Why Space Matters, Part 1 / by Josh Guess





I thought about titling this post Why Science Matters but that way is fraught with political landmines. It's not that I'm at all silent about my political philosophy or how I arrived at my core beliefs. I'm not, nor am I ashamed. The calculation involved in the way I view politics and policy is a simple one:

Does this belief or policy do good for the largest number of people?

Do research.

Make conclusion.

Yeah, we might differ on what qualifies as good, but at that basic a level of disagreement there's really no way to change a person's mind.

So instead of talking about why science matters--and it does, clearly, as human civilization to this point wouldn't exist without it--I'm going to move forward under the assumption you agree with that premise. If you don't, that's fine. You can stop reading. Avoiding politics here means I'm not interested in being convinced that the scientific method is invalid. Chances are pretty good that if you believe, say, that the world is 6,000 years old, you're probably not reading any more.

So. Onward.

Space matters. In ways as vast as space itself and as small and mundane as everyday concerns like wanting a comfortable mattress, it matters. My goal with this series of posts is to explain in my wandering, often tangential way exactly why this is true and why we as a society should value the technologies and investments needed to make space exploration of all kinds an integral part of our cultural psyche.

Space=Technology

One thing that never ceases to confound me is how, in one breath, people will praise the technological breakthroughs made by space programs while damning the idea of space exploration as a priority.

You can see some Nasa spinoff technologies on Wikipedia or Nasa's own website at these links, but the benefits span everything from the enrichment of baby food to chemical detection. The simple truth is that you don't work for Nasa or any space agency to get rich. You don't spend years learning mechanical engineering or astrophysics because it's going to make you a rock star. 

I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson aside. 

People get into space--even private space companies--because they love space. Or rockets. Maybe they have a lifelong jones for making some obscure mechanical process more efficient. I'm not judging. The point is that there is also a simple formula for near-certain breakthroughs across the entire spectrum of the scientific field.

Take a large group of passionate, educated nerds. 

Give them resources. 

Give them a problem. 

Wait. 

In fairness, this is less true in any of the biological sciences, since biology and medicine deal with much less predictable systems of much greater complexity. They take longer to have breakthroughs, but when they do, as Albus Dumbledore would say, they're correspondingly huger. 

If you need a good example of what I'm talking about, let's look at SpaceX, the private space exploration company founded by real-life Tony Stark/potential Bond villain Elon Musk. 

There are plenty of excellent resources out there where you can (and should) find everything you need to know about Musk and SpaceX, so I'll skip the details. 

Musk started his company after posing himself a question: why is space exploration so expensive? After doing some research and figuring out the math, Musk realized that the actual cost of the materials that make up a rocket capable of reaching orbit are about 2% of the total. That leaves a lot of room for making rockets more cost effective. Which is exactly what he did. 

Musk and company looked at rocket technology and, funded by Musk himself and some investors, decided to do something no one had really done since the 1960's: build their own damn rocket from the ground up. By doing this, they were able to utilize half a century of experience and practical data to create the most efficient booster in the world for a fraction of the cost ULA (United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin that has been mercilessly bilking Nasa for years) could manage. 

It should be noted here that ULA has been using Russian rocket engines made in the 1960's for their Nasa contracts. Not designed in the decade Kennedy was still alive, actually fucking manufactured in it

As a result of SpaceX being provided resources, they were given contracts that provided even more resources, which allowed SpaceX to do something that changed the world. 

They created a rocket that can land. 

Yeah, I know. Doesn't sound like too big a deal. But consider the cost of a Falcon 9 rocket, which is the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet: about 90 million dollars. That's about the cost of a jumbo jet. Imagine if jets could only go one flight, and were then scrapped. That's how space exploration has worked until now. 

With the advent of a booster that can land and be reused, the face of space exploration and as a consequence humanity's place in the solar system has changed forever. The cost of sending rockets into space will drop by staggering margins, allowing cheaper and cheaper flights. 

This means we'll have the ability to create large orbital structures in a cost-effective way for the first time. Space stations are within our grasp, as are larger spacecraft capable of exploring and exploiting the resources of the solar system. This is not an exaggeration or science fiction, but rather the critical point much science fiction has hinged on before possibly becoming science fact. 

Had Nasa been given the sort of funding they enjoyed during the space race in the 60's and 70's (wherein the exploration of space was a national contest with the Soviet Union, a sort of proxy war using scientific achievement as its ammunition), we'd have seen these advances long ago. 

Yes, if we had kept giving Nasa the budget it once had, commercial space travel would be so normal by now we'd all be bored of it. But the budget cuts over the years meant Nasa couldn't build its own rockets, which meant whatever advances were made at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or anywhere inside the organization) were at best passed on to private third-party vendors like ULA, who were operating on contracts and looking to squeeze every penny or profit they could. 

Nasa could have been SpaceX. Would have been, if the money had been there. 

Even so, things are working out. We're on the edge of a boom in space travel. Successful demonstration of what we can accomplish with the increase in space travel brought on by the decrease in its cost will be vital to perpetuating the use of space as a resource for humankind. On the large scale, this will mean mining asteroids, dwarf planets, comets, even the gas giants. The things we could do with enough raw materials in orbit and the fuel (water, basically) we could collect from the solar system are almost endless. 

But that's not what this section is about. Just think of what sorts of technology we'll see as a consequence!

Right now we have dozens of spinoff technologies working for us every day. That's just from a space program that's public, severely underfunded, and only able to focus in very narrow directions. Think for a second about the possibilities we'll see once we as a society are looking down the barrel of mining asteroids or building a base on the moon. Those are both immensely difficult prospects, with countless problems that will need to be solved. 

The solving of them will produce technologies, both intentional and accidental, in numbers and variety we can scarcely imagine. That's totally ignoring what sorts of fantastic things we might learn to manufacture in microgravity. 

People complain about the expense of Nasa, and they say it's money down the drain. No return. 

Well, first of all: horseshit. Beyond the very real and very material return that is the growth of our understanding of the universe, physics, and a hundred other things, the technologies resulting from our investment in Nasa (and thus space) have a subtle but large economic benefit. Hell, the space program gave us memory foam, and you can't swing a dead cat in this country without it having its weight evenly distributed across some damn thing or another made of the stuff. 

Second of all: so what? Even if space exploration costs this country $18 billion dollars a year, which is less than Americans spend on pizza, and made zero money back, so what? The non-economic benefits are still hugely important. Space exploration and the attendant discoveries which come with it have vastly increased our understanding of physics to the point where we have things like GPS and tons of other non-commercial benefits. 

Now we've covered the basics on why space exploration isn't an economic waste of time, which has hopefully created some nice squishy feelings toward the idea of paying for rockets, or increased them if you already had them. 

Which is good, because next time I'm going to explain why having a positive attitude toward space is the only way humanity can survive in the long term. 

See you then.