The asteroids are calling us, but we're not going?

As a kid reading science fiction in the pre moon landing era, the future seemed clear to me. In the near future, we would build a space station in Earth orbit, establish bases on the moon and Mars, then on to mine the incalcuable wealth of the asteroids! Yea! Go, team! I would never have predicted what actually happened. Without first building a space station, we sent a few people on a few brief visits to the moon… and then it all petered out. Now, over 30 years after the 1st moon landing, we’re nowhere.

Not only are we not mining the asteroids, not only are we not colonizing mars, we haven’t moved polluting industries into orbit, nor are we beaming cheap solar power down from orbit.

What gives? Lack of imagination? Failure of will? Or is it that government officials are afraid of what ordinary poeple might do if we got off Earth?

Thirty-two Stupid Years by L. Neil Smith, in The Libertarian Enterprise, 11/12/01

Brief quotes: “You and I will never be allowed into space because we might launch a rock from the Moon (or simply nudge a handy meteoroid) and do to Chicago or Beijing what nineteen murderous fanatics did to the World Trade Center.” and “Personally, the prospect of never getting to see the rings of Saturn from one of its inner moons is too sad to contemplate.”

In a nutshell…politics & cost.

I’d peg it as high cost and low interest, myself. Putting a man on the moon was darn expensive, but people tolerated it for patriotic/Cold War reasons.

Unfortuantely, in this day and age, most folks don’t see the point of space exploration and colonization (“What’s in it for me?”), so there would be little to no support of the huge budget needed to do serious space work.

Darn pity, too – not only do I think it’s cool as hell, but I also think getting off this planet ASAP is the best hope humanity has for surviving in the long term.

In general, it seems like the widespread spaceflight predicted by the science fiction of the 50’s and early 60’s was posited on a few ideas that never really worked out.

  1. Atomic rockets. Man, would they be keen. But look at the fuss when they launched 72 pounds of plutonium on Cassini . . .

  2. Super rocket fuel. Sadly, the best bang for the buck is still hydrogen plus LOX. sigh

  3. Vast economic returns from space.

NASA’s always trying to sell the eartly economic benefits of space exploration, but most zero-gee manufacturing techniques are just curiosities, not commercially viable. There have been many spin-off technologies from the space program, and I just saw this book about them in the bookstore the other day, and I can’t find it online or recall the title, darn it, but it looks cool. However, I don’t think that these advances by themselves are worth the money we’ve spent to go to space.

The cost of returning raw materials from an asteroid remains about a bajillion times more expensive than just digging it out of the ground. (See points 1 & 2 above.) As space technology advanced, we also got better at finding and recovering resources on Earth.

Maybe if, as a species (not just a nation) we made a big commitment to buidling up our space infrastructure and exploiting Whatever’s Out There space would become commercially interesting. For now, though best reasons to go into space remain exploration and pure science.

Hate to contradict you here, but you’d be hard pressed to function in modern society without all the spinoffs from the space program. The computer you’re using to post the web was made possible thanks to the space program, there’s a host of medical technologies which wouldn’t exist without the space program (try telling the people who are alive today because of those things that the space program wasn’t worth it).

The biggest problem with convincing people that the spin-offs alone are worth the price of the space program is that thanks to government law, NASA isn’t able to slap a “Developed with the help of NASA” logo (like Intel slaps on PCs) on everything its technology research has yielded. (That may have changed recently, though.)

Oh, I don’t know about the book you mentioned, but NASA regularly publishes a book called Spin-Off which details the latest inventions that owe a debt to the space program.

Initially, that is (sorta) true. However, even a small nickel-iron asteroid is worth several trillion (yes, 1,000,000,000,000) dollars on the U.S. market. That might pay for itself in a decade or so.

I think the real problem is simply investment capital. No one has the kind of money it takes to really get this idea off the ground, literally. It would take a consortium of governments the way things currently are, and when that happens, you get things like the Space Station, with all its problems.

I keep hearing these things, but I’m wondering how accurate they are. I mean, you’ve got this enormous rock that’s made up of mostly nickel-iron (or even more valuable titanium) and if we’ve got a way of getting the metal out and cheaply to a manufacturing center, what will that do to the price of steel or whatever? It’d be kind of hard to pay back the expense of undertaking the whole operation if the price of steel suddenly dropped to five cents a ton once the metal started hitting the market.

Not saying we shouldn’t go or that we shouldn’t do it, only that there may be things that we haven’t thought of which might make it hard to make a profit off the endeavour.

Startup costs definately.

And people who say this , why bother with space when we have all sorts of problems at home ?

But then if the US switched its military budget to a space program we’d go for vacations on Mars within decades, but alas since parliment/governments only last 4 years per term
its just not worth it , politically.

Well, you’d have to argue then that these wouldn’t exist at all without the space program. Yeah, we’d be hard-pressed to exist in modern society in the form it has today without them, but similar technologies might have existed in a different form.

I’m not trying to say that the spin-offs of space technology haven’t been important, or that the space program hasn’t served to accelerate our technological growth–just that without the space program we wouldn’t exactly be bangin’ rocks together to make fire. We’d have muddled through somehow. The market would still demand new products, problems would still need to be solved . . .

I was speaking economic terms: dollars invested vs. technological return. If the dollars had been spent in other forms of medical research, they may have saved more lives.

Well, I for one am not convinced. “Developed with the help of NASA” does not mean “impossible without NASA.” NASA has created a number of cool perks, but that doesn’t prove that human spaceflight is the most dollar-efficient “innovation engine.” We spend a heck of a lot of money throwing stuff into orbit–if that money was sunk into terrestrial research programs with lower overhead, I’m not convinced that we’d have less technological progress.

I’m being a bit of a wet blanket, I realize, but I’m a little frustrated by the disconnect between what NASA actually produces, and what NASA tells the public its goals are. I am not anti-spaceflight. I am against a PR policy that tells the general public that the International Space Station is going to cure cancer and create a new industry in zero-gee alloys. Putting a rosy economic spin on human spaceflight may keep the taxpayers happy, but I think it’s . . . that it’s selling space, the way rock music and rugged terrain sell pickup trucks. I think that spaceflight is better and nobler than that.

I think we should tell the taxpayers that we’re going to space because we can, dammit, that we’re going because humanity’s destiny is space. We’re preparing for a new age of exploration, and we’re going to keep struggling as long as it takes, but we’re going to get there. We’re going to low earth orbit because that’s the first step, because once we learn how to live and work there, we can go on to interstellar space–because someday robots aren’t going to be enough to gather the data we need, and we’re going to need people on Mars, on on the asteroids, and wherever our curiosity takes us.

  • Podkayne stops with her fist trembling in the air, looks around sheepisly, and climbs off the soap box. *

But, er, cough, I’m not a politician, and maybe there’s a reason for that . . .

That very well may be what I’m thinking of.

Our best hope of making any meaningful profit from space lies in the development of an orbital tether-an elevator into geosynchronous orbit. With one of those and a good size photovoltaic array at the top, we could potentially get stuff to and from space for a tiny fraction of the current cost.

The hard part is figuring out how to make 22,000 mile long carbon nanotubes.

China is talking about putting a man on the moon, apparently, in order to increase its international stature. Sorry, no cite, I read it in the paper a few weeks ago.

Oh, and on asteroids, bear in mind that most of the Earth’s surface is undersea, and would yield massive deposits of minerals, at less risk and less cost than mining asteroids.

But what form? Would we have Pentium class PCs or slightly more sophisticated vacuum tubes? Its rare that industry is willing to spend billions or trillions of dollars on something when no one’s proved a need for it. The laser, when it was originally invented was dubbed “The Answer in Search of a Question” because no one could think of a use for it. Thanks to the space program we’ve got all kinds of nifty uses for 'em and they’re cheap as all get out.

Possibly, but not necessarily so. We’ve spent zillions in the search for a cure for cancer, but haven’t come up with a magic bullet yet. In any case, much of the modern medical breakthroughs (though certainly not all) have come from computer technology. We now design drugs on computers before we ever mix them in a lab. Ultrasound, CAT scanners, MRIs, and noninvasive surgery all owe their existence to computers. Its entirely possible we’d not have them by this date if it weren’t for the fact that computers were so cheap.

Nope, it doesn’t, but it does help prove the value of NASA, which is often questioned. Certainly, we’d have more powerful computers today if all the money spent on NASA was used exclusively for computer devlopment, but would we have the other things that the space programs have given us? I doubt it. Eventually those advances would lead us down that path, but how long would it take? Of course, some of the space related innovations have probably come about because the folks at NASA didn’t want to have their budget cut and randomly threw some ideas out to get extra funding.

Marry me? Err, I mean, right on!

Part of the problem is that the markets for space haven’t materialized. There was a real boom in private rocket development a few years ago, because it looked like there was going to be a huge demand for satellite launch. But then Iridium failed (it’s been resurrected since, but I’m not sure if the scale is the same), and a number of internet-satellite ventures failed, and the aviation market started to soften, and suddenly all that anticipated demand just went away.

Space travel needs to turn a profit. If you leave it to government, all you’re ever going to get is a bloated, over-cautious bureaucracy married to old technology. Like NASA, which stopped being part of the solution about 15 years ago and started becoming part of the problem.

Space travel is one of those things that needs all the right pieces to be in place, and then it will explode in popularity. We need to get the cost of launch down to the point where a trip into space for a person is no more than, say, twice the cost of a Concorde ticket. Once we get that, then space will become profitable just for movie makers and space hotels. Hollywood can spend 300 million making a movie now, which is 3 times the cost of the Mars Pathfinder. Movies will be made in space, and soon. In fact, wasn’t Jim Cameron already negotiating a launch?

Anyway, get the price of launch down, and the rest will follow. But that means Single-Stage-To-Orbit, and NASA is officially out of that business now.

See here if you are interested.

Sam, Iridium’s on the same scale as it was before (sort of). None of the satellites were de-orbited, and its a full service company. My “sort of” has to do with the amount of customers needed to keep Iridium afloat. Back when Iridium was first set-up, phone calls were incredibly expensive on those things and they only had about 63,000 customers. (Why buy an Iridium, when for slightly more per minute you can have a phone that will let you surf the web at 64K?) Now, even with the dramatic cut in their per minute rates, Iridium claims that they only need 63,000 customers to be profitable. They haven’t reached that point yet, but probably will soon. (Thanks to the war the sales of Iridium phones have gone up dramatically.)

Not all of the internet-satellite ventures have failed, either. Several companies have gotten frustrated with the delay it takes in getting added bandwith and have decided that it’ll be cheaper to use satellites than to run fiber all around the planet. This won’t mean everyone will have a satellite uplink, but that instead of building more trunk lines, they’ll pop a sat in orbit and rout their transmissions through that.

As with the perennial questions about extraterrestrial intelligences and why they haven’t opened embassies on Earth, the important truth here is:

space is HUGE.
The moon, which is so near in comparison with all the other rocks out there, is astonishingly far away. Not like China or Outer Mongolia. A whole 'nuther notion of far.

Sort of like a pack of 12 year olds on bicycles deciding that since they’ve successfully done a day trip from Dortmund to Köln, the next trip will be from Dortmund to the tip end of Kamchatka, we ran out of Earthly frontier and decided that space was next but hey man, it’s big and empty out there!

“Space,” says The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you might think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…”

Beyond the top of the sky was the place the Thing had called the universe. It contained – according to the Thing – everything and nothing. And there was very little everything and more nothing than anyone could imagine.
Wings, Terry Pratchett

Er,ahem? This has all been very interesting. And occasionally inspiring. (Thank you, Podkayne!) And occasionally amusing. (Thank you, tracer & rjung!)

But, um, could we maybe discuss the question asked in the OP? The question was not “why aren’t we in space?,” but, “could the reasons proposed in the linked article be correct?”

Thirty-two Stupid Years by L. Neil Smith, in The Libertarian Enterprise, 11/12/01

Smith acknowledges a possible reason proposed by others:

“Victor Koman’s great Kings of the High Frontier identified and forced us to confront a reality many were loathe to acknowledge: any rational analysis of the government’s ‘space program’ reveals that its principal commission is to prevent ordinary, non-government-approved human beings from ever leaving the Earth. I don’t recall that Koman ever offered a coherent reason for this, beyond a reluctance we know too well, on the part of those who believe they own us, to let go of our lives. As Freeman K. Dyson put it, once we get out there among the asteroids, the IRS will never find us.”

He then goes on to propose an additional reason.

"Remember Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress…? If I’m right, it’s… one of the cornerstones of the government’s effort to keep us trapped here on Earth. The other cornerstone, as it were, is the epoch-making work of Walter Alvarez, who discovered that the dinosaurs were probably wiped out by a giant rock falling on this planet from space. Alvarez showed us what falling rocks can do. Heinlein showed us how to make them fall.


“You and I will never be allowed into space because we might launch a rock from the Moon (or simply nudge a handy meteoroid) and do to Chicago or Beijing what nineteen murderous fanatics did to the World Trade Center… Earth is forever to become one enormous, high-walled, unescapable sanitarium, run by its sickest, most pathetic patients. And we will never get to the Moon again. We will never get to Mars. We will never get to Pallas or Ceres or 5023 Eris or to the stars.”

So does anyone think that Korman and Dyson are correct? Does anyone think Smith is?