Debating Space

Should there be more publicly funded space exploration? Noa Ovadia recently argued that money should be spent on more pressing needs than space travel. An expert from IBM smacked that argument down pretty convincingly:

It is very easy to say that there are more important things to spend money on, and I do not dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list. But that is beside the point. As subsidizing space exploration would clearly benefit society, I maintain that this is something the government should pursue.

Oh, did I mention the expert was Dr. Watson?


The NYT article quotes Watson as saying:

“Another point that I believe my opponent made is that there are more important things than space exploration to spend money on,” the machine said during its lengthy rebuttal. “It is very easy to say there are more important things to spend money on, and I dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list.”

Which makes considerably less sense and is nearly unparsable.

Yeah. The opportunity cost argument was always underappreciated. Perhaps because while there is some agreement that space is good, opportunity costs is a whole can of worms. Does it mean increased welfare transfers, or does it mean more AI research?

BTW, I hold a little grudge against "exploration" being a meaningful term. To a large extent we know what's out there, within the range of human travel. Going to Mars, or even a human Saturn fly-by, is largely a tourist expedition to places we have explored, with robotics.

We've barely scratched the surface on Mars. We can't even land a lander close enough to anything that isn't a flat plain to get any useful research out of it.

That's the kind of "claim" that requires us all to think a total unknown is "useful" because we hope so.

To put it in economic terms, which we should on a Marginal Revolution blog, there has never been a glimmer of a prospect for private profit in space.

That should tell us that it is solidly a net cost to society.

The bets places to send robots are total unknowns. It's pretty much a guarentee that you will learn something you didn't know before. We keep sending robots to flood plains because that's the only place we can land them safely. If at all. Our lander tech sucks.

I should be clear. Never a glimmer for manned space projects. Satellites are grand.

Space colonization is a long-term project which will of course be robotic in the early stages. We've got a long way to go before actual human colonies are going to be viable. A research outpost dedicated to developing human habitation technology will eventually be a good step to take, but there's no point sending people until we've figured out how to keep them alive for more than a couple of years.

I agree with that. I think there is much research to do on earth with sealed environments, full recycling, microbiome maintenance, etc.

The things I don't like are very foolish ideas like going to Mars in the next 10 years "because it must accomplish something."

Right. I think we need to take it seriously, and if we take it seriously, we have a lot of work to do. Which means we should start spending money now on earth based R&D and robotic exploration. Any human colonists who went to mars in the next 10 years wouldn't come back. They would be dead in a few months if not weeks.

"They would be dead in a few months if not weeks."

Mars isn't that inhospitable. It's not economical, but I'm confident the US could have a permanent base on Mars for $100 billion per year. That's 5% of the Federal budget.

I'm not recommending it. But it's not impossible, just very costly.

I approve of your faith in the cause.

Faith? You read the expensive part right? I would expect to be highly compensated.

"Only" 5% of the Federal budget? That 5% would be much better dedicated to reducing the ongoing deficits, and 21 Trillion dollar debt. Send some robots, and have them report back regularly. They're cheaper, even if not so "heroic".

He didn't claim that it was a good way to spend money. He just claimed that it was possible at that price point.

I for one am pretty confused. It wouild cost (per these numbers) 5% of the Federal budget, and at the end of it be just as much of a money hole as when it started. That is, $100 billion per year going forward. Worse if you want a bigger project with more people there.

No, "I'm not recommending it" either.

I am sick and tired of seeing public money being wasted on Buck Rogers stunts. Earth money should be spent on Earth things for Earth people. If it were up to me, all state space programs, except those critical for national security, would be dismantled. We have real problems to solve here on Earth. Let puerile billionaries play Captain Kirk.

"IBM’s machine argues, pretty convincingly, with humans."
But can it love?

Of course you would have opposed financing Christopher Columbus.

You mean that we will send rockets to the Middle East to get oil and will land on Mars and call the inhabitants Arabs??

Yeah, leave the "Indians" alone.

Unless they have spices. The spice must flow.

I'm the opposite. Hang your Medicare and build me a rocket that moves a significant fraction of the speed of light.

You mean sacrificing old people for toys. Imaginary toys!!

Tools, not toys. And the point is to make them unimaginary. If you will it, it is no dream, as Walter Sobchak reminded us.

If we funnel 100% of NASA's funding into welfare programs, how much will our welfare spending increase? Last time I saw it, it was negligible.

Secondly, space exploration DOES solve Earth problems. Communications, navigation, mineral exploration, environmental remediation--these all rely on space-based platforms. The idea that NASA is just "Buck Rodgers stunts" is simply ignorant. As for those activities which ARE "Buck Rodgers stunts"? They're improving our understanding of life itself, of how the cosmos work, and how to develop technology that can solve real-world problems. I would give two limbs and an eye to have the technology on the Mars Rover available to me during field work--and there are folks working on it. NASA can afford to risk new technology because they're taking tremendous risks anyway; an environmental remediation firm can't, because our clients get rather upset when they don't work as intended.

There is nothing better to invest in on Earth? I refuse to believe it.

Your argument can be applied to anything. Peopke spend billikbs per year on pets. Should we stop them, because you think there is a better use for the money? For that matter, how can you justify spending time and money reading a comment thread when there are poor preople you could be helping right now?

Should we close all museums? Theaters? Concert halls? Think ofbthe billions that would be available for the poor and the environment if we did that!

All that said, investing money in space is not the same as investing public money in space. I am not a fan of governments funding technology. In my experience government money injected into industry tends to flow to the largest companies, who then use itbto gain an advantage over the smaller ones. Concentration of research into large, politically connected companies does not accelerate discovery - it impedes it.

Governent does not play around with pets. Just because people can waste their own money does not mean the government should waste mine.
As for entrepreneurs, they can waste their money on space althey want. Nothing will ever come of it.

Yeah, that SpaceX is just a total waste of time. I mean, it's only launching more commercial payloads than all government agencies and large aerospace consortiums put together, and doing it for 40% cheaper than their nearest competitor, with more cost reductions coming. Too bad for ULA, Arianespace, and the Russians. But don't worry - I'm sure nothing will come of it.

We can spend money both to solve our problems on earth, and we can spend money to explore space. If we don't, the Chinese will. And people will not even ask how they did it without USD's!

The Chinese are after prestige projects, be them the Olympic Games or pretty rockets. They can enslave and explre their own people, a luxury Western governments do not have or should not have.

"As subsidizing space exploration would clearly benefit society"


Not just 'how' but 'how will it benefit all of us to the point that we must coerce people to pay for this exploration?'

'We'll be able to do asteroid mining, potentially reducing the cost of raw materials' - sounds like that will be a great gain to the private entrepreneurs that are running the mining corporations. Who will be reimbursed through the profits they'll make.

'COLONIZATION!' - benefits a tiny, tiny, tiny few humans. Its not ever going to be a practical overpopulation relief valve. And 'we need to plant human colonies to prevent human extinction' - do we? Then let the people who are worried about that pay for it out of their own pockets.

'TANG!' - the best you can say about the US space program is that a handful of useful inventions came about a few years earlier than they would have otherwise - at massive, massive expense.

'National pride' - fine, don't want to pay for it.

'general science knowledge' - if its useful, let the people who are using it pay for it. If its not, let the people who just want general science knowledge pay for it. Not justification for coercing others to pay for someone else's pet project.

God wouldn't want humanity to be wiped out in a billion years. He said, Go forth and multiply, didn't he? Maybe he didn't just mean Earth.

Humanity has only been here for about 200,000 years. And certainly won't last for a billion years. Now, assume it has taken about 4 billion years for humanity, and all of the other life forms on earth to co-evolve so that we can survive together. The food we eat has evolved so that we can eat it. The plants require fairly narrow ranges of gases in the air, soil types, bees for pollination, bacterias in the soil. All, every last bit of that, and thousands of other things, has to be transplanted to a different planet to support human life. That will never, ever happen. Even in a billion years.

The food didn't evolve so we can eat it. We evolved to eat what was there. Life evolves to adapt to it's environment. Life has evolved to adapt to nearly every environmental niche on Earth including volcanic vents on the bottom of the ocean. There's no reason to think that if liquid water existed on Mars, life couldn't evolve to adapt to that environment too. Although it would probably help if we gave it a hand with some genetic engineering.

"Life evolves to adapt to it's environment."

only if, 1. life can exist in the environment, and 2. the environment (and ourselves) let people die before they reproduce if that is what the environment tends toward.

I don't see either of those things happening 1. on mars, which is less habitable than under a lake on Antarctica, and 2. in our society which is hyper cautious and overspends to an enormous degree to save marginal lives.

I'm talking about a terraforming project that would start with microorganisms. Not every place on mars in inhospitable to microbes. Temperatures do get above the freezing point. It will take many generations to get to a point where it becomes hospitable to humans, though. Thousands if not tends of thousands of years, even with human effort, genetic engineering and deliberate climate engineering. But it's not impossible. Just very, very hard.

Thank you Agammamon for this post. Not only is it morally absurd to make people pay for things they don't want, but those countries who spend money on research that doesn't improve their national competitiveness will lose out in the long run.

I have an idea. What we need is a new religion. A religion that is dedicated to the long-term project of colonizing outer space. Whether you believe in God or not - the reality is that humans have to learn how to live on other planets if humanity, and indeed life itself, is going to survive the inevitable destruction of Earth as a viable habitat. (Which will happen whether it's in 1000 years, a million years, or a billion years.)

That project is something that is both collossally difficult and has to happen over extremely long time scales. Time scales far too long for ordinary human institutions to handle. And the only institutions that have lasted more than a thousand years .... are religions. Making other planets viable places to live is going to take millions of people willing to dedicate their lives to the task, willing to die or willing to spend their lives working on something they will never see the end result of. The only things capable of commanding that sort of dedication is religious faith.
It doesn't have to be a religion centered around a big daddy in the sky of course - though if the big daddy religions want to append a bit about space colonies I won't object. It just has to be something that will make people willing to sacrifice the here-and-now for the thousand years from now future.

I believe that a "long-term project of colonizing outer space" just means too much radiation, bad bones, and bad food.

It's an expensive way to make life nastier, brutish, and shorter.

Actually I think one of the avenues towards space colonization is going to be life extension. If humans start living for 1000 years, then travelling to other stars won't be such a terribly long time. So maybe the pathway is life extension first, then space travel. (Part of life extension being necessarily making bodies that last longer and can withstand the radiation).

Fine, another thing to do on earth before you sentence humans to spend 5 years smelling each other's farts on the way to Mars.

"I believe that a "long-term project of colonizing outer space" just means too much radiation, bad bones, and bad food."

Radiation? Because it's inconceivable to build the kind of shielding we routinely put in a nuclear submarine? That's at best a minor problem.

Bad bones? That's a slightly more difficult issue. We'd have to build habitats big enough for spin.

Bad food? A problem somewhere between radiation and large habitats in difficulty.

I don't think you paid for "large habitats" and occasional seafood with your $100 billion dollars a year. At best that buys a "varied" diet of backpacking meals and whatever narrow range you can grow in a closed circuit garden.

Whether you believe in God or not - the reality is that humans have to learn how to live on other planets if humanity, and indeed life itself, is going to survive the inevitable destruction of Earth as a viable habitat.

No. Just no. There's no reason for the Earth to end as a viable habitat -- at least not before the Sun overheats the place in a billion years or so. With a billion years to go, we can afford to wait -- a REALLY LONG TIME -- before we start worrying about it. There's no hurry to spend money now. Or in our lifetimes. Or in our children's-children's-children's-....-children's lifetimes.

As technology stand now, Mars is the only other conceivable place where humans might be able to scratch out a miserable life -- a life that would be worse than a penal Antarctica. In fact -- once you've built that flourishing colony of happy Antarctic pioneers (who are never allowed to leave and have to wait two years for even meager supplies from elsewhere), then get back to me about spending tax money on Mars colonies and human planetary exploration.

The beauty of a religion is that it inspires volunteers. There's no reason we have to make it a theocracy. I'm not advocating that government 100% fund a twrraforming effort. I'm thinking long term here in terms of inspiring private efforts by private citizens.

Well, as long as taxpayer funding is 0%, I have no objection to private efforts (people have wasted their own funds on much dumber things). That said, I think even the idea that Earth is doomed and our future lies elsewhere is a potentially corrosive 'religious' idea. Earth will be our future for *millions* of generations to come (while H. sapiens is only a few thousand generations old now) -- so maybe let's focus on taking care of it and the people who live here.

Personally I don't think the earth is doomed until the sun burns out. That's not really what motivates me. I do think that there's something of a moral obligation to make sure life isn't confined to just this one tiny speck of dust in the cosmos. Which, even if it will probably last another billion years, still might get hit by an asteroid or something in the next thousand. Life is too precious to just take our chances that Earth is gonna be around until we get around to leaving it at some undetermined future point when we feel like it.

-This had to be translated to Weston. When he heard it, he replied.

"Me care for Man--care for our race--care for what Man begets--" He had to ask Ransom for the words for race and beget.

"Strange!" said Oyarsa. "You do not love anyone of your race--you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature, but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left."

C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

--which happens to be a book very much about men caring so much about expanding the human race to other planets for prosperity and resources (Devine) and for propagating humanity (Weston, above.) To the point that they were willing to sacrifice the innocent Ransom to do it. And lewis debunked your space religion before it even began.


The human survival thing you care about is meaningless in the long run, because its not about loving present man enough to help them; its about loving the seed, a very abstract idea of human potential that may not even be human, especially if being are engineered to live on various environments. You ignore present suffering of men you can see in the goal of some future idea of the genome existing, despite the fact it may not end up being "human at all."

So good luck with that, but be careful. Weston did not end well.

Devil's Advocate: for the foreseeable future, with space colonization being so impractical and the sun going supernova so far off, what we should be focusing on is defense. We should be concentrating on building a super weapon capable of destroying extra-terrestrial threats, including asteroids, comets, and intelligent life forms which may attempt to visit earth (juuuust in case). We should also look into building some sort of shield to protect the earth from gamma ray bursts and robot-swarm attacks. If these happen to have domestic defense applications we can use to intimidate the Chinese and Russians, so much the better.

"We should be concentrating on building a super weapon capable of destroying extra-terrestrial threats, including asteroids, comets, and intelligent life forms which may attempt to visit earth (juuuust in case)."

They had a fairly good Star Trek The Next Generation episode that addressed that. I'm too lazy to look up the exact quote, but Data said something like, "They'll kill all of you and you won't ever even see them."

Any entities that can travel to Earth even from the nearest stars are going to have technology so advanced, they'll be like gods. It always bugs me when science fiction movies have a plot that involves humans somehow defending Earth from ETs (the epitome of this nonsense was probably Independence Day).

This I believe.

And if we, meaning the whole world, has to create an effort to defend ourselves from aliens, we won't be limited by our spending money on SS, Medicare and welfare. We won't be limited by USD, Yuan or all the fiat in the world.

We will be limited by our technology, productivity and resources.

I believe in space R&D, even at high dollar cost.

"The only things capable of commanding that sort of dedication is religious faith."

The Soviets first put a man in space and the Americans first put a man on the moon. It certainly takes dedication and clear thinking but as both cases prove, faith is optional (not wrong to have or not have).

Turning Mars into a habitable planet is going to take a lot longer than it took for the Soviets and Americans to do what they did in the 1960s. A LOT longer. Longer than any government has ever survived on Earth. Probably longer than any religion either, but that's the best we got.

You're describing "To Open the Sky", by Robert Silverberg

Argh. All my best ideas are already taken.

"What we need is a new religion."

Perhaps you do. I certainly don't. I've had my fill, thank you very much. Unfortunately, they never pay for their own self-importance. They always demand tax cuts and subsidies.

(My objections above would disappear instantly with FTL travel. I say invent that first, and then worry about growing potatoes on Mars.)

It's a bit inelegantly phrased, but more or less true.

There absolutely should be publicly funded space exploration. The research often proves valuable in unexpected ways, it tells us more about Earth by comparison, and (if we're getting really cynical) then the Lesson of the Dinosaurs is that what you don't know about space really can kill you. Earth is a tiny speck in a vast cosmos, and we'd be well-advised to know as much as we can about that cosmos.

. . . . That said, I think you'd be hard-pressed to make a cost-effective case for publicly funding human space exploration. It's just not even remotely cost-effective compared to sending robots, when you look at the amount of research you can get for your public dollar. We spend roughly $3 billion/year on the operations costs for the International Space Station - for that price, we could essentially build a new Cassini-level spacecraft every year, send it out to an interesting location, and potentially reap decades' worth of new information from it.

Maybe it was an impressive feat of programming to make this machine debate, but you're being sarcastic about the "convincing" part, right? Watson may need to read your textbook's discussion of opportunity costs...

Watson's arguments may be unconvincing in the 2-D world, but Watson, of course, is playing 3-D chess.

Instead of trying to colonize Mars, why don't we just try to colonize Mexico so they don't need to come up here.

If we can't bring peace and prosperity to Mexico, we'll never be able to bring it to Mars.

Humanity still have to figure out a way to send living creatures outside of the close Earth orbit and shield them from radiation. Apollo astronauts never left lower Earth orbit, the videos from the moon were staged.

You can see an Apollo command module in earth orbit so that's some cool stealth technology they had back then.

It wasn't stealth technology silly. It was mind control technology, Duh.

Hell, if you have the telescope, you can directly look and see part of the lunar landers on the Moon's surface. Or shine a laser at the mirror that the Apollo 11 astronauts placed on the Moon (something they were doing with NSF funding until 2009).

Only if you have a bloody good telescope. I quote from an astronomy article:

"Hubble's 94.5-inch mirror has a resolution of 0.024″ in ultraviolet light, which translates to 141 feet (43 meters) at the Moon's distance. In visible light, it's 0.05″, or closer to 300 feet. Given that the largest piece of equipment left on the Moon after each mission was the 17.9-foot-high by 14-foot-wide Lunar Module, you can see the problem."

Hubble's mirror isn't actually that big. It's a 2.4 meter mirror - fine for a space telescope (albeit an aging one), but tiny compared to many telescopes here on Earth.

Although you are right that it's still too small to be resolved by the telescopes we have. Unless you fly a spacecraft over it with a decent camera . . .

Perfectly parallel laser beams do not exist and because of the diffraction phenomenon in the atmosphere (through water drops,...) a laser beam of 1cm of diameter will become 7km of diameter reaching the moon. Fortunately the albedo of the moon surface is not nil.

You can point a laser at the Moon and have it reflect off the mirror that the Apollo 11 astronauts set up there too. They were actually doing that with NSF funding until 2009.

Robin Hanson (not to mention Scott Alexander in his Promising the Moon post) makes an excellent argument that human space exploration anytime soon is a waste of time. But sending robots to explore and look for signs of ETs seems a good idea.

A lot of people seem worried about radiation, but the problem is solved. There are two main solutions:

1. Use shielding.
2. Use robots.

The cost of number 1 has dropped by about 50% since Apollo. The cost of number 2 has dropped by... well, orders of magnitude. It would be interesting to see someone try to work that out.

The shielding is trivial. Around 1 meter of water would bring space down to standard Federal safe limits. Granted, that much mass would be expensive to speed up and slow down around Mars, repeatedly. So, putting the transfer craft into a permanent loop and using shuttles from the Earth to the craft and from the craft to Mars would lower the average cost per trip.

Looking at the cost of time vs. the cost of energy, I'm not sure a cycler works, particularly if areobraking is an option. Humans might want to get to mars fast. On the other hand, I don't know why they'd need to get there in such a hurry. It's not like they are going to need people to get there to do things with their own hands.

When you think about it, Mars isn't that far away. The Millennium Falcon could get there in 27 kilometers.

Maybe they already made that joke in the latest Star Wars movie, but I wouldn't know. I'm not the person in my country that saw it.

As subsidizing space exploration would clearly benefit society, I maintain that this is something the government should pursue.

This is pure economic illiteracy, and it's shameful that it wouldn't be pointed out as such here. Any student who just sat through their first introductory economics course should easily know what's wrong here

Watson is a really depressing commentary on AI hype vs reality. I'm not sure I even believe that it was able to come up with that one kind of answer out of who knows how many tries without at least a bit of subtle mechanical turking. And it's actually pretty good in the greater scheme of ML things.

Do AT + TC support anarcho-capitalism? If so, there is no government and no government supported space exploration.

"Do AT + TC support anarcho-capitalism? "

No, not even close.

It is indeed impressive that machines can now make the same mediocre arguments that many humans make. It will be even more impressive if someday machines can make rational arguments, such as considering opportunity costs, property rights, externalities, etc. One day, a machine may ask why we should subsidize space exploration but not the sex lives of the involuntarily celibate.

Earth-bound humans don't even know what's going on in the depths of the oceans or just a short distance beneath the earth's crust. How about getting some real knowledge of those areas before streaking across the cosmos?

The oceans don't have hundreds of times the amount of hydrocarbon fuel that's on Earth.

"Hydrocarbons, hydrocarbons everywhere, and not a drop of free oxygen to reduce it!"

Not free oxygen, but space is full of water. Just take the oxygen out of the water.

"Ay, that it be, Xarnon of Comedia. But would it not be easier to recombine the oxygen with the hydrogen ye would have at hand from the splitting of the water?"

Humans are sometimes very clever, sometimes stupid. The whole Watson project is based on the hope that, by mimicking carefully human being stupid, a machine will somehow becomes very clever. A typically stupid human idea. And I find this journalistic enthusiasm displayed at each small "progress" of IA more and more tiring.

With Trump proposing putting warriors in space, it's not easy to support space exploration, but I do. President Kennedy inspired the nation to put a man on the moon, and we did it. I will never forget John Glenn's many cancelled launches into space until, finally, success. I will never forget watching Neil Armstrong touch down on the moon. The Star Wars generation isn't much impressed with actual space exploration. Why would they be when tech is defined by nonsense, from advertising platforms to self driving cars. Who is to blame for such low expectations? Anti-government ideologues, for sure. And an economy that is so unequal that those below the top 10% cannot see any reason to support exploration in space when conditions on earth are not so great.

Elon Musk and SpaceX's private accomplishments with launch tech have not been mentioned yet in the thread.

"The launch tech be nice, but tis the landing tech that warms these old bone, cell killer."

A pressing need is ensuring everyone looking for work gets the highest paying job he's qualified for, so where else can government employ physicists, engineers, rocket engineers, welders, machinists than building space craft and supporting systems?

In stages, cutting spending on space, many highly skilled workers in aerospace ended up in other jobs, maybe churning real estate and mortgages in Florida, Texas, Alabama, creating the real estate booms that collapsed in the 80s, 90s, 00s.

"like" (didn't read the comments, nor article, just the posted snippets)

I think the lesson of this thread is simple - the "Catholic King", Isabella deserve a hell of a lot more credit than she usually gets.

It’s astounding how many people have no clue what this post is about. Hint: it’s not about space exploration.

"Hint: it’s not about space exploration."

Yes, it's about AI not knowing anything about economics (as well as space exploration).

I know. But it seemed like a good thread to hijack.

As Mark says, it's both.

What's more the way it's wrong on space illustrate why it is weak AI. What it's obviously doing is pattern matching, finding opposing arguments in the wild, and supplying them in response.

All that does is automate endless debate.

IOW, it's critical that this "AI" doesn't know what "space exploration" or "human progress" really mean, or the tremendous variation in human understanding of those terms.

"Should there be more publicly funded space exploration? "

You mean by the same folks who crafted housing projects, Obamacare, and the liberation of Iraq? Nah.

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