A Philosopher's Blog

Engineering Astronauts

Posted in Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2016

If humanity remains a single planet species, our extinction is all but assured—there are so many ways the world could end. The mundane self-inflicted apocalypses include such things as war and environmental devastation. There are also more exotic dooms suitable for speculative science fiction, such as a robot apocalypse or a bioengineered plague. And, of course, there is the classic big rock from space scenario. While we will certainly bring our problems with us into space, getting off world would dramatically increase our chances of survival as a species.

While species do endeavor to survive, there is the moral question of whether or not we should do so. While I can easily imagine humanity reaching a state where it would be best if we did not continue, I think that our existence generates more positive value than negative value—thus providing the foundation for a utilitarian argument for our continued existence and endeavors to survive. This approach can also be countered on utilitarian grounds by contending that the evil we do outweighs the good, thus showing that the universe would be morally better without us. But, for the sake of the discussion that follows, I will assume that we should (or at least will) endeavor to survive.

Since getting off world is an excellent way of improving our survival odds, it is somewhat ironic that we are poorly suited for survival in space and on other worlds such as Mars. Obviously enough, naked exposure to the void would prove fatal very quickly; but even with technological protection our species copes poorly with the challenges of space travel—even those presented by the very short trip to our own moon. We would do somewhat better on other planets or on moons; but these also present significant survival challenges.

While there are many challenges, there are some of special concern. These include the danger presented by radiation, the health impact of living in gravity significantly different from earth, the resource (food, water and air) challenge, and (for space travel) the time problem. Any and all of these can prove to be fatal and must be addressed if humanity is to expand beyond earth.

Our current approach is to use our technology to recreate as closely as possible our home environment. For example, our manned space vessels are designed to provide some degree of radiation shielding, they are filled with air and are stocked with food and water. One advantage of this approach is that it does not require any modification to humans; we simply recreate our home in space or on another planet. There are, of course, many problems with this approach. One is that our technology is still very limited and cannot properly address some challenges. For example, while artificial gravity is standard in science fiction, we currently rely on rather ineffective means of addressing the gravity problem. As another example, while we know how to block radiation, there is the challenge of being able to do this effectively on the journey from earth to Mars. A second problem is that recreating our home environment can be difficult and costly. But, it can be worth the cost to allow unmodified humans to survive in space or on other worlds. This approach points towards a Star Trek style future: normal humans operating within a bubble of technology. There are, however, alternatives.

Another approach is also based in technology, but aims at either modifying humans or replacing them entirely. There are two main paths here. One is that of machine technology in which humans are augmented in order to endure conditions that differ radically from that of earth. The scanners of Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” are one example of this—they are modified and have implants to enable them to survive the challenges of operating interstellar vessels. Another example is Man Plus, Frederik Pohl’s novel about a human transformed into a cyborg in order to survive on Mars. The ultimate end of this path is the complete replacement of humans by intelligent machines, machines designed to match their environments and free of human vulnerabilities and short life spans.

The other is the path of biological technology. On this path, humans are modified biologically in order to better cope with non-earth environments. These modifications would presumably start fairly modestly, such as genetic modifications to make humans more resistant to radiation damage and better adapted to lower gravity. As science progressed, the modifications could become far more radical, with a complete re-engineering of humans to make them ideally match their new environments. This path, unnaturally enough, would lead to the complete replacement of humans with new species.

These approaches do have advantages. While there would be an initial cost in modifying humans to better fit their new environments, the better the adaptations, the less need there would be to recreate earth-like conditions. This could presumably result in considerable cost-savings and there is also the fact that the efficiency and comfort of the modified humans would be greater the better they matched their new environments. There are, however, the usual ethical concerns about such modifications.

Replacing homo sapiens with intelligent machines or customized organisms would also have a high initial startup cost, but these beings would presumably be far more effective than humans in the new environments. For example, an intelligent machine would be more resistant to radiation, could sustain itself with solar power, and could be effectively immortal as long as it is repaired. Such a being would be ideal to crew (or be) a deep space mission vessel. As another example, custom created organisms or fully converted humans could ideally match an environment, living and working in radical conditions as easily as standard humans work on earth. Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” discusses such an approach; albeit one that has unexpected results on Jupiter.

In addition to the usual moral concerns about such things, there is also the concern that such creations would not preserve the human race. On the one hand, it is obvious that such beings would not be homo sapiens. If the entire species was converted or gradually phased out in favor of the new beings, that would be the end of the species—the biological human race would be no more. The voice of humanity would fall silent. On the other hand, it could be argued that the transition could suffice to preserve the identity of the species—a likely way to argue this would be to re-purpose the arguments commonly used to argue for the persistence of personal identity across time. It could also be argued that while the biological species homo sapiens could cease to be, the identity of humanity is not set by biology but by things such as values and culture. As such, if our replacements retained the relevant connection to human culture and values (they sing human songs and remember the old, old places where once we walked), they would still be human—although not homo-sapiens.

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Utility & The Martian

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2016

I recently got around to watching The Martian, a science fiction film about the effort to rescue an astronaut from Mars. Matt Damon, who is often rescued in movies, plays “astrobotanist” Mark Watney. The discussion that follows contains some spoilers, so those who have yet to see the film might wish to stop reading now. Those who have seen the film might also wish to stop reading, albeit for different reasons.

At the start of the movie Watney is abandoned on Mars after the rest of his team believes he died during the evacuation of the expedition. The rest of the movie details his efforts at survival (including potato farming in space poop) and the efforts of NASA and the Chinese space agency to save him.

After learning that Watney is not dead, NASA attempts to send a probe loaded with food to Mars. The launch fails, strewing rocket chunks and incinerated food over a large area. The next attempt involved resupplying the returning main space ship, the Hermes, using a Chinese rocket and sending it on a return trip to pick up Watney. This greatly extends the crew’s mission time. Using a ship that NASA already landed on Mars for a future mission, Watney blasts up into space and is dramatically rescued.

While this situation is science fiction, it does address a real moral concern about weighing the costs and risks of saving a life. While launch costs are probably cheaper in the fictional future of the movie, the lost resupply rocket and the successful Chinese resupply rocket presumably cost millions of dollars. The cached rocket Watney used was also presumably fairly expensive. There is also the risk undertaken by the crew of the Hermes.

Looked at from a utilitarian standpoint, a case can be made that the rescue was morally wrong. The argument for this is fairly straightforward: for the “generic” utilitarian, the right action is the one that generates the greatest utility for the being that are morally relevant. While Watney is certainly morally relevant, the fictional future of the film is presumably a world that is still very similar to this world. As such, there are presumably still millions of people living in poverty, millions who need health care, and so on. That is, there are presumably millions of people who are at risk of dying and some of them could be saved by the expenditure of millions (or even billions) of dollars in resources.

Expending so many resources to save one person, Watney, would seem to be morally wrong: those resources could have been used to save many more people on earth and would thus have greater utility. As such, the right thing to do would have been to let Watney die—at least on utilitarian grounds.

There are, of course, many ways this argument could be countered on utilitarian grounds. One approach begins with how important Watney’s rescue became to the people of earth—the movie shows vast crowds who are very concerned about Watney. Letting Watney die would presumably make these people sad and angry, thus generating considerable negative consequences. This, of course, rests on the psychological difference between abstract statistics about people dying (such as many people dying due to lacking proper medical care) and the possible death of someone who has been made into a celebrity. As such, the emotional investment of the crowds could be taken as imbuing Watney with far greater moral significance relative to the many who could have been saved from death with the same monetary expenditure.

One obvious problem with this sort of view is that it makes moral worth dependent on fame and the feelings of others rather than on qualities intrinsic to the person. But, it could be replied, fame and the feelings of others do matter—at least when making a utilitarian calculation about consequences.

A second approach is to focus on the broader consequences: leaving Watney to die on Mars could be terribly damaging to the future of manned space exploration and humanity’s expansion into space. As such, while Watney himself is but a single person with only the moral value of one life, the consequences of not saving him would outweigh the consequences of not saving many others on earth. That is, Watney is not especially morally important as a person, but in terms of his greater role he has great significance. This would morally justify sacrificing the many (by not saving them) to save the one—as an investment in future returns. This does raise various concerns about weighing actual people against future consequences—but these are not unique to this situation.

There is also the meta-concern about the fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon—some have contended that this would justify leaving Watney to die on Mars. But, I will leave this to the film critics to settle.

(Apologies on falling behind on the blog, this was due to the holidays and surgery on my hand).

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Interstellar, Science & Fantasy

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2015

Although I like science fiction, I did not see Interstellar until fairly recently—although time is such a subjective sort of thing. One reason I decided to see it is because some have claimed that the movie should be shown in science classes, presumably to help the kids learn science. Because of this, I expected to see a science fiction movie. Since I write science fiction, horror and fantasy stuff, it should not be surprising that I get a bit obsessive about genre classifications. Since I am a professor, it should also not be surprising that I have an interest in teaching methods. As such, I will be considering Interstellar in regards to both genre classifications and its education value in the context of science. There will be spoilers—so if you have not seen it, you might wish to hold off reading this essay.

While there have been numerous attempts to distinguish between science and fantasy, Roger Zelazny presents one of the most brilliant and concise accounts in a dialogue between Yama and Tak in Lord of Light. Tak has inquired of Yama about whether a creature, a Rakshasa, he has seen is a demon or not. Yama responds by saying, “If by ‘demon’ you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume any shape — then the answer is no.  This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. … It is not a supernatural creature.”

Tak, not surprisingly, does not see the importance of this single untruth in the definition. Yama replies with “Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see.  It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy — it is a matter of essence.  The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown.  Some do bow in that final direction.  Others advance upon it.  To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three.  I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable”

In Lord of Light, the Rakshasa play the role of demons, but they are aliens—the original inhabitants of a world conquered by human colonists. As such, they are natural creatures and fall under the domain of science. While I do not completely agree with Zelazny’s distinction, I find it appealing and reasonable enough to use as the foundation for the following discussion of the movie.

Interstellar initially stays safely within the realm of science-fiction by staying safely within the sphere of scientific speculation regarding hypersleep, wormholes and black holes. While the script does take some liberties with the science, this is fine for the obvious reason that this is science fiction and not a science lecture. Interstellar also has the interesting bonus of having contributed to real science regarding the appearance of black holes. That aspect would provide some justification for showing it (or some of it) in a science class.

Another part of the movie that would be suitable for a science class are the scenes in which Murph thinks that her room might be haunted by a ghost. Cooper, her father, urges her to apply the scientific method to the phenomenon. Of course, it might be considered bad parenting for a parent to urge his child to study what might be a dangerous phenomenon in her room. Cooper also instantly dismisses the ghost hypothesis—which can be seen as being very scientific (since there has been no evidence of ghosts) to not very scientific (since this might be evidence of ghosts).

The story does include the point that the local school is denying that the moon-landings really occurred and the official textbooks support this view. Murph is punished at school for arguing that the moon landings did occur and is rewarded by Cooper. This does make a point about science denial and could thus be of use in the classroom.

Rather ironically, the story presents its own conspiracies and casts two of the main scientists (Brand and Mann) as liars. Brand lies about his failed equation for “good” reasons—to keep people working on a project that has a chance and to keep morale up. Mann lies about the habitability of his world because, despite being built up in the story as the best of the scientists, he cannot take the strain of being alone. As such, the movie sends a mixed-message about conspiracies and lying scientists. While learning that some people are liars has value, this does not add to the movie’s value as a science class film. Now, to get back to the science.

The science core of the movie, however, focuses on holes: the wormhole and the black hole. As noted above, the movie does stick within the realm of speculative science in regards to the wormhole and the black hole—at least until near the end of the movie.

It turns out that all that is needed to fix Brand’s equation is data from inside a black hole. Conveniently, one is present. Also conveniently, Cooper and the cool robot TARS end up piloting their ships into the black hole as part of the plan to save Brand. It is at this point that the movie moves from science to fantasy.

Cooper and TARS manage to survive being dragged into the black hole, which might be scientifically fine. However, they are then rescued by the mysterious “they” (whoever created the wormhole and sent messages to NASA).

Cooper is transported into a tesseract or something. The way it works in the movie is that Cooper is floating “in” what seems to be a massive structure. In “reality” it is nifty blend of time and space—he can see and interact with all the temporal slices that occurred in Murph’s room. Crudely put, it allows him to move in time as if it were space. While it is also sort of still space. While this is rather weird, it is still within the realm of speculative science fiction.

Cooper is somehow able to interact with the room using weird movie plot rules—he can knock books off the shelves in a Morse code pattern, he can precisely change local gravity to provide the location of the NASA base in binary, and finally he can manipulate the hand of the watch he gave his daughter to convey the data needed to complete the equation. Weirdly, he cannot just manipulate a pen or pencil to just write things out. But, movie. While a bit absurd, this is still science fiction.

The main problem lies with the way Cooper solves the problem of locating Murph at the right time. While at this point I would have bought the idea that he figured out the time scale of the room and could rapidly check it, the story has Cooper navigate through the vast time room using love as a “force” that can transcend time. While it is possible that Cooper is wrong about what he is really doing, the movie certainly presents it as if this love force is what serves as his temporal positioning system.

While love is a great thing, there are no even remotely scientific theories that provide a foundation for love having the qualities needed to enable such temporal navigation. There is, of course, scientific research into love and other emotions. The best of current love science indicates that love is a “mechanical” phenomena (in the philosophical sense) and there is nothing to even suggest that it provides what amounts to supernatural abilities.

It would, of course, be fine to have Cooper keep on trying because he loves his children—love does that. But making love into some sort of trans-dimensional force is clearly fantasy rather than science and certainly not suitable for a science lesson (well, other than to show what is not science).

One last concern I have with using the movie in a science class is the use of what seem to be super beings. While the audience learns little of the beings, the movie does assert to the audience that these beings can obviously manipulate time and space. They create the wormhole, they pull Cooper and TARS from a black hole, they send Cooper back in time and enable him to communicate in stupid ways, and so on. The movie also tells the audience the beings are probably future humans (or what humanity becomes) and that they can “see” all of time. While the movie does not mention this, this is how St. Augustine saw God—He is outside of time. They are also clearly rather benign and show demonstrate that that do care about individuals—they save Cooper and TARS. Of course, they also let many people die needlessly.

Given these qualities, it is easy to see these beings (or being) as playing the role of God or even being God—a super powerful, sometimes benign being, that has incredible power over time and space. Yet is fine with letting lots of people die needlessly while miraculously saving a person or two.

Given the wormhole, it is easy to compare this movie to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This show had wormhole populated by powerful beings that existed outside of our normal dimensions. To the people of Bajor, these beings were divine and supernatural Prophets. To Star Fleet, they were the wormhole aliens. While Star Trek is supposed to be science fiction, some episodes involving the prophets did blur the lines into fantasy, perhaps intentionally.

Getting back to Interstellar, it could be argued that the mysterious “they” are like the Rakshasa of Lord of Light in that they (or whatever) have many of the attributes of God, but are not supernatural beings. Being fiction, this could be set by fiat—but this does raise the boundary question. To be specific, does saying that something that has what appear to be the usual supernatural powers is not supernatural make it science-fiction rather than fantasy? Answering this requires working out a proper theory of the boundary, which goes beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will note that having the day saved by the intervention of mysterious and almost divinely powerful beings does not seem to make the movie suitable for a science class. Rather, it makes it seem to be more of a fantasy story masquerading as science fiction.

My overall view is that showing parts of Interstellar, specifically the science parts, could be fine for a science class. However, the movie as a whole is more fantasy than science fiction.


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Asteroid Mining & Death from Above

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2014

Having written before on the ethics of asteroid mining, I thought I would return to this subject and address an additional moral concern, namely the potential dangers of asteroid (and comet) mining. My concern here is not with the dangers to the miners (though that is obviously a matter of concern) but with dangers to the rest of us.

While the mining of asteroids and comets is currently the stuff of science fiction, such mining is certainly possible and might even prove to be economically viable. One factor worth considering is the high cost of getting material into space from earth. Given this cost, constructing things in space using material mined in space might be cost effective. As such, we might someday see satellites built right in space from material harvested from asteroids. It is also worth considering that the cost of mining materials in space and shipping them to earth might also be low enough that space mining for this purpose would be viable. If the material is expensive to mine or has limited availability on earth, then space mining could thus be viable or even necessary.

If material mined in space is to be used on earth, the obvious problem is how to get the material to the surface safely and as cheaply as possible. One approach is to move an asteroid close to the earth to facilitate mining and transportation—it might be more efficient to move the asteroid rather than send mining vessels back and forth. One obvious moral concern about moving an asteroid close to earth is that something could go wrong and the asteroid could strike the earth, perhaps in a populated area. Another obvious concern is that the asteroid could be intentionally used as a weapon—perhaps by a state or by non-state actors (such as terrorists). An asteroid could do considerable damage and would provide a “clean kill”, that is it could do a lot of damage without radioactive fallout or chemical or biological residue. An asteroid might even “accidentally on purpose” be dropped on a target, thus allowing the attacker to claim that it was an accident (something harder to do when using actual weapons).

Given the dangers posed by moving asteroids into earth orbit, this is clearly something that would need to be carefully regulated. Of course, given humanity’s track record accidents and intentional misuse are guaranteed.

Another matter of concern is the transport of material from space to earth. The obvious approach is to ship material to the surface using some sort of vehicle, perhaps constructed in orbit from materials mined in space. Such a vehicle could be relatively simple—after all, it would not need a crew and would just have to ensure that the cargo landed in roughly the right area. Another approach would be to just drop material from orbit—perhaps by surrounding valuable materials with materials intended to ablate during the landing and with a parachute system for some basic braking.

The obvious concern is the danger posed by such transport methods. While such vehicles or rock-drops would not do the sort of damage that an asteroid would, if one crashed hard into a densely populated area (intentionally or accidentally) it could do considerable damage. While such crashes will almost certainly occur, there does seem to be a clear moral obligation to try to minimize the chances of such crashes. The obvious problem is that such safety matters would tend to increase cost and decrease convenience. For example, having the landing zones in unpopulated areas would reduce the risk of a crash into an urban area, but would involve the need to transport the materials from these areas to places where it can be processed (unless the processing plants are built in the zone). As another example, payload sizes might be limited to reduce the damage done by crashes. As a final example, the vessels or drop-rocks might be required to have safety systems, such as backup parachutes. Given that people will cut costs and corners and suffer lapses of attention, accidents are probably inevitable. But they should be made less likely by developing rational regulations. Also of concern is the fact that the vessels and drop-rocks could be used as weapons (as a rule, any technology that can be used to kill people will be used to kill people). As such, there will need to be safeguards against this. It would, for example, be rather bad if terrorist were able to get control of the drop system and start dropping vessels or drop-rocks onto a city.

Despite the risks, if there is profit to be made in mining space, it will almost certainly be done. Given that the resources on earth are clearly limited, access to the bounty of the solar system could be good for (almost) everyone. It could also be another step form humanity away from earth and towards the stars.


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Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2011
Stephen Hawking NASA 50th (200804210001HQ)

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While not as popular as the debate about whether there are aliens or not, the debate about whether aliens would be hostile or not is rather interesting. Some scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, take the view that aliens might well be like us-that is, rather hostile. Others have claimed that they would be peaceful. These folks often use various stock argument. One is that any race advanced enough to cross the stars would have advanced beyond bad behavior. While the debate is current theoretical, it can obviously be approached rationally.

One approach is the method of analogy. Since we have not encountered any aliens (as far as we know), we have a sample set of one intelligent species, namely our own. Since we are rather hostile, the logical inference is that other intelligent races would also be hostile. Of course, this argument is exceptionally weak since the sample consists of one species on one planet. Other species could be quite different. However, a sample of one is better than a sample of none, hence the best conclusion would seem to be that aliens are probably hostile like us.

Another approach is to consider the conditions that would need to be met for a race to be able to travel from star to star and how this would impact their behavior.

As noted above, one stock argument is that aliens would be peaceful because they would need to be advanced and advanced races would be peaceful. On the face of it, both premises can be challenged. First, it might be the case (as some sci-fi writers have speculated) that interstellar travel can be done with a very low level of technology and we just failed to make that discovery. Second, a race might acquire advanced technology by means other than advancement (such as finding it in a crashed ship). Third there seems to be no correlation between technological level and peacefulness. After all, humans have not shown any tendency to be more peaceful-we just have more advanced ways of hurting and killing each other. While alien races might be different, there is no foundation for the claim that advances in technology must correlate with increases in peacefulness.

Another stock argument is that a race would need to survive past the crisis of self-destruction and also become unified in order to master interstellar travel. Such a race, some argue, would have learned peace. While this has some appeal, the argument is easy enough to counter. First, there are various ways a race could get past the crisis of self-destruction without being peaceful. For example, if the race was unified by war prior to this crisis it could still be quite hostile. As another example, a race that is far more collective than humans could be unified, but unified against the rest of the universe in a very hostile way.

Another stock argument is that interstellar conquest and war would not be feasible because of the distance and cost. This, of course, does not show that aliens are not hostile-it just shows that they would have little or no way to act on that hostility. However, it is easy enough to imagine ways around these problems. Perhaps war and conquest would be feasible. After all, getting an entire planet would probably be worth the cost of getting to it and conquering a world might require sending only one ship and the right equipment (like an automated factory that could build a robotic fleet and army on Mars and attack earth with locally built forces). Another possibility is a race that is desperate and needs another world to survive, regardless of the cost (which is a classic sci-fi plot device). Or perhaps there are races that would send a weapon to exterminate us, perhaps out of xenophobia.


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Space 2011

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2011
Texas Tech alumnus Rick Husband was the final ...

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As a kid, I watched Space 1999 and read both 2001 and 2010. When I started professionally writing game scenarios in the early 1990s, I set some adventures on the moon and envisioned that we would have a base there by 2010.

When 1999 arrived, it was obvious that a moon base was not going to happen. When the world failed to end in 2001, it was also obvious that nothing like the Discovery would be built. In 2010, there was no real hope for a moon base. Now that 2011 is here, we won’t even have the space shuttles in operation anymore. In short, if Space 2011 were a show, its lameness would be intergalactic in  scope. Naturally, I am only a bit shamed that some of my predictions in the 1990s were so wrong.

Naturally, I am inclined to wonder why there has been so little progress in regards to space. One obvious answer is that as a species we seem obsessed with fighting each other and wasting our time, lives and resources on petty dominance games and absurd conflicts over dirt, oil, and make-believe. As such, rather than expanding into space, we have been working very hard to make this world into a bloody nightmare. This seems unlikely to change.

Second, while some corporations see space as potentially profitably (there is, after all, an entire universe out there), most prefer to stick with business here on earth. Selling people chips, beer, cars, and TVs tends to be more profitable than doing things with space (other than communication satellites and such, of course). However, there are some companies who do see space as a potential money maker, if only for tourism and satellites. Of course, this does not do a great deal in terms of allowing us to become a space-faring species, rather than being a bunch of pants wearing monkeys squatting on a ball of dirt and water.

Third, technology is a serious limiting factor. While we now have hand held devices (for watching porn and being narcissists) that are vastly more powerful than the computers used in early space flight, the technology for lunching vehicles and moving them through space has advanced very little. There has been little incentive to improve things and, of course, the laws of physics certainly impose some serious limits. In fact, it might be the case that expansion into space is actually physically impossible. That is, maybe a ship simply cannot be built that could actually reach another star. As such, perhaps we are doomed to remain here until extinction puts an end to us, maybe in the form of a big rock smacking into our ball of dirt and water.

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Commercial Launches

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 11, 2010

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its first rocket this week at Cape Canaveral. This, some claim, marks the start of commercial space flights.

Interestingly enough, science fictions writers such as Robert Heinlein wrote stories based on the premises that private companies would be the first into space and that space flight would become a profitable private industry. This latest effort and others shows that Heinlein was somewhat prophetic in this regard.

In many ways, commercialization of some aspects of space operations makes sense. After all, putting satellites in orbit and transporting people too and from the space station seem to fall nicely into the private sector fields of moving people and goods.  Also, while this is rocket science, the basic technology is relatively old and moving people and stuff provides little in the way of new knowledge. This helps explain why NASA plans to move out of the transport business and back into exploration and space science. It certainly seems to be a good idea to let NASA focus on its primary mission and let private companies handle the day to day cargo and passenger transport.

Of course, there are some concerns about having private companies launching rockets. One is that this will not actually free up money for NASA. After all, while it is common to assume that the private sector always does things better and cheaper than the government, this is something that requires proof. Can commercial companies actually do what NASA did cheaper and more effectively? If the answer is “yes”, then it makes sense to save money by going with the private company (all other things being equal). If this is not the case, then this would make less sense and undercut one justification for the government paying private companies to do what NASA was doing.

A second concern is that private companies can go out of business. Suppose that we become dependent on a private company to transport people and cargo to and from orbit and the company goes bankrupt or decides to get out the business. This could be a serious problem. Of course, it can be argued that someone else would step in to take over. Also, the government could step back into its old role in this regard. At least once it acquired all the needed equipment.

A third concern is the matter of safety. As the BP incident showed, companies have  a tendency to be more concerned about profits than with safety. As such, there is the reasonable concern that private space flight might maintain their rockets as some airlines maintain their planes, namely not all that well. Naturally, some might point out that the government had its own share of space disasters. However, these sometimes involved problems caused by private companies (such as the infamous O ring design flaw that doomed the Challenger).

While these concerns are worth considering, I do hope that commercial space flight becomes a reality. This is, in part, due to the fact that I am rather fond of science fiction and having greater activity in space simply appeals to me. I also favor it because this could provide a means by which the economy could grow for real (rather than “growing” via bubbles or financial witchcraft), thus providing more jobs. I also find it appealing because it could help us expand into space, thus decreasing the chance that we will be exterminated by a catastrophic event on earth.

America & Space

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 21, 2010
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first human l...

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Being a hard core sci-fi fan and space nerd, I was rather dismayed when I learned that the United States would be terminating or reducing numerous space programs. One thing that concerned me the most is that the United States will no longer have an effective means of delivering payloads into orbit. While it has been suggested that we can hitch a ride with the Russians or others, hitch hiking is hardly the way a super power should be traveling.

I do recognize the need to reduce spending and I am also well aware that throwing money into space is not a smart thing to do. Rather, we should aim at getting the maximum return for our investment. This probably means cutting back on manned missions as well as cutting various programs. However, space is critical to the United States.

First, there is the matter of cold, hard space cash. Today’s information economy depends on the satellite system. Obviously enough, having a significant control over space assets and access is critical to having a significant stake in this economy. The United States cannot afford to become a hitch hiker along this information superhighway.

Second, this is the matter of national defense. From command & control to intelligence gathering, the ability to access and, if need be, dominate, orbital space is absolutely essential to our security and defense. We simply cannot afford to be a second rate player in this matter. As such, we need a reliable launch vehicle to provide us with access to orbit. We also need to keep our satellite systems and other space systems on the cutting edge.

Third, there is the matter of science. While the impact of space on science is often exaggerated, it is rather important for advancing our knowledge of the universe and also the earth. To be completely pragmatic, it is also very important for weather prediction and monitoring natural disasters (such as volcanoes dumping ash into the atmosphere).

Fourth, there is the matter of survival. We know for a fact that the earth has been hit by objects from space. We also know for a fact that there is a chance that we will be hit by something big enough to do serious damage and even exterminate our civilizations. As such, we have a critical need to remain active in space. Getting a bit beyond basic survival, space contains a vast untapped bonanza of energy and resources. While things like asteroid mining and orbital solar panels are science fiction, the economy of the near future could very well involve exploiting space in a way analogous to how we exploited North America. That is, space could be the next frontier of exploitable resources. We know that there is plenty of energy available (solar, for example) at the very least. While we were the leaders in the old frontier, we need not be leaders in the new frontier-but we can (and should) be.

Fifth, there is the matter of pride. Having a space program is part of maintaining super power status. While this might seem to be wasteful and vain (like having a sports car and a Rolex watch), the fact that space offers important benefits moves a space program beyond mere ostentation. If having a space program were merely  a matter of showing off in an expensive way (like a drunk using $100 bills to light his cigar) I would be against it. However, it the reasons given above show it is more than that.

If the United States does not keep up in space, I am sure that other countries will be glad to step in and take our place at the table. On a more positive note, it does seem that there is some potential for private exploitation of space. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this will be a mere tourist trip to space gimmick or a robust private sector for space.

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