Gene Expression

Space, the forgotten frontier?

i-80d74ab2709303621a30ef8a5cb7692f-spaceares.jpgI’m old enough to have very faint memories of the very first shuttle missions, though I do not recall the last moon landings. I recently heard a science fiction writer observe that when he was a child the idea of a moon landing was so futuristic. Then it happened…and we stopped going. It’s been over 30 years since humans set foot on the moon.

Granted, there’s been a lot that’s happened since then. Your rescale your awe meter, so the plethora of Mars landings and detailed exploration of the outer planets via the Galileo and Cassini missions don’t register in the same way. Various technologies mean that the increase in knowledge is accelerating, but, the rate of acceleration itself is perhaps not increasing. With the completion of the Human Genome, and the beckoning age of applied genomics, the perpetual promise of a manned Mars mission seems to pale in comparison. Perhaps there are simply constraints of human engineering when it comes to our exploration of space, in particular manned space flight. We are biological creatures, evolved for this earth.

In any case, The New York Times has an interesting piece up, The Fight Over NASA’s Future. It is mostly about the next generation of vehicles which presumably will take us back to the moon. Color me disappointed that the goal is to do what we’ve done before, just better.


  1. #1 kevin
    December 30, 2008

    I was 10 when the first moon landing occurred and the expectation at that time was that it was the beginning of a future where living and working and vacationing in space would be common place. In many ways the reality has been disappointing. I don’t think it works to measure success against science fiction level expectations.

    Launch costs are prohibitive and large scale failures are still commonplace. Despite that, progress has and continues to be made. While manned spaceflight has produced little of consequence, the Hubble and unmanned exploration has re-written our understanding of both our own solar system and the universe beyond it. That is the true measure of progress.

  2. #2 george.w
    December 30, 2008

    I would love to see us concentrate on robotic missions for a while. We could send out an armada of robots for what a single human mission would cost, and the spinoff technologies would be fabulous for our economy. Meantime manned space flight can develop from commercial ventures like space tourism.

    Everybody wants to see sexy footage of someone stepping on Mars. I just want to know about Mars.

  3. #3 bioIgnoramus
    December 30, 2008

    I found the whole space thing a huge bore because I’d read all about it in advance in Sci Fi books.

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    December 30, 2008

    As I once wrote in my own blog, the curse of the Moon and NASA efforts is the fact that it found out one very interesting thing: there is nothing out there that we don’t already have down here.

    THAT is why space exploration is not and will never be comparable to the great voyages of the Renaissance that discovered America, etc etc. America had resources that were hard to get in Europe. Gold, in particular, but plenty others like old-growth trees (several countries in Europe came close to total deforestation for their navy’s sake), tobacco, and plenty of animals we Europeans had never seen before.

    In short: exploitation was possible.

    Space, we discovered, isn’t like that. There is, quite literally, nothing there. What little is there in greater abundance than what we have here (Iron, for example), we can get here cheaper (and by recycling if not by digging). There’s no magic coal fields out there, there’s no magic oil fields or any other energy source. Even if we were to find more nuclear fuel sources, we’re hardly close to burning through what we’ve found so far here on Earth.

    THAT is why there will never really be any interest in space for a long time to come: there’s nothing there worth the investment.

  5. #5 Lassi Hippeläinen
    December 30, 2008

    There may not be anything worth the investment in material goods, but there is always Politics. Even Apollo missions were driven by a need to show off. Science was only a side effect. Only one scientist ever made it to the Moon, because the three last missions – the ones with science emphasis – were cancelled for budget reasons. The show-off was over; no need for science.

    I predict that the missions to Mars will again be driven by Politics. That eliminates any need to think about return-on-investment. Just wait until China becomes a serious contender in manned Mars missions. (While waiting, read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein…)

  6. #6 gcochran
    December 30, 2008

    “there’s no magic oil fields or any other energy source”

    Look up, you pinhead. Razib, the Atlas Society has its job cut out for it.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    December 30, 2008

    Yes, but we have sunlight here, too – and the technologies needed to get a real benefit out of exploiting extraterrestrial solar energy are far beyond us.

    Only the scientists wanted to go to space for science. And other than science, there’s really nothing for us out there. The hopes of solving population problems by creating space habitats were always ridiculous pipe dreams that ignored lots of inconvenient realities. There are no easily-exploited resources, and although that might eventually change as our needs and capabilities shift, it’s looking increasingly as if it won’t come in my lifetime.

  8. #8 Michael
    January 2, 2009

    Perhaps there are simply constraints of human engineering when it comes to our exploration of space, in particular manned space flight. We are biological creatures, evolved for this earth.

    You are officially notified by the geek high council that you are now excommunicated, branded a heretic, a kufaar practicing shirk.

    Don’t you know that for many the fantasy of interstellar space travel has replaced the fantasies of Heaven, Reincarnation, Jannah, etc?

    Why must you crush our faith under your heel?

  9. #9 Daniel Dare
    January 7, 2009

    The golden age of space exploration in the late-20th century, was the “space race” dominated by the then superpowers USA and USSR. These two powers both had around a quarter of a billion people.

    By the late-21st century I am expecting that there will be two new superpowers. Both of them will be some five or so times bigger than the superpowers of the late-20th century.

    Add to that, the fact that economic growth will have pushed up the income levels of developed nations, to about twice that of a century previous; and you get the conclusion that the late-21st century superpowers will have about an order-of-magnitude (10 times) more capability than the late-20th century superpowers.

    This will have a huge impact on the kind of projects that they will be able to undertake. Many things that are beyond us will be entirely feasable for them.

    I would guess: Space, fusion-power, solar, large-scale desalination of seawater, robotics, transhumanism. There will be a huge advance of scitech in many areas, compared to the 20th century, just as the 20th century was a huge advance on the 19th.

    It is not just technical progress that is important, but also advances in the sheer size of the civilizations. Scitech is spreading sideways as well as growing upwards.

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