Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


Editor’s Pick
JULY 11, 2011 7:05AM

The Final Frontier

Rate: 17 Flag

With the end of the shuttle program, it seems to me it’s time to do some serious contemplation about what we should do next with NASA.

I’m sure some would like to put the whole organization in mothballs, but many of us have higher hopes. Some are frustrated that we don’t go to the moon any more. NASA logo Others would like to see Mars explored. Some have their eyes on deep space. I’m fascinated by all of these possibilities. There is a boundless Universe out there waiting for us to get out and explore.

And there are benefits of doing so even here at home on Earth. We gained a great deal more from going to the moon than simply moondust. We advanced technology and honed our knowledge of the sciences in important ways because of our interest in space. It calls out to us and taunts us with the very clear message that “you will not get here without a spirit of invention.” Cordless power tools for the home, windshear prediction for airplanes, not to mention global telecommunications via satellite and many, many other advances can trace their roots directly to the space program. It was, as Armstrong put it, “one giant leap for mankind.”

The annual budget of NASA is not even huge, by the way. One survey showed that many Americans imagine the NASA budget to be enormously bigger than it actually is, the average respondent wrongly guessing it consumes a quarter of the national budget—one dollar of every four! In fact, the NASA budget has, over time, adjusted for inflation, averaged about $15 billion annually, an amount dwarfed by what we spend in Iraq, for example. In percentage terms, the NASA budget is only 0.58% of the national budget. A little over a half of one percent. In round numbers, that means only about one dollar of every 200 goes to NASA. But the impact in terms of science, technology and societal optimism is very much larger.

Carl Sagan was more modest in his estimation of the day-to-day consequences, although he died in 1996, when the web was only in its infancy and before cell phones and mobile media had transformed the world of communication. Even so, he was able even then to express the sense of optimism that our space program has brought us in a way that few today could even begin to:

And especially with the Earth’s climate changing, there is a lot to learn from studying how other planets work that we can apply to our own world. It was the study of outer space by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s that first identified the greenhouse effect, for example. The planet Venus is often cited as a victim of the effect, and offers a useful opportunity for study of something we’d rather not see played out here on our planet.

NASA has been instrumental in helping us to acquire hard scientific data about Climate Change, and analyses of the significance of that data. NASA has offered us critical data about the the ozone layer. And it has been tracking issues related to the climate. NASA data reminds us, for example, that 2010 was tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record. “If the warming trend continues, as is expected, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long,” explains James Hansen, the director of Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In my estimation, we are already, each of us, in line to go, as Star Trek would portray it, “where no man has gone before.” We are each astronauts, of a sort, on our way to an alien planet that is barely habitable, or perhaps uninhabitable. Spaceship Earth is headed in that direction already, as we are collectively opting not to steer it. In the end, and I use those words with all due irony, I fear that Spaceship Earth will almost certainly be that alien planet—and much sooner than many people expect.

At this point, the last thing on Earth, quite literally, that I’d eliminate from the budget is the space program because we’d better start doing serious research into knowing how to live in a world that was not designed for humans. We designed and engineered the world to be that way, mind you, but as we did we gave no attention to whether it would be livable by humans. We left that to the free market, and the free market didn’t see a profit angle.

Even today, if you talk to free market advocates, they will respond by saying they don’t see any “proof” of bad things coming but they will quickly acknowledge that they do fear the possibility of impact on their wallet. And still the rest of us reward those who champion this view of the world over a view that says livability is everything. We have simply declined to make survival of our civilization a priority. Talk of a sixth mass extinction event, like that which killed the dinosaurs, is not just idle speculation but a serious concern of modern researchers.†

Libertarians and free market advocates see the solution to such concerns as a cut in the federal budget for agencies that monitor this kind of thing. No budget means no pesky scientists fussing, trying to dictate policy. Neat and tidy. Basically, they want to let the discussion move to the private sector where the outcome of science can be freely molded to suit business planning and presentation needs, as it was with the BP oil spill and the BP scientists who’ve been allowed to assure us that all is well.

For my money, given how we’re approaching things otherwise, if you want to cut one thing in the NASA budget, let it be the rockets. We don’t need rockets to get us to an alien world. Just put the shuttle right there on the runway with cinder blocks instead of wheels, and then wait. Climate Change will take us the rest of the way.

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.

†James Hansen’s excellent book Storms of My Grandchildren clearly spells out both the science behind some of these climate concerns in a way that’s easily accessible to the ordinary reader. And it comes full of passion, nicely separated from the science so that you can understand that the passion is borne of the science and not vice versa, as some denialists have maintained.

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A little known US intelligence agency by the moniker NGIA, or the National Geospatial Information Agency has as its mission the monitoring of the Earth's geographic, oceanographic, and atmospheric viability. I'm sure that they already have enough evidence to know that we're deeply screwed if we don't take immediate steps to stop carbon emissions.
I like your analysis, Kent, like it a lot. You have a perspective, and you advance it well. Your post is content-full; it has plenitude. People may disagree, but you've provided an argument that goes a long way toward promoting intelligent public discourse on this topic. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.
Succinct and beautiful reasoning, Kent! I'll be following the comments on this with real interest. Just now "rated" you and want you and current comment-ers to know I'm (more or less[*]) "here" and "listening".

[* It's still a bit early of a Monday morning here :-(]

Though our robots still are very crude and primitive they have visited other planets and survived for a short period. Protein life can be quite tough to live in the depths of the ocean and perhaps even survive a while on some of the planets but the future lies with the robots. They will become intelligent and creative and beautiful and humans are their ancestors. We should be proud.
Enjoyed this, Kent. Making me think.
Loved it! Very complimentary to what I wrote a bit ago about being involved in space. You took it in a slightly different direction and I am envious! Well done, sir. Rated.
Lefty, I'm surprised and disappointed that Obama has not made more of an issue of it. I guess he thinks it will somehow discredit his seriousness, though if he understood how serious it was, he could use it as a trampoline to get internal investment going sooner than is presently planned. The Republicans are certainly no better, but it becomes a choice between a party that is not acting fast enough and a party that would like us to undo prior action. I'm not bullish.

Jerry, thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you liked the piece.

Marte, thanks for stopping in and adding your support.

Jan, in my view, it's a race against time. Even robots are not quite ready for prime time and I don't give this whole process nearly the time horizon that even the most pessimistic scientists do. I have a pending post that tries to explain why that isn't irrational of me. I'll try to get to it. Meanwhile see my Climate Change essay from a few years back. It's dated in places and it's longer than I wish, plus I've added more reasons over time, but it gives you the basic idea.

Matt, if we were all thinking and not running on autopilot, that would help quite a lot. Thanks for leading the charge.

niteowl, I'll try to get time to look at your post later when I have more time. Thanks for visiting. I'm glad you liked it.
As long as I can remember, we've always had a space program, and always had some kind of goal to achieve.

One very real threat from space is rogue asteroids, and a collision with the wrong one could literally end life as we know it.

With the end of the shuttle program, what happens to all the people who were involved in that? Once the people are gone, if we ever want to restart a space program, we'll have to build it from the ground up.
mishima, I agree. And not to muddy the waters too much, but the same can be said of our entire manufacturing sector, as discussed in my recent post Just a Gut Feeling I Have. In fact, to fully generalize, as you were pretty much alluding to, if we lose the human race, whether due to climate or asteroid, Nature has quite a long way to go to recreate all that we've achieved...
The ending of the shuttle program can be compared to the state of the country as a whole. I think that it signals a change in attitude in what Americans think about themselves. When President Kennedy set a goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade he symbolized the can-do spirit of the people of his time. We were at the top of the heap economically, culturally, militarily, and controlled about 70% of the planet's wealth.

Today, that spirit is no where to be found. We have managed to convince ourselves that we can't compete, can't do "the big things" and seem to be more concerned with hunkering down; playing defense, rather than offense, as it were. At a time when we should be busting out, we choose to sit on the bench.

Not good.
Flylooper, it's a good observation, I think. I'm continually surprised by the lack of “can do” in the Republican atittude toward the various challenges that face us. I think we could solve health care like any other problem, for example, but they seem to take it as veritably a given that it's not solvable. Oh, they say otherwise, and talk about how free market competition will fix things, but there's no evidence it will, so I discount that. But they basically use lots of negative language about “can't afford” as if this were a simple and knowable matter of fact. And worse, a lot of people seem to believe them without question. I tend to think that people will rise to what their leaders ask of them, and if leaders ask them to abandon their fellows, well, we can see where that leads. Thanks for visiting and offering your perspective.

you'll be happy to know that NASA has already made climate change a top priority with respect to research capital (people and funds).

I do think that a little too much introspection can be a bad thing, however.

One of the issues with earth science as we know it is the fact that we're stuck with just one earth to study. So we have to wait for things to happen here before we can say with high levels of certainty what is and is not meaningful variation in the earth system.

NASA has been pushing the limits on how we can use the dynamics of the planets and moon of our solar system to better inform ourselves on the possible outcomes back here at home. In fact, there is a brand new set of Mars rovers being blasted off toward the end of this year ready with a whole to new toolbox of toys to explore the terrain and help us understand planetary processes more completely.

I don't know if there will be information we find on these missions that impacts our understanding of climate change, but we certainly won't know if we don't go there.

It's like an old saying I like to tell myself: 'No one hits a home run without swinging the bat!'.

But that's one of the drawbacks of research. One rarely knows how things will pan out for the better.

"With the end of the shuttle program, it seems to me it’s time to do some serious contemplation about what we should do next with NASA."

Great topic to contemplate. I'm sure we'll still develop some new technologies, but I wonder if we are reaching a technological ceiling where we never really will have the ability to do something like seriously colonize Mars.

NASA was so inspiring as we explored the moon and the solar system with Voyager, but I wonder if NASA can realistically make any real, major advancements in technology or history other than possibly discovering micro-organisms on a moon like Jupiter's moon, Europa.

I love science-fiction and dreaming of space travel & NASA has really done some exraordinary things, but I suspect NASA may go the way of the auto industry and become far less relevant culturally and technolgically.

That being said, I assume we will still study the stars and learn more about our universe, and American scientists will always play an important role in that endeavor.
I've been reading and writing science fiction for more than 40 years, and it grieves me to say this, but people who believe that interstellar travel is possible have never done the math.

I did the math once. In order to travel to the nearest star system where human existence might be feasible in a reasonable period of time, using the most powerful fuel available (nuclear energy), you would need to carry 100 times more payload than the rated capacity of the vehicle....and that's the good news. The bad news is that it would take literally thousands of years to produce enough nuclear devices to get us to the nearest potentially habitable star system, but there's another limiting factor that prevents us from making the journey. We don't have enough uranium on the planet to build that many devices.

The Space Shuttle was an egregious example of wishful thinking taken to the furthest extent of absurdity. When originally designed, it was thought that it would cost $10 million per shuttle mission and NASA foresaw something like 66 trips a year. Well, recent accounting studies have shown that each shuttle trip cost $1.5 billion....and we never managed to launch more than five per year.

Absurdist physicists who shall remain nameless here have suggested all kinds of arcane fuel systems that might potentially power a star ship at some distant point in the future, but they are all at the extreme edge of theoretical physics and they all require technological breakthroughs that are nowhere in the offing on a planet teetering on financial collapse.

The worst knock on interstellar travel is that, even if we ever managed to get there, it will take thousands of years for a single journey and, once there, we would have no way of ever getting back because there probably won't be any industrial civilizations there capable of providing the fuel we need to make the return trip.

Any interstellar voyages are simply one way trips.

I would go....but I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life in a Campbell's soup can so that my distant descendants could find themselves shit out of luck circling an uninhabitable planet for the rest of eternity.

On the other hand, permanent colonies on the Moon, Mars, and the outer moons are not completely unfeasible but the hellacious cost of the trip would never generate a return worth the effort.

Space travel has been a boon to mankind....but we have already rung the value out of that experience. As much as I would want to see us go, it seems to me that we had better fix things down here before we try to go out there.
I had this discussion once with Issac Asimov....and he agreed with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to pose the same question to no less than Arthur C. Clarke shortly before he passed away and his comment was that we would gain more from the oceans than we would from space. And, finally, no less an authority than Story Musgrave who, in addition to being one of the most experienced of our astronauts, actually designed the space excursion suits was recently quoted in a HuffPost article in which he said point blank that the Shuttle was a disaster.

We shot our wad on that little pretty and the bank is about to foreclose on the launch pads.
Good work on an important subject. NASA was an inspiration for thousands of superior minds who wanted to explore and make a career out of science. Where do these minds now go? To Wall Street? I hope we wake up and get this back on track quickly.
Demon, you wrote “I don't know if there will be information we find on these missions that impacts our understanding of climate change, but we certainly won't know if we don't go there.” I'm in general agreement with this. (My remark about canceling the rockets were mostly just to make a point was mostly rhetorical to drive home a point about the importance of what's going on in the climate, not really to say I don't like rockets. We need them to get weather and communication satellites up, after all.)

Robert, there is indeed a lot to be inspired by and I hope we keep doing a lot of things in the program. Given the urgent nature of climate change, I'm willing to see some bias toward issues directly related to that, but generally I'm very supportive of the full range of activities NASA pursues. Thanks for visiting.
Alan, I can believe the remark about Asimov. I didn't speak to him personally, but saw him speak at MIT while I was there. He spoke at one point with considerable amusement (his talk gave the impression that it was easy to get him amused by all manner of things) about stories about traveling into the future, and how all of them ended up meeting people in robes with benign expressions who happened to speak English. He was not unaware of the clash between stories and reality. But if I may stretch what I learned from that talk to the limit, I would say he gave the clear impression that it was still important to dream. And that's what NASA offers us in addition to tangible reality: dreams. In the process of not doing the things you suggest, we may invent or do many other important things.

Spudman, you're right. Those minds went somewhere, and probably in many cases to places we should rescue them from for more important work. :)
In 1969 I sat on my dad's shoulders and watched Apollo 11 astronauts parade down Main street, Houston. Then a few days ago, I entered a favorite Los Angeles restaurant and was surprised to see Buzz Aldrin there. Boy has he aged! Still, all my boyhood enthusiasm and pride quickly returned. But I have no idea what Nasa should be doing these days. How do you top going to the moon? I personally don't see a point in a manned mission to mars. I agree we need to keep some kind of presence in space and I'm sure we will -- even if it's private industry that does some of the heavy lifting.

Thanks for your article.
Retablo, in my personal opinion, we don't have time to do a lot useful on Mars before we're in dire straits here climate-wise, but ignoring that matter, I think mankind will never be really “safe” from extinction (always a somewhat relative term) until it starts diversifying its location. We need colonies on the moon, on Mars, and other planets and moons, even outside the solar system, and outside the galaxy if we're to survive the various things that can happen to planets and stars and even galaxies. One goes one step at a time, of course. It would help a lot to have permanent off-planet bases. And we would learn a lot about habitability and sustainability that way which perhaps would influence things on earth. Also, independent even of all of that, we'll hit resource walls here on earth at some point, and getting certain resources from elsewhere could turn out to be economical. We'll never know until we try.

That's a very interesting point of view but I just can't relate to it. Maybe that's why I'm not a scientist. I don't think the human race is in any danger of extinction, and the reason why stars are so far away is to force us to not lose focus on closer matters. For me the moon was a significant enough accomplishment that there's no need to duplicate it or surpass it. Instead, we can now focus our attention on home.
Retablo, I join those who think the human race has a quite measurable probability of being decimated or even going extinct within this century, perhaps sooner. I mentioned an article about mass extinctions in my text above. If you prefer videos, see National Geographic's Six Degrees Could Change the World. Or see this essay by Steve Kirsch: How it Will End. James Hansen's book Storms of My Grandchildren takes up this issue in a serious way. Thomas L. Friedman's book Hot, Flat and Crowded discusses the matter. And there's Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The specifics of what will play out are subjects of ongoing research and discussion, but it seems absolutely clear to me that the one thing you can't say given present data is “we can safely ignore this.” I recommend doing your own research. There's a lot of good information at if you have some specific doubt—they specialize in responding to such things.
Kent, believe it or not, I spoke to Asimov AT MIT and I can even tell you the exact date: Monday, October, 19, 1987 which, you may recall, was Black Monday. Asimov spoke there that evening, at a meeting hosted by Mitch Kapor. What I can't remember is how I found my way there in the first place. So, we were at the same place at the same time, or were we?
If people want to worry about the sky falling I see no reason to try and talk them out of it.
Alan, the talk I'm thinking of was in 1976, I think, and was titled “Escape to Reality” (though he said in the talk that it was a generic name he gave to talks when he really didn't know what he was going to talk about, a tactic I have come to really appreciate and attempt to emulate sometimes). I have it in my head I saw him speak twice, though I have less memory of any more recent one; maybe I only wanted to go the second time and didn't. But who knows really? Sometimes I think not only is the future an unwritten book but parts of the past as well...

Retablo, I'm not trying to get you to talk anyone out of worrying about things. I'm trying to get you to engage a bit. Fear, especially of measurably real threats, is often quite healthy.
You're "fearing" the wrong thing. The universe is supposed to appear to us as sometimes hostile and distant specifically so we are encouraged to focus not on the temporal existence of this life but on something more eternal. In my opinion that's the message the universe ultimately "teaches" us. How long it takes one to reach that conclusion is a different matter. If as part of the process some one wants to devote their lives to the effort of colonizing Mars or something like that then, as I said, I'm not going to try and talk them out of it.