Why explore space?

By Phil Plait | November 28, 2007 11:00 am

Many people dismiss space exploration as a luxury, but this attitude is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.

Satellite technology has revolutionized our planet in almost every way. Weather satellites help us track developing hurricanes, allowing meteorologists to warn people days in advance. That saves thousands of lives. Communication satellites allow us instant access to information all over the world using radio, television, and phones. Some people credit in part the fall of the Soviet Union to ease of information access; the people in those countries saw what the rest of the world was doing, accelerating the process of reform. GPS satellites allow us to track ships, airplanes, and even people who may be lost or in need of help.

Reaching outward into space has helped us in other ways as well. A fleet of satellites (YOHKOH, SOHO and others) study the Sun so that we can better understand it. Huge solar eruptions can damage satellites and cause power blackouts (like in Quebec in 1989), and the Sun directly influences our environment. Understanding the Sun is a critical use of space technology.

Exploring the other planets helps us put the Earth in context. Why is Mars dry, cold, nearly airless, and dead? Why is Venus covered in thick clouds and suffering a runaway greenhouse effect? Why do hurricanes on Jupiter last for centuries? All these questions (and thousands more) help us understand our own planet, and allow us to see how humans are affecting it. Certainly understanding asteroids is important– we need to learn how to move them in case one is heading our way; an asteroid impact could wipe out all humans on Earth, so our very future is tied to space travel.

There are simple technological reasons for space exploration as well. Some estimates say that for every dollar invested in the Apollo program, more than 20 have been returned. That’s a huge payoff! Computer tech, communications, rocketry, and many other fields have benefited hugely from space exploration.

And there is one more reason. Humans strive to learn, to explore, to push boundaries, to see what’s around the corner. This is in many ways a fundamental need, and space exploration is a fantastic manifestation of that. The Universe is huge, beautiful, mysterious, and, ultimately, knowable. Even if the other reasons were not there, this alone should be enough for us pursue our exploration.


Comments (84)

  1. From Babylon 5:

    Jeffrey Sinclair: … And there’s a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes… [and] all of this… all of this… was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.

  2. DrFlimmer

    And where is the human being not enjoying the great pics of our huge space telescopes?
    Space is just so beautiful. And it’s literally true: Looking out into space tells you something about yourself (maybe our world would be a better place if more would actually do it!).

  3. Nigel Depledge

    A very nice piece, BA. Thank you.

    DrFlimmer – you remind me of the Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That certainly tells you something about yourself. :-)

  4. Justin

    But the Earth is flat and satellites are a hoax!!

    (I almost typed that with a straight face…)

  5. Michelle

    I think people dismiss space exploration mostly because the governments and the medias don’t make it sound that important. Seriously, newscasts just make the news on astromomy so… boring.

  6. Kate

    Thanks, Phil. What a wonderfully succinct, but complete, way of explaining it all. I have people ask me why we bother with astronomy, science, space flight, etc. all the time in my job. Sometimes its easy to get starry-eyed and talk about how important it is to us as a species – when what people will actually hear is: “Do you have a cell phone? Yes? You wouldn’t have one if we hadn’t gone to space.” And *then* they might listen to the starry-eyed stuff.

    Thanks for making my job easier :-)

  7. AJ

    I read BAB regularly and thoroughly enjoy it. Unfortunately as a result of the current social and political climate these days a good bit of the content is bad news. This state or that school making poor choices, misspending money, spreading lies, etc.

    It was really nice to read something on here with a positive spin. Thanks :)

  8. Ryan

    I agree with most of this but I think there’s a fundamental problem in your statement. People don’t look at space travel (technology, exploration, etc) as a luxury, but rather as a scientific curiosity. That’s the real reason it hasn’t taken off as fast as some other industries. It’s because it isn’t really an industry.

    For example: electricity was a curiosity among scientists until Edison used it to bring clean, constant light into the home. Within a few decades electric power was everywhere. There was money to be made in them thar light bulbs!

    Same with computers. When computers were the size of a room and less powerful than the TI-83 I had in highschool, nobody cared. A “world need for maybe 5 computers” remember? Even when they were using puch cards they weren’t worth more than interesting machines down at the university. But when Apple stepped in with the mouse they became buisness machines. *They made money.*

    Space technology needs to become a lucrative buisness. Satelites are an amazing start; they’ve revolutionized life on Earth. Space power could easily do the same. Or asteroid mining. There’s $20-30 TRILLION worth of metal in one single asteroid. That’s about half of the GLOBAL GDP. Space based agriculture could be equally lucrative.

    The problem is that instead of looking at space as a resource, we look at it as something that must be studied slowly, carefully, methodically. Not to give him props, but Hitler wasn’t in the least careful when he poured research into jet engines (see what I did there? eh? eh?). And the jet revolutionized world wide travel. The Manhattan project wasn’t a slow baby step with a ten thousand person strong burocracy pulling the project back (read NASA and the shuttle/ISS/etc). It was a race for dear life.

    Until space is treated as a buisness, a necessity, something that will make MONEY, nobody is going to care. If nobody cares, no real engineering development will be done because there’s no money for it.

    Space is important. The only way to make people see that is to put a dollar value on it that’s in the black.

  9. Brodie

    The problem is that the money space technology creates is all behind the scenes. Corporations don’t want people to know how or why communications and weather predictions work, they just want people to know they can be relied on. NASA and space technology bring in buckets of money.

    Exploration is where the reckoning is. What people have trouble figuring out is why we need to send humans to Mars. What will they do at such a significantly higher cost, that a probe cannot do, and to what advantage?

  10. I presume that this is the preface to your new book? If it isn’t it very well could be.

    Wonderful writing. Evocative. Inspiring. Almost Saganistic.

    Keep it up Dr. Phil.

  11. Ryan

    Real quick, Phil I don’t want any of my posts here to sound insulting. That’s not my intent. I’m just expressing my views of why the space program gets so little consideration.

    Now, in all seriousness, why bother going to Mars? Or the Moon for that matter? They’re hostile environments with very little to offer. Search for signs of life? Sure, but that’s a scientific curiosity, not a buisness proposition. A launching point for humanity? Maybe, but why launch out of one gravity well just to jump down into another?

    Niven’s ‘bubble formed worlds’ (rotating space stations formed from hollowed out asteroids) may be science fiction, but the science is sound. The engineering may be 50 or 100 years off (it shouldn’t be, but you’ve got today’s political climate) but the idea works. Once you have a city in space designed from the ground up to serve humans, you can do anything you want up there. Instead of dumping old satelites into the atmosphere to burn up, you can catch them and recycle the material. Surely that’s several hundred jobs right there (if not thousands). At a cost of $10-15 grand per POUND to get payload to orbit, you’d think that recovering the material that we put up there would be a priority.

    These are the kinds of things that might get public support. Factories, cities, manufacturing platforms etc that provide a living location and jobs for thousands of people. But a 5 – 10 man mission to Mars? Why bother?

  12. Mostly Harmless

    I wanted to chime in and add to Ryan’s point. I agree that there needs to be an increased business/private interest in space for space exploration and space technology to really grow, but I don’t think this requires the public sector to get out of space exploration. I’m not sure Ryan was arguing for that, but I think it is a point worth adding.

    Actually, I think it would be a bad thing for the public sector to get out of space exploration completely exactly because we need public funding for the basic research questions that Phil talks about, plus large scale projects like developing some way to stop an asteroid and other projects that don’t have a direct profit motive to motivate private industry.

  13. The argument for exploring space through rovers and other machines is a strong one, but how does this argue for space exploration by sending humans into space? This is an honest question on my part because I am not familiar with whether all the provided examples required people to go out to space (or if they did, then do we still need to?). It seems as though a lot of the debate on this topic pertains to whether it is worth the cost of supporting manned missions and that not many people disapprove of more communications satellites and better cellphones.

    Does the post apply equally well to sending humans into space as it does to supporting new satellite and robotic missions?

  14. Togan

    Why explore space? Because we can!

    Besides that, I’m also for removing access to technology brought to us by space exploration for those who say it’s not important :)

  15. Arnaud

    Brodie, that’s because most people don’t understand the way science and especially research works. You get that in biology or medical research as well.

    They will tell you: “why do we need to spend billions to send humans to the moon when we only need satellites?” When you show them the beneficial results of the moon missions they will say “Aaaahh!” But they will still think we went to the moon with these results in mind and not that they were useful by-products and when you ask for money to go to Mars they will ask the same question, manned-mission or not (because anyway they have only a very small idea of how much space exploration costs – they just know it’s expensive!).

    In short they think that you just need to pour money and attention in the sectors that are of immediate interest and/or proven productivity, they don’t realize that a lot of scientific discoveries are totally unexpected.

  16. Quiet_Desperation

    Why explore space?

    Sexy space alien babes!

    At least *some* of us have our priorities straight!

  17. Michael H

    Great post Phil.
    I notice that all of your arguments except one support the exploration of space using satellites, probes and robots. Only one for *human* exploration of space. That is what bothers me most. What arguments can one find for sending people into space.
    The Spin-offs make life better argument does not hold for me. If we need a new type of metal alloy; sending people into space is not a sensible way to get it.
    I want to see humans being born, growing up, working, living, growing old and yes even dying in space. But I cannot find any compelling reasons for us doing this in my lifetime.

  18. B. Dewhirst

    But… those are not the priorities of our space program, nor were they the priorities at any point in the past of which I’m aware.

  19. !AstralProjectile

    Quiet_Desperation exaggerates (perhaps…), but his POV comes closest to mine. I’d be ecstatic if we found a microbe on Europa.

  20. KaiYeves

    Why? No, my friend, the question is why NOT?

  21. > I want to see humans being born, growing up, working, living, growing old and yes even dying in space. But I cannot find any compelling reasons for us doing this in my lifetime.

    The problem with human spaceflight is that humans are not at all adapted to the space environment and the systems required to sustain the human animal in said environment are not only heavy, but can only be scaled down and miniaturized so much.

    I’m not much for Kurzweil’s starry-eyed visions of technoutopia in the Singularity, and very doubtful the Singularity is going to happen. However, I do think that if the transhumanist step of brain uploading actually ends up being feasible, then the barriers to human spaceflight essentially cease to be. Launching an intelligence into space with mass and energy properties similar to TMA-1 under my desk would be much, much easier than sending a human with attendant life support, and you’d get all the advantages of sending humans (free thought and initiative) without the downsides (squishy meat bodies) with the added benefit of tailoring the robotic instrumentality to the tasks at hand. Throw in a small machine shop (nothing like nanite silliness) and the ability to self-modify, and there you go.

  22. Joules

    Anyone who doesn’t see why we should continue to explore space need only read. Hooray literacy! (two personal musts are BA’s wonderful blog, and Asimov, who also proposed the hollowed-out asteroid idea)

  23. Ken B

    > Besides that, I’m also for removing access to technology brought
    > to us by space exploration for those who say it’s not important
    I like that idea. (Heck, simply pointing out a list of everything that they use/need that’s an offshoot of the space programs might suffice for some of the less clueless.) Sorry, we’re taking away your cell phone, computer, TV, GPS, etc, etc, etc. (Plus a zillion other, less obvious, things that aren’t coming to me right away.)

    My father (a retired physician) had some patients of the “no animal research” variety. He pointed out that the insulin that they need to live was from animal research (didn’t they used to make the insulin using animals?), and asked them if they would refuse to continue taking insulin. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall what he said their replies were, though I doubt any of then stopped taking it.)

  24. Thorin

    “That’s a huge payoff! Computer tech, communications, rocketry, and many other fields..”

    As if you left out Velcro and Tang :)

  25. Jim

    Well said! I will be posting a copy of this on the bulitin board outside my classroom.

  26. Speaking of Venus, it seems that a probe has confirmed that the planet has Earth-like lightning. Given that Venus’ atmosphere is 100 times as dense as Earth’s, how would that effect the whole “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” method of determining how far away the lightning is?
    In case I’m ever playing golf on Venus, I would need to know when to head for the safety of the clubhouse.

  27. Lance

    As a kid I watched the Apollo missions in awe. I still get a shiver down my spine when I remember the live TV feed from Apollo 11. “One small step for Man. One giant leap for Mankind.” (even if Neil Armstrong muffed the wording), were perhaps the most momentous words ever spoken by a member of our species.

    As for economic reasons to pursue manned space flight are concerned, did John F. Kennedy try to sell America on the economic benefits of space travel? I think not.

    While some cynical observers would argue that fear of the USSR was the motivation for the space program I would beg to differ. America saw itself as the embodiment of “manifest destiny”. We needed no practical reason to explore space. We KNEW it was our mission, our responsibility, to go to the moon. Was it hubris? Perhaps.

    But we did it by god.

    I’m not sure who we are as a people now. I hope we are still a country that realizes our potential for greatness. I hope we are still a country that fearlessly eschews pedestrian economic by-products as the justification for first hand exploration of the universe. For surely when future generations chronicle the Apollo program there will be no picture of a calculator as the real reward for our amazing and breathtaking endeavor.

    America is a very different place than the self-confident “can do” country of my youth. Maybe we needed to be taken down a peg. Certainly much social progress has been made to bring everyone into our society, but that painful process has come at a cost.

    Development of that masterpiece of gargantuan thrust, the Saturn rocket, would probably be seen as “ecologically unfriendly”. We would probably never use the term “colonization” to describe our inter-planetary goals in space due to its political baggage. We have grown self-conscious and hesitant about our ambitions and our place in the world.

    As a ten year old boy I had no such reservations about our place in the cosmos. I still don’t. I just wonder who will step forward with me.

  28. Lance:

    Given that people are now honestly arguing to keep the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere “pristine” I think you may just be onto something there. Somehow we went past ‘tolerant’ and ‘open-minded’ and straight into ‘soft-harmless-toy’ “With Folded Hands” territory. Good gods, we can’t possibly offend anyone. They’ll be put out. Not only that, but we can’t possibly mine the Moon. We’ll make it less pretty.

    Sometimes the sheer namby-pamby mushmealyness of people absolutely sickens me.

    There’s resources in them thar rocks, and there ain’t no-body or no-thing livin’ on ’em, so I don’t sees the harm in puttin’ me pick-axe to ’em.

  29. Brodie

    Lance, sure manifest destiny had a lot to do with it, but even that concept is steeped in conquest and superiority. I may well be a cynic, but if you’re suggesting that Sputnik and Yury Gagarin were not serious catalysts for our space program then maybe you’re too idealist. Exploration is one thing, but the Mercury/Apollo missions were a fever pitch.

    As for mining the moon, watch out for large black slabs.

  30. Ken B

    > As a kid I watched the Apollo missions in awe. I still get a shiver
    > down my spine when I remember the live TV feed from Apollo 11.

    You do know that the entire Apollo 11 footage is available on DVD, don’t you?


    Strange… Apollo 11 seems to be missing from their DVD catalog. Perhaps I can get a good price on eBay for my copy? :-)

  31. Peter

    >While some cynical observers would argue that fear of the USSR was the motivation for the space program I would beg to differ.

    Lance, if Cold War one upsmanship wasn’t the sole motivation of the Apollo program, why did it go from gigantic triumph to boring been-there-done-that in the public imagination within 3 short years after the moon landing, to a point now almost 40 years later where a sadly large percentage of humanity cynically doubts we were ever capable of it to begin with?

  32. Off topic but of interest: The Flying Spaghetti Monster Appears in a Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie (http://www.gamerevolution.com/manifesto/view.php?id=397)

  33. Ryan


    I’m fine with the idea of Manifest Destiny as a motivator (not so much in the moral sense, but if it gets you moving I’m all for it). I’d be happy with another Cold War if it got us moving. Unfortunately, our govenrment is very busy throwing our future (I’m 24, so I can still call it my future) into the sand. That being said, the only way that space exploration will continue is in the private sector. And the only way that will happen is if there’s money to be made. There have been industries built around satellites: TV, communications, GPS… and the GPS satelites aren’t even privately owned. But I garuntee you there would be a fit if the US government tried to decomission them (unlikely with the military uses) or perhaps encode the signal (slightly more likely, but still never going to happen). Industry would pay lobyists to keep those satelites going because they make money. Until someone proves that there’s a viable buisness plan in space, we won’t go there.

  34. Lance


    Have at it I say!


    Certainly cold war hysteria was a “catalyst” as you point out, but it was more of a spur to be “first” rather than the sole inspiration for the mission.

    Go ahead and whack that “black slab” maybe it will lead us to a real “star gate” odyssey.


    Didn’t know that. Thanks for the information. I wonder why Apollo 11 was excluded? Oh that’s right, it was faked!


    The end of the Apollo missions left no clear “next step”. Also don’t forget that the early seventies were a time of great social upheaval, Water Gate, Viet Nam etc. In many ways our society has been rudderless since. Certainly the space shuttles lack of any real long term mission is evidence of this.

    I have hope that we can find that next mission that would bind our country together in a way it has never been since the days of Apollo.


    Maybe you’re right and corporations will take up the challenge, but replacing manifest destiny with the pursuit of the almighty dollar doesn’t get my juices going.

  35. tacitus

    I believe there are two great revolutions in space exploration in the offing.

    The first, the discovery of exoplanets, is already underway, though we have barely begun to scratch the surface. While exploring our own, wonderfully varied solar system is of critical importance, it is but a very tiny, tiny sample of what’s out there, and thus we are extremely limited in what we can learn about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

    We have already confirmed that other solar systems are commonplace and that direct analogs of our own probably are too. Next up is the discovery of more Earth-like planets, and planets capable of supporting life. That may well have already begun with the launch of the COROT mission last winter. The first wave of results is pending.

    But of more importance is that within a few years we will have whole populations of solar systems and exoplanets to investigate and explore through telescopes–thousands and then tens of thousands of worlds within reach of our finest instruments on Earth, on the Moon, and in space. The technology to directly image the nearest of these worlds is within reach (perhaps 25 years away), with the capability to detect the chemical signature of their atmospheres and, perhaps, the detection of life itself.

    We could truly be on the cusp of a golden age of discovery to rival anything we have seen before in all the history of astronomy.

    But for all this we need to continue to explore space, to invest the money, and to develop the new technologies for propulsion and imaging. And I think that part of the effort will depend on the second revolution in space exploration which I think will happen within two or three decades.

    Yes, it’s the old favorite, the space elevator. I understand there are detractors and many who believe it will never work (and they may have valid reasons for thinking so) but given how fast carbon nanotube-based technology is advancing, I would not like to bet against the possibility that we will see the first space elevator go up in my lifetime (I’m in my mid-40s). Just this month is has been reported that a method for spinning threads made of nanotubes (at a rate of meters per minute) can sometimes produce fibers of up to 20GPa in strength. That is ten times what was achievable a couple of years ago, and close to 1/3 the minimum strength required to create an elevator ribbon.

    Yes, it’s very early days, and there are a ton of problems to solve, but the payoff is spectacularly good if it happens, with the cost per launch eventually dropping to a fraction of what it costs today. New, massive space telescopes, unmanned supply ships to the Moon and Mars, unmanned missions to the outer and inner planets–all would be much more affordable, and less risky than before.

    Manned spaceflight is exciting and can also be rewarding, but for the likes of me, and the overwhelming majority of people on Earth who will never get anywhere near space, the chance to explore strange new worlds in solar systems far, far, away, (sorry!) through the efforts of astronomers and the engineers who build the instruments is about as rewarding and exciting as it can get.

    Of course, the long shot, the chance of a hole-in-one, the ultimate dream, is that SETI will hit the jackpot, but I’m not holding my breath :)

  36. BaldApe

    MIchael H,

    You don’t go to the Moon to develop new technologies, you develop new technologies to go to the Moon. The spinoffs are gravy. The thing is, if you just try to develop the spinoffs, you don’t get as much. Most of the reason is that you never knew they would ever be developed in the first place.

    The way to motivate the morons politicians to fund it is to get them scared of insignificant risks, or convince them there’s a “gap” of some kind with whatever enemy/competitor they get excited about.

    For instance, I understand that the consequences of an asteroid colliding with the Earth would be more than terrible. I also think the chance of such an event in my lifetime is so vanishingly small that I can’t see worrying about it. OTOH, if we can scare the politicians into funding asteroid-moving as a project, we could snag a medium sized metallic asteroid, bring it to our neighborhood, and not have to scrape in the ground for our metals any more.

    But the real reason for exploring space is that it’s way cool.

  37. Ken B says: “Sorry, we’re taking away your cell phone, computer, TV, GPS, etc, etc, etc.”

    This touches on a point that no one has brought up yet. NASA isn’t the only government agency doing space research. GPS is the most prominent example of a military space program spinoff, but there are lots of others (like the miniaturized imaging CCD’s in your cell phone).

    The biggest spinoff benefits from a manned space program for regular folks is medicine. Outside of the life support devices for astronauts being adapted for civilians (EMT’s, etc.), there is the basic research into human physiology that has lead to a whole new understanding of how we work.


    Lance says: “The end of the Apollo missions left no clear “next step”…Certainly the space shuttle’s lack of any real long term mission is evidence of this.”

    These two things actually answer each other. The “next step” that NASA was desperately pushing (starting around 1966 when it was clear they had no future after the moon landings) was a permanent manned space station. Skylab was supposed to be a test bed for living in space using up leftover Apollo hardware but the real thing was supposed to be along the classic “donut in space” built in pieces. However, they needed a “truck” to transport materials up to the building site, hence the Shuttle. Naturally Congress wouldn’t fund both programs so NASA had to choose between a station with no way of building it, or the shuttle with nothing for it to do that couldn’t be done cheaper (as it turned out) by expendable boosters. At least they got to build the ISS with it, so its purpose was fulfilled.

    – Jack

  38. Great post! I can’t stand it when someone whines and complains about “all the money we spend” on space exploration (even though the total NASA budget is something like less than 1% of the total US federal budget). Money aside, there have been some great inventions as a result of space exploration. If I’m not mistaken, velcro was a NASA invention as well as a bunch of other stuff we take for granted. And, as many have said before me, exploring space is just cool!

  39. zeb

    I think the most important reason we must go into space is for our species to suvive. It’s very simple: out planet will not last forever. Whether it only takes a few decades or a billion years, when it goes, we go, unless we’re not around.

  40. Geophysicist

    “Because it’s there”

    George Mallory – 1924

  41. For some specific examples of science that started out as astronomy, and connections to technologies, see:
    “The Cosmos in Your Pocket”, http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.0671

    Comments welcome.


  42. Phil:
    You should take some time to lecture (fellow UVa grad) Katie Couric on the need for space exploration and science. It was you who called my attention to her inexcusable editorial statement regarding NASA’s budget.

    If you could get one of the Apollo astronauts to help get her attention and buttonhole her in person for a little lecture on the -REAL- value to ordinary people of the space budget, then maybe she’ll come around to seeing things more clearly. I imagine that you + Buzz Aldrin at CBS HQ would get the job done. I can hear the secretary on the intercom: “Ms. Couric? There’s a man named Buzz Aldrin and a Dr. Plait here to see you?”

    Did you meet any of the astronauts at TAM or any of the other meetings you’ve attended? Perhaps you can send them the link to Katie’s abysmal editorial on the CBS server to show them what’s at stake. They’d be on the next plane to NYC!

    Katie is definately a bonehead, but she’s got a heckuva bully pulpit and she needs a little EPO intervention…

  43. My question is how do we get the government, and the eyes of the nation, on science? They did it back during Apollo. We can do it again. Since Nixon, the evangelical right has been pushing hard on an agenda. They took over the Republican Party, and turned it into the science denying pack of loons that run the country today. And they did it with a ‘base’ of 20% of the US population.

    Rationalists, who ignore all the woo woo out there comprise at LEAST 20% of the electorate. What would it take for us to put aside our political differences, and take over a party? Right now, we have all the current candidates pandering to all sorts of mythologies, and giving lip service to true science. If we could stand together and let them know that they would miss out on 1/5th of the entire population, I bet we could see some action.

  44. Larry

    I’m an old man and don’t know how much longer I have. But space exploration and the universe have convinced me that there is no god nor
    heaven out there although there may be some hell acomin’. Just looking out at space reaffirms my aetheism everyday.
    Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of our choir have it right.

  45. bassmanpete

    For instance, I understand that the consequences of an asteroid colliding with the Earth would be more than terrible. I also think the chance of such an event in my lifetime is so vanishingly small that I can’t see worrying about it.

    But it doesn’t have to be a ‘dinosaur killer’ asteroid. Tunguska Event sized rocks arrive a lot more frequently. Imagine one of those exploding over a major city! Actually, that might not be too bad if it was LA – maybe then some decent films would make it to the cinemas :)

    I imagine others would have a favourite city they’d like to see wiped off the map.

  46. Jeffersonian

    It’s pointless to compare today’s space-poli climate to that under the Kennedy administration. The cost today of repeating what Kennedy what ground it terminally. It’s possible that we may never be able to repay our debt to China for funding the Iraq War pt. II. But doing so will be a priority for the upcoming generation none the less. America made her choice and the result will be a scaled down version of NASA compared to what should have been; that’s just economic fact. That said, I’m not sold on the value of a manned Mars visitation either. There’s still more to do closer to home.

    Phil mentions:
    “Some people credit in part the fall of the Soviet Union to ease of information access”
    [b]This subject interests me and I would love a link on this.[/b]

  47. Ade

    I’m going to be totally shallow and just go with the “we should do it because space exploration is frikkin’ cool!” argument 😉

  48. Phil, this is as good a justification for our country’s space program as I’ve ever seen. Nicely done.

    However… it could be argued that today’s space program is not providing the same return-on-investment that the Apollo program did. We are not really pushing the envelope any more, just going in circles around the earth. It’s only when we set lofty goals for ourselves — like a manned mission to Mars — that we really end up benefiting from the kinds of new technologies and advancements that Apollo gave us.

  49. P.D.

    I agree, our space program has benefited all people,(even if they aren’t aware of it).
    But I must point out that the benefits mentioned have almost nothing to do with humans in space. Manned space is a luxury. And I’m not all that certain it can be maintained much longer.
    Space geeks like myself, would love to see humans land on Mars, in my lifetime. However, we must try to stay reality based. In an era of record budget deficits, a decaying national infrastructure, a endless war in Iraq and many other problems. The likelihood of Congress funding such a project, is remote. And the private sector will certainly not do it.
    So, I agree we should continue with our explorations, however if it does continue, it will be done with robotic spacecraft.
    It’s either robots, or no space exploration at all.
    Best regards

  50. HernanKowalsky

    Why going to the space,why investigate about faraway stars…

    I would not want scientists trying to duplicate an earth based fusion reactor before they have investigated the ones that happen naturally, in stars.

    I would not want to find that there IS actually a non hostile environment out there just whe we could use it the most and we could not reach it because we never took the steps to learn how to.

    Why can you dream of getting a GPS for christmast and not understand that without space investigation this could not be possible?

    Since I was a kid I always wanted to study how to grow plants in space, unrestricted by surface limitations and with as much light as you can get. (its not that simple) but all my studies are useless if we do not investigate how to setup a permanent base in space.

    Solar panels working all day long.

    A wayt to transport food and energy to anywhere in the world when its needed , where its needed.

    If nobody had investigated the steam engine there would have been no industrial revolution, no train no today for us as we know it, please let’s not deny tomorrow to the people that will be.

  51. flynjack

    Tacitus, “Yes, it’s the old favorite, the space elevator.” I agree with you. I see no reason why the technological problems with the space elevator would fail to be solved given the advances in materials weve witnessed in just my lifetime. It may yet take 50 years but ultimately it is the most likely solution….thanks Arthur C. Clarke.

    Manned space flight is neccesary from the non-science buisness end of things. Hawkings stated the case well, eventually a Earth disaster will come and make life here difficult if not impossible. As corny as it is “life finds a way”, and our way will eventually be the stars or extinction. I much prefer the former.

    Thanks BA for your well written blog.

  52. Brent

    Hmm, if cell phones only exist due to space exploration, then I vote against NASA! Darn things are a blasted nuisance. Anyway, one can trace many things to root technologies, but I think wireless phones would exist without rocket launches.

    PP, your science may be on target, but economic statements as “Some estimates say that for every dollar invested in the Apollo program, more than 20 have been returned” perpetuate the fuzzy thinking you often castigate! Some estimates? No attribution, eh? Economics is a field full of zany ideas and that notion of ROI is just preposterous. Shoot, Nevada gaming “returns” many-fold to the community, does that mean it is a “good idea” and that government should fund it further?

    It’s shameful to see an intelligent community like this one falling victim to this type of validation for its supported notions. Please don’t base NASA funding on such ideas that really have little intrinsic economic backbone. If it were so, then another QUADRILLION dollar investment would solve the national debt. ALL government spending simply diverts OUR money (taxes) into someone else’s hands and THAT will ALWAYS reduce overall productivity of the system as a whole. It might be a good idea, but this “reason” is falsehood….

  53. Brent

    Bart –
    You can brag about being “rationalists”, but you still have a very biased paternal agenda!
    “the evangelical right has been pushing hard on an agenda. They took
    over the Republican Party, and turned it into the science denying
    pack of loons that run the country today.”

    Go for it and take over either party; BOTH of them are not getting much done since we elect “panderers” rather than leaders. You can blame Christians for many things, but it IS a cop-out you know (just try and argue that the Democrats have ANY greater support for your “science” causes). Anyway, the USA still generates the world’s best science and engineering TODAY, so ranting about government is stupid when the only real resource for technology progress is private capital.

  54. Eric

    I’ve been a big fan of space travel since I was very little (I have scrapbooks from gemini, though I was only 3-4 at the time).

    But the problem with discussions about the value of space in the US is that they are always tied to discussions about NASA.

    The NASA of Apollo did great things with very few errors. The human spaceflight side of NASA after Apollo has made a series of errors, from the their lying about what shuttle would be able to do (it was far too egregious to just call it “exaggeration”) to bad decisions that led to the demise of Challenger and Columbia.

    And don’t get me started on ISS, where we spend half a biillion $$$ just to lift some hardware into space, something we could do with a big dumb booster considerably more cheaply.

    So, manned spaceflight could be considerably cheaper.

    Having said all that, most Americans considerably overestimate how much money gets spent on NASA on a yearly basis. In a recent survey, americans thought that NASA received about 24% of the federal budget (near what is spent on defense), when in fact NASA is a little over half of a percent.


  55. Ziusudra


    City, fft, small fry, imagine it smacking into the north Atlantic or Indian oceans.

  56. Peter

    Cell phones only exist thanks to Star Trek. Bluetooth headsets were inspired by the Borg, and those melty-looking minivans everywhere look like the boxy, improbable shuttlecraft from Next Gen. Star Trek has a lot to answer for.

  57. Gary Ansorge

    Space, the final frontier,,,
    “Yoh, Sheriff, Miss Kitty has a gift for you,,,”

    I look forward to the resurgence of the frontier mentality, wherein ANYTHING is possible. At least we won’t have to commit genocide on those pesky natives,,,

    Think I’ll head over to Miss Kittys bar on Ceres and have a brewskii,,,

    GAry 7

  58. Dennis McClain-Furmanski

    In Analog some time in the 70’s there was an article covering this. At the time they figured that:

    The return on investment from NASA R&D through the end of the Apollo program was 4.5:1 for just four areas: cryogenics, medical telemetry, systems engineering (in particular systems analysis software) and microminiturization of electronics.

    One communications satellite (of that era) prevented digging up of several square miles of earth for copper ore, to make hundreds of miles of wire, which had to be hung on thousands of poles, which meant that many trees had to be cut down.

    Weather satellites up through that time had saved thousands of lives (mostly by hurricane tracking) and saved the shipping industry millions of dollars in lost cargo from ships that would have otherwise sunk.

    Since that time NASA’s Office of Technology Transfer has sold thousands of patents to individuals and companies. Since government is public domain, they are not allowed to make profit on anything. The patents are sold for what they figure is the cost of running the Technology Transfer program to process a given patent. They have sold many patents for $40,000 to $50,000 which have made the purchasers millionaires. If NASA were allowed to license the patents rather than sell them off cheap, they’d not only not need funding, they’d make more money than is given to DoD for funding. They’d be richer than Bill Gates.

    The article also listed how many times more than the NASA budget Americans spent for things like pizza, bubble gum, cosmetics and pornography; typically 10 to 20 times more. It also said that all the above developments, some of them life saving, cost Americans 3.5 cents per person per day (the NASA budget, in per capita division).

    These were figures up through about 1980. I’d be interested to see them updated. For instance, one communications satellite now carries thousands of time more communications power than those of the 70’s.

    When “private” commercial space efforts start doing significant R&D rather than working with off-the-shelf stuff, they will start making big money from their patents. THAT will be a major milestone, as they will start to make more than just a little profit from launch services.

  59. Brent

    Dennis (with the really cool name there!), good points made. I just love hearing about how government “doesn’t profit” from its (that is OUR) investment, so my taxes help to enrich entrepreneurs. Certainly technology drives productivity and improves our lives. However, it is “game playing” to note that the alternative (old) way “would have” done such and such. By this standard, if we did not have the internal-combustion-engine, then we would now have 20 billion horses, horse-shoe fitting would be a TRILLION dollar industry, and we would have to dispose of several billion tons of manure every year. However, this is NOT the case; the old system could not support that greater capacity. It is precisely the improvements from the technology that permit scalability and the broad acceptance and spread of new tools. Thus, without satellites, we simply had less bandwidth to Europe (for example) and we would not have strung (that mythical) copper wire everywhere (probably due to that cost blocking demand). We have billions of cell phones because they are cheap (enough), not because there was an initial need. They are cheap because the technology evolved and may have been enabled by taxpayers (e.g. government).

  60. Ray

    bassmanpete and ziusudra,
    See Fox News

    Some us in teh aerospace industry really are guiding our companies to invest IR&D and profit $ in space-enabling technologies — sometimes focused on winning specific (Government and commercial) contracts, sometimes as potential breakthroughs (what we call “disruptive” tech). We spend time regularly arguing about “value” propositions to our (usually) business and financial exective leadership. Unfortunately, scientists and engineers rarely become CEOs anymore.

  61. Brent,

    First off, I’m not going to try to argue that the Demopublicans are any different than the Republocrats. Both just different wings of the same bird today. I don’t have much hope for an education and science driven government during the next round of elections.

    Also, I don’t blame ‘Christians’ for anything. I blame the science denying fundamentalist wackjobs who went out of their way back in the ’80s to make the Republican party their whipping boys. Now that this whiny minority of the US has flexed its muscle enough, the Other half of the sick bird is pandering to them. Rational people aren’t one issue voters. You cant stand up a candidate and say ‘This one is for Supercollider funding! Everyone vote for him!’ and expect every Agnostic and Atheist to check the right box at the polls. On the other hand, the group organized by Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts are like Pavlovs dog, all you need to do is put up the simplistic talking points, and they line up behind the candidate the preachers tell them to.

    Dennis cleared up the argument about “..only real resource for technology progress is private capital.” argument. I’m all for private space research. I think its vital, and it will be the catalyst truly launches us into space. But to think that private enterprise alone will get us there in time (to not go extinct) is naive. We need a firm partnership between government science and private science to keep succeeding. The problem with your statement that were currently the leaders misses the point. It takes 10-20 years to develop critical thinking minds. How bankrupt of good people will we be for the 8 years of the current administrations denial of real science, and its strong efforts at suppressing it?

    B.A. on a side note, below my first comment in this thread, someone quoted from my personal blog, and used the name of my blog as their name. I’m not a big fan of self promotion of that type, (cough, Denyse O’Leary, cough) and just wanted to let you know it wasn’t me.

  62. Brent

    I probably need to read more, but I see that BA frequently states that this administration is so anti-science, he gets quite upset. However, I really don’t see a significant difference between the government administrations. Certainly, there have been “pet” projects for funding, but Bush is a BIG FRIEND of NASA – more so than Clinton.

    So, is the complaint really based on Stem Cells and Evolution? Personally, I think this is the entire argument by the “Bush is anti-science” groupies. I find it naive to say that this 8-year period is so harmful; there must be better evidence that is simply so obvious that no one here see fit to provide it. Clinton’s 8-years was similarly bashed and his detractors were exagerating the problem. I feel that this is just the same rhetoric…

    Certainly, everyone of us must know that politics trumps and the the scientific community is actually quite political and has its “camps” as well. I only see groups facing off and each one (both BA and the conservatives/right-wingers/ID-supporters) stating that they are absolutely right and the other side should not be heard at all.

    Frankly, PP is a demagogue on these issues, and especially on global warming, his “there is no more room for dispute” stance surprises me….

  63. Laurie

    Jeffery Sinclair/Babylon 5 sums it up quite well.

    After watching Challenger explode in 1986 and listening to commentators/others raise similar questions “Why?”, I was reminded of this exchange between Raymond Massey (Cabal) and Edward Chapman (Passworthy) at the end of “Things to Come (1936)”


    Raymond Passworthy : Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?

    Oswald Cabal : Rest enough for the individual man — too much, and too soon — and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.

    Raymond Passworthy : But… we’re such little creatures. Poor humanity’s so fragile, so weak. Little… little animals.

    Oswald Cabal : Little animals. If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?
    From a different time and different sensibilities….yet very much the same as Babylon 5’s “Jeffery Sinclair” explanation

  64. Monte Davis

    “Weather satellites help us track developing hurricanes… saves thousands of lives.”

    This is true (and is the sexy high-profile version that NASA public affairs has been dishing up forever) — but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Think for a minute about the aggregate “value added” of 45 years of improved forecasts to all the farmers, shippers, construction projects… every human activity that is influenced by weather.

    I spent several months in research trying to quantify this. It’s nearly impossible, because

    (1) weather data was already a “public good” when TIROS I went up, and is not monetized, nor its benefits formally assessed (you want to process a half-billion questionnaires?)

    (2) it’s hard to tease out improvements due to satellite data from other forecasting improvements, or to estimate what it might have cost to get the same kind of synoptic data without satellites

    None of the “weather economics” experts I talked to was willing to go on the record, but their back-of-the-envelope numbers were well up in the tens of trillions — more than everything ever spent on civil and military space combined.

    This does nothing to sell manned spaceflight, of course, or for that matter any “push the envelope” agenda; it’s quiet, taken-for-granted, background value from space. But it’s there, and it’s huge… and we might learn something from its very invisibility.

  65. I still think manned spaceflight has a niche for pushing the technological envelope, but more in a Man Plus and sustaining environments sort of way. Either we evolve ourselves to a point where the environment becomes more or less irrelevant (take that, hippies! We’ll grow your hemp solely to BURN for our BIOMATTER power plants!) or we develop our ELSS technology to the point where we can reconstruct our local Spaceship Earth environment.

  66. Beautiful post–and dead right.

  67. mrG

    “an astronomer, writer, and skeptic” … yet skepticism is peculiarly absent from the entire article? Yes, it is true that we have benefits that have accrued from the space program, however the costs of those benefits were only affordable because the long-term costs were ignored. Let’s take two and only two salient examples: first, the recent space shuttle test to measure the greenhouse gasses that discovered the shuttle launcher itself was a significant source of those gasses, and second the news today that only just today have we tested the techology to safely return the booster stages of rockets, all previous launches having left the main thrusters to rust in the ocean. Add in those clean up costs, for starters …

    when anyone offers me a gift horse, the first thing I want to do is pry open the mouth and take a good long look at those teeth. Guess that disqualifies me as a cool technocrat, eh?

  68. >first, the recent space shuttle test to measure the greenhouse gasses that discovered the shuttle launcher itself was a significant source of those gasses

    Negligible comparable to, say, automotive or aeronautical pollutant output by inspection.

    > and second the news today that only just today have we tested the techology to safely return the booster stages of rockets, all previous launches having left the main thrusters to rust in the ocean.

    Where they were picked up by this wonderful thing called a ‘boat’ and ferried back to be reused.

  69. I need to have a student of mine read this post, Phil. She left me speechless the other day by saying she didn’t care about space at all. (We were working on our Cassini Scientist-for-a-day essays at the time.) I blogged about it here: http://www.computernewbie.info/wheatdogg/2007/11/12/is-space-boring/

    Thanks for explaining so eloquently what I could not at the time attempt.

  70. Essay by Drew: The Final Frontier

    Space is often referred to as the final frontier because it is the last boundary left for humans to discover. Mankind has only scratched the surface of space with our current accomplishments and advancements; obtaining a true understanding for the astronomical complexities of space is a mind-boggling objective. While many people argue that the proposition of exploring space is a waste of huge capital that could be better spent on our own planet, the benefits of exploring space far exceed any monetary costs. While our planet has many areas that are suffering, establishing dominance in space could cure such flaws in ways that serve the human race in realms that go beyond the inhabitation of planet earth. There are two major reasons to explore space: measurable short-term advantages that aid us in our daily lives, and the other motive is something we cannot realize until much further down the road. Some day in the distant future, the mystifying potentials of space will transcend human beings into a state of true oneness and empathetic bliss upon completing our journey into the unknown frontier of space.

    Many people view space exploration as merely flying ships into outer space to see what we happen to stumble across, but space exploration has been integrated into many facets of modern life. Space exploration has bred satellite technology, which has become an integral part of modern living. Satellites allow us the ability to monitor environmental indicators such as, ozone holes, pollution, oil spills and other factors that may pose threats to the human race (Pelton). Satellites have also saved lives due to their ability to forecast and transmit warnings of hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves and other natural disasters. Another useful application of satellites is the ability to measure vulnerabilities and gain insights about the sun, planets, and objects in outer space, such as asteroids, that could pose a threat to mankind. The short-term benefits (realized in our life time) of space exploration have created thousands of jobs for engineers, scientists, and researchers. Space exploration has indirectly strengthened transportation safety systems for airplanes and enhanced national security/defense systems to protect us against advanced warfare weaponry. If the current benefits of space exploration are any indication of the long-term benefits associated with space exploration, we would be foolish to not pursue further advancements in space technology.

    Perhaps the greatest short-term application for space technology is the ability to generate massive amounts of energy from outer space. Energy conservation has been a huge concern in our modern society, which has caused the green movement and other eco friendly measures to reduce the toll on our environment. If we could set up structures in space to harness the vast amounts of highly charged particles floating through the vacuum of space, our energy crises would most likely come to an end in an environmentally friendly fashion.

    The long-term complexity of space exploration aims to preserve the human-race as a whole, regardless of what happens to planet Earth. To think that Earth will never experience some type of apocalypse is not only wishful thinking, but possibly ignorant thinking as well. Science has clearly proven the threat of asteroids can wipe out every living creature on this planet, so it might be just a matter of time. By having a strong standing in space, we can divert such a plausible crisis from wiping out our entire species. If the human race is able to inhabit other planets, our chances for long-term survival essentially doubles because we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that keeping all one’s eggs in a single, vulnerable planet-sized basket is an unsound long-term investment strategy. To do so is to court extinction” (Billings).

    There are clearly obvious reasons for space exploration, but also untold reasons as well. What if the majority of human suffering and unjustified acts of violence are seeded from our discontent feelings with the fact that we feel wrongfully trapped in our perceived reality? It is believed that the ancients were free of ego, which allowed them to have a much more sacred connection to life because they worshipped the heavens instead of a manufactured/ induced reality. Being so heavily consumed and wrapped up in day-to-day affairs maybe blinding us from the bigger picture in life. Imagine an entire race of humans dedicated to the heavens as the ancients were, but with the technology to embrace the heavens as a tangible reality. By experiencing and pursuing space, our collective consciousnesses would elevate us to heights in which the hidden gems of space could obliterate violence, power struggles, and ego complexes. Imagine a world in which humans could utilize advanced propulsion systems to bend the fabric of space in order to discover planets we never could have guessed existed. Imagine our human race interacting and collaborating with beings from distant galaxies and learning about things that are beyond our wildest imaginations. Imagine discovering that our species was archaic compared to the vast arrays of complex life forms that exist. The mysteries of space will continue to elude us for quite some time until the majority of us are committed to exploring it.

    We as human beings are inherently curious and always wanting to understand what we don’t know. To not explore space would be denying the very element that has allowed us to evolve into the intelligent creatures we are. Ever since the beginning of ancient times, mankind has been fascinated with the prospects of outer space; the only difference is that now we have the potential to unlock our fascinations with the indefinable entity called outer space. Exploring space has clearly provided short-term benefits that we are currently enjoying now, but pursuing deep space could essentially bridge the gap between the natural and supernatural worlds.

    Works Cited:

    Billings, Lee. “The Rocket Experience.” Seed Magazine. 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 2
    May 2010. .

    Pelton, Joseph N. “Why Space? The Top 10 Reasons.” Space.com. 12 Sept. 2003. Web. 02 May 2010. .

  71. Aidan

    @Ryan, near the top. That was an amazingly precise post. I’ve thought about the resource capabilities of space for some time. Mining on the moon, or maybe even tossing magnetized asteroids into a repulsive magnetic field built in sub-orbit to mine later (Fuel? Who needs it? It’s SPACE).

    We need to create a solid infrastructure plan if we ever want to put that flame back into the space industry, what we really need is private mining corporations based in the asteroid belt or on the moon. Of course, there is the cost of running such a thing, it might be best to start off with a moon base, complete with a launch pad, renewable energy and a way of turning carbon dioxide back into oxygen (I’ve thought about gardens, but I wouldn’t put my life in the hands of a fern). Of course, if not for oxygen, it would be great to farm on the moon as well, we really can’t afford to ship supplies up all the time. I think we could really do it if we planned for a self-sustaining base.


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