Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Lunar Connection

Yesterday morning I heard Howard McCurdy on the radio discussing NASA's endeavors to go to the moon. At first, I was very excited: McCurdy penned a book--Faster, Better, Cheaper--which pointed out the flaws in NASA's attempts to reduce the cost of its over-the-top budget and I've often used in my research. Naturally, I expected him to blast NASA's plans and expose the obvious fact that a base on the moon was going to be very, very, very expensive. I was wrong.

Though he acknowledged the costs would be high, McCurdy defended the bureaucracy and the mission on the basis that sometimes, to advance technology, people need to explore brave new challenges.

There is no doubt that radically new endeavors expand our understanding of the world, and thus our technological base. But the scientific community is not so creatively drained that a multi-billion-dollar mission is needed to inspire others. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, quantum computers, fusion--these are all areas which are far from reaching their apex and also promise to fundamentally change the way we understand and manipulate the world around us.

There is little doubt that going to the moon (again) will expand science, but we are at a point where more "mere" lab work will do the same. Perhaps McCurdy really meant that space will provide a literal different view--as in one from space. But if that is truly what he wants into to shake up the thought patterns of scientists, I suggest instead a much cheaper option to inquirers the world over: go stand on your head.


Anonymous said...

Must the monetary cost of something always be the deciding factor?

David said...

It must always be a deciding factor, yes (a reality we often see downplayed in Washington). And if the goal (bettering the economy) can be achieve far more cheaply by some other means, then the act should not be attempted.

Tim said...

Hah. I'd like to say that the monetary cost of something should be a deciding factor when it's somebody else's money :-P

Do what you like with your own green, but let's not blast mine into outer space, please.

Anonymous said...

Actually Tim, technically it would be blasting "your" money into inner space. Outer space is the Asteroid Belt and beyond.

A moon base is an excellent idea. The first US moon mission brought about many developments that improved the lives of everyone on the planet. From satellites that help predict the weather and give us important things like GPS to advances in laser technology that advanced the fight against cancer. And yes, even the computer used to post this blog. Who knows what benefits a permanent base will bring.

If you want to talk about what's expensive, how about NOT returning to the moon and what would be lost.


Tim said...

Jason, I'm always glad to learn about the various cryptic definitions academicians invent to obfuscate popular understanding of their disciplines, but I'll just keep using the normal definition of "outer space" for now, thanks.

Ref. definition 1: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/outer%20space

As to the utility of a moon base, I agree, great things would come from it - but what are you losing? How many people could have been provided with food and houses, for example?

I thought a major concern is present suffering vs. future benefits, so why here does the table get turned, and present costs ought to be ignored for the sake of future returns?

And why should we ignore the fact that if it were seen as economical, it would have been done? We may reap 100 trillion dollars from the endeavor, but if it costs 101 trillion, it's not really helping anyone.

And the true tragedy is that everyone will see the benefits from the moon base, but not the benefits that would have been generated for all of humanity had the money not been spent in the first place.

OK, my daughter is pawing my face silly with her paws, so I need to play with her a bit.

David said...

Tim is correct, Jason. Outer space includes all that empty stuff outside of the atmosphere of planets. You are thinking of the outer planets which are defined by all the planets beyond the asteriod belt.

Tim is even more correct about the production of the moon base. This is the classic "seen and unseen" dichotomy that plagues poor economic thinking. People witness an action, see some benefits and then conclude that must be the best way to go about getting those benefits (or those are the best benefits they could get). They never see what could have been done so they never bother to imagine it.

If the alternative wasn't so obvious, I would say that your comment is akine to if you travelled east instead of west to go from Chicago to Davenport, IA, traveling around the world and then proclaiming it was optimal because you reached your destination.

Technology (and entreprenuership in general) is a little trickier because it is not so easy to compare routes. So instead, I ask, if a moon base will efficiently create new technology, then why stop at a moon base? Why not make another base in Antartica, a habitat at the bottom of the ocean, a city in the clouds, a restaurant in a volcano, a diner on Mount Everest? If your logic of challenging ourselves--no matter the practicality of the challenge--is by definition worth any technological discoveries made along the way, then clearly there should be no limit to the extreme environments to build on.

Tim said...

Right, I'm sure we'd learn as much if not more by sending a pod-city to the bottom of the Challenger Deep - and for that matter, why stop at the moon? Why not colonize the asteroid belt? We could send asteroids hurtling into unfriendly "terrorist" nations, and mine them for valuable resources besides.

Could it be that it's just cheaper to build atomic bombs and mine for valuable resources here for the time being? That's my feeling. Some day, perhaps, but not yet.