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[offtopic for this blog] re: manned space flight, discussion on FM website

January 3, 2015

This is in reply this comment to a discussion on the FM website about the pointlessness of manned space flight, asking why the hobby of manned space exploration is better than X. Broke it up into 5 sections:

1) the form of the question “why is manned space exploration better than X”

2) acknowledge that it does not have to be done by government

3) describe the intangible benefit of manned space exploration

4) compare the ranking of importance to other possible actions that are the kind of thing done by government.

5) consider the badness of presuming to make this decision for others

————

1) the form of the question “why is manned space exploration better than X”.

It doesn’t have to be better. It has to be “as-good-as” something, reach some ranking where it will make the cut. Spending choices are not winner-take-all, nor are they all-or-nothing (projects can be spread out over many years, to reduce spending intensity).

2) acknowledge that it does not have to be done by government:

It could be done privately, by someone like Richard Branson. It could be done collectively without government action thru something like kickstarter. The same could be said (for instance by libertarians) of most government activities. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not.

3) describe the intangible benefit of manned space exploration:

This was something I always thought was self-evident, but it should be possible to put it into words. I guess it will come off as grandiose primal gibberish if you’re taking a purely materialist perspective (something that I respect and is super useful, but you asked so here it is.).

So why manned space exploration: Besides, romance, pride, vanity, display of wealth, or being an excuse for international collaboration, or nationalist one-upmanship — I think it gets to a very essential thing about being human, namely the way we relate to the world through technology, and how the story of our civilization depends on the story of technology development. We don’t *Just* reproduce to fill our living space, we reproduce to fill our living space, recognize its limits, and expand it. With a lesser-known option of limiting our rate of reproduction and achieving balance, or at least less-than-exponential growth.

But regardless, there is a huge extra importance to action that happens at the boundaries of where we can go and what we can do, space being one of them. IMO, space exploration is along the lines of everything else that was developed to expand the boundaries of human life — development of writing, math, boats, bikes, cars, submarines, airplanes, and so forth. Do they all have the same economic impact? No — nobody says scuba diving or deep-sea submarines are as important as boats, lets say. At least not now. Sending machines and people far into space is along those lines, but a lot further out.

So the technological drive an be fulfilled to a large degree by unmanned space exploration. But not completely. The “proof” of our civilizational story requires someone going in person… proof of where man (and woman) has come in the relationship with nature, not necessarily in a confrontational way, just as a mark of our development.

4) compare the ranking of importance to other possible actions that are the kind of thing done by government.

Below actions to provide basic security (when starting from 0), improve public health, build shared infrastructure, education, disaster preparation, regulation of markets so that they are detuned in the direction of reducing harm to the public (rather than perfect efficiency, max profit, with occasional famines or social uphevals).

Below some research funding.

Below unmanned space exploration (but it’s not an either-or thing)

Similar to some more speculative research funding.

Above spending on defense and security, when we consider that current levels are absurdly overkill.

Above various gifts handed out to already-wealthy private organizations as a byproduct of the way the system works.

5) consider the badness of presuming to make this decision for others

I agree that manned space exploration falls below the threshold where it’s ok to just force people to spend money on it without even asking. That might be ok for some things in the first category above. But we do have a mechanism for asking, a little indirect, and a lot broken, but it’s there. Namely, Congress.

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