The Onion on NASA: Funny AND true?

In an absolutely brilliant Point-Counterpoint this week, the gleeful madcaps at the Onion state the following:

Anyone with more knowledge than me: To what extent is this true? If it is true–and the notion doesn’t some completely implausible–should anything be done? What?

I guess this is a mixture of GD and GQ; I’m putting it in here just to be on the safe side.

I would say “definitely true” in terms of the International Space Station – a huge waste of taxpayer money. Last I heard they were thinking about scaling back to three permanent astronauts from the current seven, thereby reducing the research component by something like two-thirds.

On the other hand, unmanned missions such as the Hubble telescope and the Voyager spacecraft have provided incredible return on investment, IMHO. Of course there have been spectacular failures, but on balance NASA has a terrific record in unmanned space exploration. Just compare our success exploring Mars (Orbiter and Polar Lander missions excepted) with the various Russian attempts.

What exactly would be ‘genuinely useful’ discovery? - Isn’t the satisfaction of our collective curiosity enough?

For example, I think that there are probably a huge number of people who would like to know if life exists elsewhere in our solar system; If we found it, it would be wonderful, but how useful would it be to know?

It’s hard to judge what discoveries might be made in the future that will turn out to be useful. My gut feel, though, is that the International Space Station will turn out to be a waste. I don’t really see what could be done there that couldn’t be done with smaller, cheaper, unmanned missions.

I think finding alien life could be phenomenally useful, though. Off the top of my head, at least the medical field will have access to new molecules and substances for drug making. Given the complexity of life on Earth, likely alien life will also be complex and provide very interesting substances and reactions that might have some medical use for earthly life.

Eeeeeeuuuuuwww! The Onion says! The Onion says! I read The Onion! Aren’t I cool? Aren’t you impressed with me?

I say, old chap, here comes Lord Smartingford of Braintonshire! Shall we dine upon a nice cup of tea, then? We can discuss NASA, and the global situ-AYYY-tion, and ever so many other matters! I am so very versed in such matters, reading as do I The Onion, just as soon as the server delivers it by the estate, don’t you know. I find that only the right cracking coverage of The ON-ion keeps me jolly-well amused and all that, wouldn’t you agree? Mmm, yes, I did think you would!

Freakin’ prick.

But seriously, NASA’s goal is purely scientific. Straight science is almost always beneficial to the country that sponsors it. However, NASA’s Earth based employees do not operate in a vacuum and the “bread and circus” missions arise out of politics. Since NASA is government funded, they must occasionally resort to public relations tactics (why else send John Glenn back into space?). This is aimed less at the American people than at their representatives in Congress who vote on the funding. NASA’s mission is far more than pork barrel, but it must operate in a political environment. Sadly, this is true for all worthwhile government funded projects.

Do we truly learn nothing when we send men into space? The best thing a species can do to ensure its survival is spread, and that is going to require manned spacecraft. Maybe I watch too much sci-fi.

Nope. The innovations required to sustain humans in space have already paid off in spades.

So I’ll be happy to take that Economist-readin’ old man and beat him down with my copy of Spinoff any day.

Every manned mission makes us learn more about manned missions and how to do them better. If we focused on unmanned missions we would have much less knowledge on how to do manned missions. Unmanned would be cheaper, but we also would not gain as much from it.

I was watching TV with my dad once and that commercial came on touting the down-home-to-Earth benefits that came from the space program research (this commercial aired a quite few a years ago; Tip O’Neil was in it to give you some timeframe).

My dad made a good point: he pointed out to that if that money was used to DIRECTLY research those items, then there would have been much more progress in those areas.

Although I think he was essentially correct, but the point he misses is that the space program was was not made to invent Tang; it was also to satisfy the essential human urge to explore and spread.

I’m sure my dad would have tried to talk Columbus out of his trip. “We don’t need to get spices any quicker! I still have a half a shaker a salt!”

“And get off my lawn, you kids!”

Sofa King wrote:

[ol][li] A lot of those spin-offs are from technology developed for NASA’s various unmanned space programs.[/li]
The degree to which space-program research (manner or unmanned) contributed to any of those technologies is not specified in the above links. If somebody waved a smelly astronaut boot over a piece of technology, it gets included in the list of spin-offs.[/ol]

If the space station leads to improved understanding of how to help humans live in space, and contribute to the eventual migration of humanity off terra firma, then it will be worth it for helping ensure our continued survival as a species.

Well, if nothing else, the data mined from observing the health of the astronauts/cosmonauts increases our understanding of human medicine, if only by a small degree.

Well, okay, here’s a list of Apollo spinoffs.

And a list of Space Shuttle spinoffs.

The space program kicks mucho ass because NASA encourages technology transfer (unlike the Defense Department) from the space industry to all other industries. The manned space program kicks still more ass because the designs are created with people in mind.

Sure, there are other ways to subsidize (or strangle) innovation. But none of them have the wonderful payoff that the manned space program has. It is a perfect wedding of innovation and exploration, one of the most basic human urges.

I had a problem with one bit in Sofa King’s “off” link:

The Lunar Rover had wire-mesh tires, not rubber. However, according to this site, the Modular Equipment Transporter (Lunar Rickshaw) used exclusively on Apollo 14 did have two rubber tires. This did pose thermal problems. But, man, Goodyear must have put a lot of research for a pair of outer-space bicycle tires.

Actually, when you consider the operating enviroment (deep cold alternated with blazing heat, near-absolute vacuum, harsh and varied terrain), and requirements (must not fail, no spares or patching available, no special setup or maintenance requirements, minimum possible weight), I bet they had to bust some major research ass to make those two tires (which must have cost a buttload, even by US Gov’t standards).

Tranquilis wrote:


Although space that isn’t in direct sunlight is indeed “cold” (only a few degrees above absolute zero in some cases), this coldness is not transmitted to any warm objects in space very rapidly.

Immersed in a cold liquid (e.g. water) or a gas (e.g. air), a warm object loses heat through convection, which is a very very rapid process. In contact with a solid object, a warm body loses heat through conduction, which, while not as efficient as convection, is still a pretty rapid process.

Surrounded by vacuum, the only way a warm object will lose heat is through radiation. Radiation is very very slow. It would take – what is it, years? – for a human body exposed to the cold vacuum of space to radiate away all its heat. Same goes for a bicycle tire. Exposing it to a “cold” vacuum isn’t anywhere near as traumatic as, say, immersing it in liquid nitrogen.


Not only that, but many of the items developed for NASA’s manned program must meet other government standards. The fruits of a company’s labor for NASA probably gets to waltz through the EPA, FDA and OSHA if it later gets transferred to the open market. That’s part of what I meant when I said “created with people in mind.”

The space program is a form of corporate welfare, one of the finest ever devised. It is a place where a corporation can lavishly spend R&D money when it might not otherwise be so inclined.

And, by comparison to the rest of the federal government, the manned space program is cheap, without even counting the massive payoff the country gets for all that tech transfer. This year, our groundling Administration has seen fit to cut manned space down to a mere six billion dollars. (Ahem, perhaps it’s time to switch them rockets on over to kerosene…)

Six billion ain’t jack shit in terms of the federal budget. It’s one-fityseventh of the Defense budget. It’s roughly what the Department of Justice spends on drug control, while the entire drug war’s budget outstrips NASA’s total budget by over three billion dollars. I’d like to see John Walters have to justify that sum in terms of payoff in lowered crime, fewer workdays lost, hospital fees, etc. It would be a pain in the ass.

But someone thinks it pays off, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. Similarly, a lot of us think that the benefits of manned space far outweigh the cost. Frankly, it’s a little bit insulting to see NASA berated every year with the naive question, “why don’t we spend our money on problems down here?” By bringing new technology to American business on the cheap, NASA’s doing a better job of that than a lot of other government programs I can think of.

Source: FY2003 Budget Request

The whole “economist” point of view seems to me to be based on some fairly major assumptions about priorities and goals.

If one assumes that the goal is to obtain pure information at minimum cost, then OK it’s more efficient to send unmanned craft etc.

If one assumes that the goal is to make a profit on spin off technology then no doubt both manned and unmanned exploration will assist that goal to some degree.

If one assumes that the goal is to expand human horizons, then clearly manned exploration is ideal.

An interesting thought is where the world would be if the unmanned sailing ship had been available, and if everyone in Europe in the middle of the last millenia had the “Economist” attitude.

Since when are things like landing men on the moon and colonizing space, even if only by a few people at a time, not good things?

I swear, it’s like the species lost all desire for exploration after the Kennedy administration or something. Screw spinoffs… this is space.