Lost in Space

By Mike Small

The week’s news is filled with vague nostalgia for the shuttle programme and even vaguer futurism about hotels on the moon. Yet as Somalians faces famine and austerity stalks Europe, systems crash and fail, let’s not be too downhearted. Manned space exploration was a very expensive Cold war PR exercise, as this ‘A Rocket to Nowhere’ brutally lays out, including the revelation that, amongst the important research they were doing they:

  • Sent cockroaches up to see how microgravity would affect their growth at various stages of their life cycle
  • Studied a “space rose” to see what kinds of essential oils it would produce in weightless environment. (in a triumph of technology transfer, this was later developed into a perfume).
  • At the suggestion of elementary school children, monitored everyday objects such as soap, crayons, and string to see whether their inertial mass would change in a weightless environment. Preliminary results suggest that Newton was right.
  • Monitored the growth of fish eggs and rice plants in space (orbital sushi?)
  • Tested new space appliances, including a space camcorder and space freezer
  • Checked to see whether melatonin would make the crew sleepy (it did not)

First Woolies, then News of the World, now Star Trek. What’s up next? Anyone for the Euro?

The Space Shuttle programme served the same purpose of making us think we’re going someplace. Get over it. This light balm of eye-wateringly expensive self-delusion might have been plausible whilst we talked of the ‘white heat of technology’, had J.T. Kirk and J.F.K at the helm, but now that we’re deep into climate chaos trauma, omnicide and trillions of pounds in hock, it’s all looking a little less fun. As Maciej Cegłowski puts it:

“When the Cold War fizzled out towards the end of the eighties, NASA rebranded the Shuttle as a way of jump-starting the leap of capitalism from the Earth’s surface to outer space, offering a variety of heavily subsidized research platforms for the private sector (which proved remarkably resistant to the allure of a manufacturing environment where raw materials cost $40,000/kg).”

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  1. vavatch says:

    It is nice to see your moral opposition to government waste. I hope you’ll be applying this attitude to our own welfare system, which costs about 20x the entire budget of NASA. Somehow I suspect not though.

    I have to admit it is a shame we can’t spend a single penny on research projects in space until we’ve taken on the white man’s burden and solved all of Africa’s problems for them, but I suppose it is best to direct funding in a more targetted and imperially effective manner – we certainly shouldn’t waste any money investigating the universe around us and whether we can survive beyond this planet, when there’s fuzzy wuzzies we’re morally responsible to protect and patronise.

  2. mrbfaethedee says:

    Great news, then!
    You should spread it about more – the whole world will no doubt be delighted to hear that systems will stop crashing and failing, austerity will cease to stalk Europe, and Somalis will become well fed, just as soon as that last shuttle lands.

    Get over what? aspiration, the desire to seek to extend our current boundaries, expanding our scientific and technical knowledge?
    Blindly or wilfully buying into your sources conflation of the apparent inefficiencies of an implementation and the aspirations that helped to produce it is poor analysis at best (I’m trying to stay polite).

    Very disappointing stuff from Bella 🙁

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Actually I’m arguing for unmanned space exploration.

      Interested in which of the research projects listed you find compelling?

      1. mrbfaethedee says:

        I don’t see manned and unmanned as mutually exclusive.
        You didn’t answer the point that manned spaceflight serves our aspirations despite your insitience that is merely some Cold War PR stunt.
        If all scientific experimentation can be done using automated processes alone – why do we have any down here on Earth?
        The shuttle itself was the first reusable spacecraft, surely your bean-counting aesthetic ought to be delighted by that breakthrough alone!

        Oh, do I have to pick from your opinion-serving list?! How fair-minded of you.
        While I don’t find any particularly ‘compelling’ – I presume that’s your criteria for the inclusion of scientific experiments on manned space flights; that joe-public finds them ‘compelling’ – I fail to see what you find to be so wrong with: –
        * ‘Roaches – Finding out out how microgravitty affects the development of living organisms, It doesn’t require much thought to see how the results of such experiments could have profound effects on our fundamental understanding of the sorts environments in which whole classes of organisms might exist.
        *Perfuem – Yes, sure; roses, esential oils and perfumes – how twee! Presumably you believe that the study of volatile compounds (makes it sound so much less twee, don’t you think?) in space and the revelation that microgravity causes unexpected and radical changes in their organic production is worthless as science in general and to research and industrial chemical interests in particular.
        *Stupid kid stuff – Quite, we wouldn’t want to try to engage kids in science by wasting time piggybacking primary school science experiments on the missions of one the most advanced technological creations in human history – the bean-counters would be enraged!
        *Sushi – See roaches, above. Perhaps you should forward your understandings of the inevitable failures of such experimentation to the scientists researching it, and they can presumably get suggestions from *you* for better ways to explore how technology might be used ease the global pressure on food production.
        *Gadgets – You think that people who want to do manned space exploration *wouldn’t* want to to make the tech they use up there work better up there? Honestly.
        *Nighty-night – Astronauts frequently have trouble maintain good sleep patterns, maybe space screws up circadian rythms or something, I ain’t no scientist. Maybe they should experiment with chemicals associated with circadian rythms in animals, like, erm Melanin – naw that’s just stupid, eh?

        There you go, all from your cherry-picked list, as I said – I don’t personally find any of those particularly ‘compelling’, but I see little worth mockery.

        Did the shuttle move us forward in manned exploration to the extent we wanted? No. Was it worth it? Yes.
        I’m sure anyone could trivially list things that get money spent on them that they grudge because of problems around the world that aren’t being adequately addressed, but it’s rarely this or that. Which reduces your piece to cheap ‘Isn’t the shuttle a waste of money’ piece.
        Get over it yourself.

        1. bellacaledonia says:

          You don’t have to have to ‘pick from my opinion-serving list’ – and thanks for your response. Very interesting.

      2. mrbfaethedee says:

        Sorry about all the typos and misspellings, work to do and that.

  3. Colin says:

    The shuttle programme was a damp squib. We used it for orbiting the earth (not exploring) and sending up/maintaining satellites for private companies. Instead we should have got on with the job of actual exploration and research.

    Also the argument about cost is really not that an important one when taken in context. The Mars Science Labratory (Curiosity) will cost 2.3 billion USD. Just onne of the new US destroyers (Zumwalt class) will cost 3.3 billion USD. I think I know which will be the more useful to humanity.

    It’s like the people who criticise CERN without having a clue what breakthroughs and achievements they’ve actually made. The fact that the internet came from CERN is enough alone to justify the money that goes into it (nevermind the other great achievements).

    Space exploration and research, in the long scheme of things is not only incredibly cheap (especially when contrasted with bloated and outrageous military budgets around the world), but it ends up paying for itself in the benefits it brings to humanity.

    Finally, in such depressing times, should be really ignore the morale booster that putting a human on Mars would give us? Humanity really needs something to be cheerful about, and saving 33 miners from a Chilean mineshaft isn’t enough at the moment.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I think we should be looking for real-solutions not ‘moral boosters’. The time for ‘moral boosters’ is long gone. I totally agree with you about the waste of money on Zumwalt Class destroyers. They can go too.

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Disagree Mike. Aye, it happens! The space race and space exploration have left a number of important lasting positive legacies.

    1. We now know more about the origins and development of our own solar system. The Apollo program literally brought back the hard scientific evidence. As Carl Sagan famously said human beings are a curious species. It could be argued that we dont need to know our own origins. But our curiosity would never accept that anymore than not knowing the scientific laws of the cosmos or the inner workings of the mind.

    2. The most important legacy of the space race is a system of global communication satellites, The sort that makes posting this, using my phone, possible. And because of that a joined-up inter-connected humanity is now a reality, and capable of transcending markets and wars.

    3. Telescopes such as Hubble are revealing the mysteries of deep space and the cosmos and the origins and structure of the universe. Worth every dollar spent on them. And where would Hubble be without the Space Shuttle? Broken and blurred due to a faulty mirror.

    4. The two Voyager missions, for my money, are the highest achievements of human ingenuity. They gave us a perspective on the pale blue dot. And they may be the only evidence of the human race’s existence that survive us. Good value for money IMO.

    NASA is a mixed and contradictory bag. Its commitment to furthering human knowledge and understanding is/was real. Its military ties were the big negative.

    I dont grudge the money spent on furthering science and understanding. Such things will never wait for the end of poverty and inequailty. Human beings are too impatient and inquisitive. I grudge the money spent on the military and on war. space exploration is a small fraction of that.

    That said the idea of humanity leaving Earth to live elsewhere is a stupid utopian vanity project. Manned space flights are not the future. The only realistic medium term future is accepting we’re here for the long haul, and therefore need mto ake this planet liveable and sustainable for all people and to protect the natural world against unnecessary manmade destruction.

    Kevin W

    1. Colin says:

      But there are things – as Carl Sagan also pointed out – that a human could do in one trip that would require dozens of probes. The scientific experiments half a dozen humans could carry out in, say, 2 months on the surface of the red planet would surpass the six years spent on the surface by Viking.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        Colin / Kevin – I’m not against looking up and out. The French-Canadian Theatre director Robert Lepage wrote about the difference between the Soviet and the American space programme. The first had Cosmonauts who’s mission was to explore the Cosmos, the latter had Astronauts who were to ‘shoot for the stars’.

        Different things entirely.

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    There’s truth in that. And like many people I’m curious as to whether there is simple or extremophile life in the polar regions beneath the polar ice caps on Mars. My money is on yes. The discovery of independent life outside our own planet would transform they way we think about ourselves. But theres a lot of scientific, economic and social barriers to overcome before then. More Earthly priorities will exert themselves first. The descent of Capital is the biggest barrier.

  6. vera says:

    “Finally, in such depressing times, should be really ignore the morale booster that putting a human on Mars would give us?”

    Jaysus feck. This idiocy just refuses to die. The real morale booster would be some signs that humans actually have what it takes to turn around from the disaster-in-the-making here on earth!

    “That said the idea of humanity leaving Earth to live elsewhere is a stupid utopian vanity project.”


    1. carandol says:

      It’s been a day of pedantry for me, rather annoyingly so but not in this case where the usage of utopian is excellent as it literally means (of)no-place and comes from a novel of social critique (which name at this moment I forget) , but eutopian means (of)good-place and is that not precisely where our hearts are dragging us in these conversations, no? ;O)

  7. Dougie Strang says:

    Well said Vera, and i do agree with Mike’s main argument.
    Space travel and Cern: hi-tech bread and circuses.
    There are amazing things to be discovered, of course, but surely it is a question of priorities.
    Scientists tell us that the climate is already becoming dangerously unstable and that this century large parts of the planet will become inhospitable to human and other life. This century. Meanwhile, this year, we are witnessing global financial crisis take 2.
    Oh and the oil’s running out. Bummer that. Palm oil rocket fuel anyone?

  8. carandol says:

    Things that annoy me about the ‘space programme’ vol 1:
    where did all the money go…what portion of mission time and capital expenditure was in the military/intelligence sphere? anyone got any numbers?

    big busy-ness yet little happening……..true utility of any science and ham fisted social inspiration verging on the perverse.

    the worlds fastest flying brick….ancient tech. due in part to massive development run in times and all the ensuing backroom shennanigans of the cleverest predators of public expenditure. As usual (???) the firms employed may no hae been the best o’ men for the joab but mair the men wi’ the best o’ means to employ.

    (further vol.s available on request)

  9. Clootie says:

    Fun side first – The Americans spent a fortune developing a pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians used pencils.

    Serious side – We must explore. We would never have left Africa. We would never have built ocean going sailing ships. We would never have made scientific breakthroughs. We must explore the ocean depths and the universe outside our bubble.

    The time scale of man’s first heavier than air flight to man’s landing on the moon seen in conext – we had a period when both were alive at the same time! Nothing in the human time frame far less cosmic scale.

    Explore and research – encounter problems and solve them – increase our shared knowledge – YES PLEASE!

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