Things from @vruba

January 22, 2013 at 1:57am

Anonymous asked: OK, since you 1) asked to be asked about space and 2) asked to be called on sports, isn't space exploration just sports writ large? Basically?

Oh, but space exploration is positive-sum. I’m going to try not to mention sports here; you can do the comparisons in your own head if you want.

There is an idea, often couched in mock petulance, that we were promised Mars colonies. That’s not what happened. We were offered Mars colonies, and we turned them down. We needed the money for other things, we said.

The things we used as examples of higher priorities never did seem to get much, though. Instead we got faster and cooler fighter jets. In 1999, a fellow figured out how to mod his decrepit Soviet-surplus radar to pick up F-117 Nighthawks, which were supposed to be quite invisible. He shot one down with a rocket that cost about 1/200 as much as the airplane. He is now a baker. Our public funding decisions do not make sense. Therefore, space advocates have resorted to trickery. This has many costs.

Think of the Space Shuttle. Its basic technical design was silly. Both its fatal accidents were caused by problems that came from its byzantine liftoff configuration. If there were a problem at a certain point in the ascent, the plan was to reverse through its own exhaust plume. It was late, overbudget, and missed its turnaround time promise by a factor of five.

But its advocates knew it was the Shuttle or nothing. Their predecessors had sustained the Apollo program for more than a decade upon the firm assurance that getting white men to the moon, the moooon, should be budgeted under the heading of defending freedom. Of course, Congress eventually crunched the numbers and worked out that it wasn’t actually killing any Viet Cong whatsoever. The Shuttle people used a cleverer ruse: they spread its construction, and thus federal money, throughout the country. It had parts made in every state. I have no idea what’s in North Dakota or Maine that gets people into orbit, but they found something. And so Congress never wanted to cancel it, even when it was clearly the wrong idea. The Shuttle’s political engineering was a model of simplicity and reliability.

(Also, I would bet you a pound of fine medium-roasted Sidamo coffee beans, with notes of wine, marmelade, and blueberry, that defense and intelligence people were quietly pulling hard for the Shuttle well into the ’90s.)

So people see space exploration as part of the military-industrial complex. And it is. Kind of.

Power wants what it doesn’t have, and it can’t have art. Art needs power’s materials and protection, but fears its responsibilities. Even when they come to terms, power never owns art, only a contract, and art is never safe, only sheltered. High on the cathedrals, the stonecarvers make satirical gargoyles. Space exploration is art, but we have to keep this secret. We must not say in public that it’s how humanity in a technological age reaches outside itself, how we find a mirror distant enough to see to our edges, how we face the void. Shhh.

We have grown some of the great monumental art of our time right on the institutions of fear and violence, like a bromeliad on the saggital crest of a rogue ape. We made a lot of awful compromises to do it. But we did it.

So I’m not convinced that we’re quite as stalled as some of my pro-space companions think. Low earth orbit is not something to be ashamed of (and highlighting the “low” is silly; it’s by far the most useful orbit for almost every purpose for which it’s used). The Mars rovers are pretty great.

We may yet have lunar hydrogen mines, a space elevator, Venus rovers, submarines for Titan, and an optical inferometry array spread across Lagrange points. We may have crews and robots both. We may have a one-way Alpha Centauri probe. I certainly hope so. Maybe I will be alive when the first toddler is learning to walk in 0.376 g.

These things will come later and uncooler than we deserve. Maybe their lead scientists will sing Shonen Knife while skating around the office, but for press conferences will don the beigest slacks and jowliest drawls. That might be the cost. I hope not, but it would be worth it.


  1. vruba posted this