Thursday, 11 January 2007

#Fly me to the moon# (at the taxpayers’ expense)

So HM Government is looking at sending a British mission to the moon. So far they are only looking at sending a couple of unmanned probes, but the second is rumoured to be exploring the possibility of a manned base.

The author of the 5tracks blog notes “My first reaction to that answer is ‘there are certain people IN Britain I’d like to send to the moon’ but that’s an old cheap gag and I’m above all that”. Matthew Paris clearly is not!

I have argued before that American plans for a moon-base and a Mars-shot are a waste of money. Our own, unmanned probes may not cost billions, but they remain a pointless boondoggle.

There is no economic or scientific purpose in revisiting the Moon. There can be little doubt that scientists will queue up to explain why they need hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money, but you could replace those scientists with others from any discipline, or with doctors or teachers or anyone else with a claim on the public purse, and they would give convincing testimony as to why they needed the money. That is not reason enough to grant it to them.

As for any economic benefit that might accrue from more lunar exploration, if it existed businesses would be falling over themselves to finance such space exploration. It is no coincidence (indeed, it is inevitable) that the branch of space transport that is profitable in human terms is (consequently) the part which is profitable in business terms. It is worth spending billions of dollars launching near-earth satellites because the business of global communications is worth trillions. It is worth trillions because it increases human capital, improves the quality of our lives and makes us more efficient and effective producers.

By comparison, spending hundreds of millions of pounds sending probes to a barren lump of rock that happens to be caught in our gravity just so that we can enjoy the frisson of pride that comes from being one of the few nations to disturb the lunar dust is an obscene waste of the public fisc.

Hmm… Waste of the public fisc! Do we have a Labour government?

4 comments:

Manny said...

Thomas, you seem like a bright fellow and someone who might be willing to consider logic and evidence in formulating an opinion. So I will attempt to engage you on that level.
At the outset I have to say that you and I have different philosophies about the role and purpose of government. My suspicion is that our fundamental disagreements will be of this nature. But there are other aspects of this issue, having to do with the search for our best future, in which I hope to influence your thinking.
Let’s take some of the points you have made and examine them in more detail.


“I have argued before that American plans for a moon-base and a Mars-shot are a waste of money. There is no economic or scientific purpose in revisiting the Moon.”

How can you categorically make this claim? How can you possibly know that there is absolutely no economic or scientific purpose to going back to the Moon?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t know. And you can’t know. No one knows. I have spoken with Dr. Harrison Schmitt himself and he feels with complete certainty that we have barely begun to understand the scientific knowledge and benefit to be discovered on the Moon. He is certainly more qualified than you to make that assessment.
I don’t think you meant what you actually wrote. I believe what you really mean is that whatever scientific purpose there may be, it is not fiscally justifiable (in your judgment).
Of course, about a century ago, not too many people saw the scientific or economic value in inventing airplanes (including the very people who invented them).
Is it unreasonable to expect that opening up space and developing space technology may indeed create whole new economies that don’t yet exist and offer opportunities for scientific investigations on a scale that is not possible now?

“As for any economic benefit that might accrue from more lunar exploration, if it existed businesses would be falling over themselves to finance such space exploration. It is no coincidence (indeed, it is inevitable) that the branch of space transport that is profitable in human terms is (consequently) the part which is profitable in business terms. It is worth spending billions of dollars launching near-earth satellites because the business of global communications is worth trillions. It is worth trillions because it increases human capital, improves the quality of our lives and makes us more efficient and effective producers.”

The question here is: If you were living in 1903 (before airplanes were invented, would you react the same way you are reacting here to the proposition that someday people would send satellites 23,500 miles out into space and that they would remain eternally suspended above a specific spot over the Earth so that we could use them to make phone calls and watch TV shows?

If you answer this question truthfully, your response to this proposition back in 1903 would be that people who talked about such things must be insane. After all, not only had the airplane still not have been invented, but no one even imagined what a TV might be and no one would gaps the concept of phone calls bounced off satellites in space. That is crazy stuff !
Is it not conceivable, that we are repeating a similar episode now? That we cannot possibly imagine what is yet to be developed or invented as an outcome of our space exploration efforts?

Let me remind of what someone said about the possibility for space flight back in 1935:

“There is not in sight any source of energy that would be a fair start toward that which would be necessary to get us beyond the gravitative control of the earth. “
- Forest Ray Moulton (1872-1952), astronomer, 1935.
-
You can find many more similar quotes about all manner of technical endeavours here:
http://www.lunarexplorer.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=56&Itemid=112

Going back to a previous blog you posted about the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), here are a couple of points you made:

“And what vital purpose is this [Moon] base going to serve? Why, it’s going to prepare the way for the first ever manned trip to Mars! I have no figures on what this will cost, but I cannot see how a moon base and a Mars-shot can cost less than $1 trillion. Admittedly, man may not walk on the moon again until 2020, and maybe man won’t set foot on Mars before (for an off-the-cuff date) 2046. But were my back of an envelope guesstimates to be correct, that would entail spending $25bn a year over the next forty years.”

The real pay off for all this effort to establish a base on the Moon is not that we will get to send a small group of intrepid explorers to Mars.
I have to agree with you that NASA does a rather poor job of making the case for Space Exploration. However, one has to remember that NASA is not marketing its own vision. They are marketing a vision which was given to them by the political classes. And when you talk about lack of vision, there may not be another single group of human beings more lacking in true Vision than politicians. So, NASA is not the one to blame.

The real purpose for which we should all be working is for our Civilization to achieve Space Faring status. We should be working to Settle Space permanently in very large numbers. If you have been paying any attention to Stephen Hawkings, he makes the case rather well that we will not survive long term as a prosperous species unless we learn to live and work (and play) in Space. The Moon is the first step to get there.

”I cannot help thinking that there must, must be something better on which to spend a trillion dollars than sending men somewhere that is better suited for (cheaper, more effective) robots. In fact, would the US Government not be better off not spending it at all. Republicans are supposed to believe in small government and fiscal prudence; Democrats in social welfare. But the lure of the boondoggle is always too great for politicians.”

Unless you have not accepted any of my positions so far, you have to concede that sending robots to space will not help us to develop the scale and complexity of infrastructure needed to save us when a Near Earth object is headed for a collision with the Earth. And it certainly will not save us from the many environmental and resource crisis that we will face probably in our own lifetimes. Space offers unlimited resources in clean energy and mineral resources. It offers the possibility of forever expanding economies and improved living standards that will benefit every single living person.
One final point: the money that we spend on going to the Moon is not sent to the Moon in giant suitcases to be left there for eternity. And it is not burned in the giant rocket engines to get us up into Space. The trillions that you speak of, are spent here on Earth, to create jobs, drive the economy, promote technical advances (which in turn generate more jobs and better living standards).
From your question and your tone, I would assume that you might feel that money might be better spent in social programs. Well, here is the thing: unless we greatly expand the world economy there will always be millions (even billions) of people with no opportunity to improve their lives. You can spend money on social programs forever and not make a dent in increasing the standard of living for the average citizen of the Earth.
Is that really a better way to spend the money? It’s a matter of judgment.
What I would say is this: We (the Earth) face many challenging problems and we have limited resources. Should we devote all of our resources to addressing only the symptoms of those problems or should we earmark a small percentage of those resources to try to fundamentally eliminate the problems at their root cause? (by the way, the total amount of annual spending by NASA amounts to just about 0.7% of the Federal Budget. You cannot possibly claim that this represents an exhorbitant figure.)

But I have to say that I greatly enjoyed this exchange. Thank you.

Manny Pimenta
President
Lunar Explorer
www.LunarExplorer.com

Tristan said...

Manny:
The point here is that if there's any point in doing it then private business will do it, rather than the government extorting money from us to do it.

Government cannot know the best way to spend money, and even worse, they are spending our money.

Of course scientists will tell us there's a lot to discover, they want funding for their interests.

And your point about planes confirms what we are saying, it was private interests who made flight possible. It was not government.

Indeed, government funding would probably have killed the projects for flight.

I think that there might be something useful to be gained from lots of things, but that doesn't mean the government should do it for us, if I think there's particular worth in something I will spend my time and money investigating it.
Discovery and innovation thrives in the private sphere, it withers when government gets involved...

Tom Papworth said...

Manny,

Thank you for recognising what a bright fellow I am and engaging me on the level of logic and evidence. I would hate to imagine on what level you would have engaged me had I sounded dull or boorish!

You appear to be joining the queue to explain to Government how the taxpayers’ money should be spent. This seems ironic in light of your comment on my other posting (“The end of the free society?”) in which you state that you agree that taxpayers can be compelled to “…give a portion of their wealth for … the military, the police, and the judicial system [but] Anything beyond that, we start getting into an arbitrarily confiscatory realm.” How does that square with your desire to spend taxpayers’ money on the space programme?

Of course there is undoubtedly value in further lunar or space exploration, but this does not justify compelling taxpayers to finance it. If you wish to explore space – for the good of the species or for your own profit – you are of course welcome to do so, and if it proves to be valuable you will be amply rewarded through the commercialisation of your discoveries. That is how flight was pioneered and why it has been so successful.

As for the “money that we spend on going to the Moon … [being] spent here on Earth, to create jobs, drive the economy, promote technical advances (which in turn generate more jobs and better living standards)” that is the classic excuse for government expenditure. The trillions would be creating jobs and driving the economy whether they were being spent on space exploration, medicine, communications or theme parks. However, they would be being directed according to the wishes and interests of those who generated the money and not according to the whim of politicians of bureaucrats. It would also avoid the negative effects of government spending – ranging from inherent waste to crowding out of private enterprise – that tends to reduce economic growth.

I hope that I correctly infer from your statement that “there may not be another single group of human beings more lacking in true Vision than politicians”, that in fact you agree with me that government spending on space exploration is not warranted. If your intention is merely to defend the principle of space exploration rather than justifying government spending, then I wholeheartedly agree. Explore away, and I wish you the best of luck. Just don’t compel others to finance it.

Tom.

Manny said...

Thomas:

I realize that my opening tone probably came across as condescending and presumptuous. There may have been a bit of that (for which I apologize - it is not my usual manner to communiate that way) but I can assure you that the compliment is genuine. One comes across all sorts of people who love to share their opinions on the Internet (some of whom would do well to refrain from doing so). I do find your posts to be articulate and well thought out. And I was expressing a sincere interest in a dialog.

”You appear to be joining the queue to explain to Government how the taxpayers’ money should be spent. This seems ironic in light of your comment on my other posting (“The end of the free society?”) in which you state that you agree that taxpayers can be compelled to “…give a portion of their wealth for … the military, the police, and the judicial system [but] Anything beyond that, we start getting into an arbitrarily confiscatory realm.” How does that square with your desire to spend taxpayers’ money on the space programme?”

Good point. It is not easy to condense complex arguments into a reasonable number of words. Editing oneself is an art that is difficult to master.
I do believe in Thomas Paine’s view that government is best which governs least and that it should be limited to a few very clearly defined roles. The ones enumerated in the American Constitution sound just about perfect to me. Of course, we have completely discarded that philosophy in America long ago. Government has grown in size and influence far beyond the original intent of the Founding Fathers.
I would venture to say the US government today would be totally unrecognizable to the framers of the Constitution. It has in fact become a confiscatory system engaged primarily in wealth distribution on a massive scale. I recognize also that this has become an immutable reality of life. Now, since we find ourselves in this state of affairs, if government is going to take my money anyway, my preference would be that it use that money as an investment in the future. Investing in space can potentially open up entire new economies that will dwarf the largest commercial enterprises in existence today. If government has any role to play in our lives, its role should be to assure the future of the nation and to promote long term prosperity. I can manage my own and my family’s personal economies - I don’t need the government to manage my retirement funds or my medical insurance or anything of the sort. I am counting on the government to make sure that the future of our society is well planned for; that continuing and expanding opportunities are created for individual ambition and enterprise to create prosperity. That is a legitimate role for government to play (it comes under the “providing for the common welfare” clause of the US Constitution).

Having said all that, I will also tell you that I agree that as we have begun the journey towards becoming a Space Faring Civilization, it is private enterprise that will take us there. My belief is partly based on exactly the point you are making: that tax payers should not be made to pay for it involuntarily; and it is partly based on my having very little confidence that government can actually accomplish anything truly visionary.
I actually traveled from New York to the Mojave desert to be present at the first ever commercially developed vehicle to reach space on June 21, 2004. That was the day Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne had its final test flight before attempting to win the X-Prize. That is how much I believe in Commercial Space and how historic a moment I thought it was. So much so that I felt I had to be there to witness it.

So, in principle we are in agreement that it is an activity best left to the private sector. My point was that spending on Space is a much better use of our tax dollars (because of the potential for great future returns) than almost any other federal budget line items.

As for how government uses its power to compel me to pay for things with which I disagree, at the very top of my list is the fact that my government has given some of my money to terrorist organizations bent on destruction and death. That, absolutely infuriates me. I am infinitely less aggravated about seeing my money used to build a future for my children and their children.

Perhaps one day there will be a society that will adopt the principle of “Economic Democracy”. People would be compelled to pay a portion of their wealth and they would have a choice of how that money gets spent.
But first, you would have to get rid of all the politicians. They would never willingly relinquish the colossal power they wield by virtue of their control of the purse strings.

Finally, to address Tristan’s points directly:

“The point here is that if there's any point in doing it then private business will do it”

I understand your point (as discussed above) but there are obvious precedents about things that were worth doing but were not done by private business (for whatever reasons). Two that come to mind immediately are the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam in the US.

“And your point about planes confirms what we are saying, it was private interests who made flight possible. It was not government.
Indeed, government funding would probably have killed the projects for flight.”

Another excellent point. If you are familiar with the development of the airplane, at exactly the same time that the Wright brothers were building their first successful model, there was a Mr. Samuel Langley who received a $50,000 government grant to build a working heavier than air machine and who failed miserably. The Wright brothers probably spent less than 1/10th of that money and succeeded. My point about referring to the invention of airplanes was to illustrate the fact that one has to look beyond the obvious. There are incredible opportunities that are not yet even imagined. And only by pushing forward (sometimes on nothing more than faith) can we hope to achieve magnificent outcomes.


Manny Pimenta
President
Lunar Explorer
www.LunarExplorer.com