Empty Space, Empty Pockets

NASA is looking to "slash" funding for science experiments on the international space station. This, as it begins it's next quest, to send humans to Mars. It's looking to save $344 million from the space station alone.

So here we have a space station championed by an agency that was supposed to justify its existence by promoting science research that couldn't be done on earth, and we now find that it's even less justified.

Not that I think government should be funding science to begin with, but I think sending people millions of miles for no good reason, using money that is coerced from taxpayers, is more than wasteful. I'm tired of the argument that missions like this have spin-offs. That goes without saying. Everything has a spin-off. Everything has a second-order effect that might be taken advantage of. Spending billions of dollars building houses made of toothpicks (as a crazy example) would certainly stimulate investment and research into all sorts of science - from special glues, materials, building techniques, etc. Surely the knowledge gained in such an endeavor would benefit other disciplines. Cross-over benefits are good, but they don't necessarily justify exorbitant expense on senseless endeavors.

Here's a crazy idea: spend money on something that people actually need, and then try to reap rewards from any spin-offs of that - not the other way around. We live at a time when companies like Sony, IBM, and Toshiba are willing to expend on the order of $400 million in research on a new processor that will be used in game boxes. This same chip will have numerous cross-over benefits - perhaps even in the military. But from day one it will have a mass-market purpose. If cross-over benefits fail to materialize, at least we'll have millions of game boxes to hypnotize our youth. And think of all the psychiatric jobs that will be created.

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Remember, according to the

Remember, according to the Reagan administration the space was supposed to provide us a platform to demonstrate the wonders of manufacturing in space.

There has been relatively

There has been relatively little benefit from manned space exploration compared to the return from unmanned robots which cost less. The only spin off from the manned program I can remember is that fake orange juice-Tang. The news media barely covers the launches unless they crash or are in danger of doing so.

what about that

what about that plastic-tasting astronaut ice-cream that i used to get in elementary school? I *think* it was like, dehydrated ice cream, or something like that. It came in a little foil bag with an astronaut on the front, kind of like the old MTV logo...

And don't forget the Fisher

And don't forget the Fisher Space Pen!

I agree, I have complained

I agree, I have complained about this problem in my blog.

It's important though to

It's important though to separate NASA's bungled attempts at space station science and manufacturing from what could be achieved if done right (by a private entity, unsubsidized, and on a for-profit basis). NASA's key goal is to perpetuate itself, and it does so by spreading the pork to as many districts as it can get away with. It shouldn't be surprising that with that kind of a focus that they have continually botched most attempts at promoting space commerce.

I fully agree though, that spin-offs are not a justification. The "spin-on" approach where you build something that meets a real, existing, marketable need that also has future space potential is a much better approach.


You guys are totally

You guys are totally forgetting about Moonraker. Without manned space travel Roger Moore never would have made it to space to see Jaws get it on with that chick with the pigtails.

On a serious note: why don't we use a space shuttle to fly some clean water over to some African villages?

"Spinoffs" is just a fancy

"Spinoffs" is just a fancy way of saying that, while the overall returns from a line of research might not justify the cost when you're paying for it yourself, you can probably find a way to profit from it when somebody else paid for it. The "medical research" at Auschwitz and Treblinka also had "spinoffs," I believe. If something's not currently being done by people with their own money, that means that (as Tucker said) "it costs more than it comes to." Rendering it artificially profitable by shifting part of the cost side of the ledger onto the taxpayers doesn't change that. TANSTAAFL.

Kevin- I think another point


I think another point is that the spinoff profitability from, say, the space program, was essentially serendipity and not anything you can reasonably predict ex ante. For every space program's Tang and MRIs, you get big spend programs that spin nothing off.

Also, if Tang and MRIs are useful, it stands to reason that we're better off not spending the money on space programs but on, well, researching Tang and MRIs.

It is not correct that

It is not correct that unmanned systems can explore space better than robots. Robots can do some things well, but people can still do a lot of things better. Truly useful geological fieldwork on other planets can, at present, only be done by experienced scientists on site.


science was an enormous beneficiary of Apollo, primarily because of the 382 kg of lunar rock samples returned to Earth. The analysis of this material has had a huge impact on our understanding, not only of lunar history, but of the early evolution, and indeed the origin, of the solar system as a whole. The opponents of human space flight will argue that all this could have been achieved much more cheaply with robotic missions. However, I think this is a mistake. While it is true that much of the Apollo science could, in principle, have been performed robotically, there must be considerable doubt as to how much would actually have happened had the manned landings not taken place. For example, although it is true that three unmanned Soviet space probes (Lunas 16, 20 and 24) successfully collected 321 g of lunar material in the 1970s, it is notable that this was less than 0.1% of the amount returned by the Apollo missions. Moreover, the Apollo material consisted of more than 2000 individual samples, intelligently collected from many locations around each landing site, while the Luna material consisted of a single core from each site. No practical, or (within a purely scientific budget) affordable, robotic programme could have returned anywhere near the quantity, or the diversity, of the Apollo lunar samples.

See also http://www.star.ucl.ac.uk/~iac/AG_Moon_article.pdf

I suppose microrovers would be relatively cheap to land on the Moon, which is doubtless an attraction, but how effective would they be? For one thing, how could they possibly collect, and return to Earth, something like 10 times their own mass in rock and soil samples (the Apollo 15 haul alone was 77 kg, and the overall Apollo total was 382 kg)? How would they be able to drill cores to a depth of over 2 m and return these intact? And what about the heat flow measurements? The gravimeter traverses? The magnetometer readings? The seismic experiments? The solar wind collection? All of which, and more, were actually conducted at some or all of the Apollo landing sites – Apollo 16 even deployed an ultraviolet telescope for astronomical observations. (See Heiken et al. 1991 for a review of the geological and geophysical work, and Carruthers and Page 1977 for the stronomical.)And on top of all of this, we have to ask whether any kind of robot, micro or otherwise, would be able to make the fine distinctions in the field between what it is important to collect or record for later analysis and what it is not, or make serendipitous discoveries not anticipated by its designers back on Earth.

Of course, this is not the same issue as whether or not manned space exploration has "spin offs". Inarguably, science would benefit greatly from further manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. I am somewhat skeptical that the government will want to pay for it, though.