each component is essential but has a different role to play. It is okay that the private industry will at first cater to the rich because this is just the normal cycle of technology, from the car to the computer to even the cell phone. Technologies must start off as expensive so that companies can recoup the cost invested to create them while hedging the high risk associated with any new enterprise.

    In summary, the attitude you have towards privatization needs to be more objective. It is easy to criticize without having the proper understanding or research but does not assist the discussion toward the development of new technologies. These types of attitudes lead to overly burdensome regulatory requirements that cost money but do not increase safety. These types of requirements have been leading to a slow or stagnation in innovation in nearly all regulated industry. Before you enter into a discussion on the impact of mechanisms for achieving new technology make sure you actually know what you are talking about. Do research. Ask questions. And most importantly do not be so overtly hostile to a particular group. Your post, I’m sorry to say has little value to enriching the conversation. It instead in detracts from it by providing mis-information based on lack of understanding of the processes involved in emerging technologies, the free market, and the energy industry. This may not be your fault as much of this information has been proliferated by media outlets and online sources. My recommendation would be to find better sources and do not be afraid to objectively read articles or get news from sources with which you do not necessarily agree. For instance get news from both Fox News and CNN. You should also fact check all sources from which you obtain information. I know this takes time and is difficult but almost nothing worth doing is ever easy or timely.

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  28. 28. KatherineLeFay 11:41 am 12/14/2012

    A wonderful and very interesting, well-written article.

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