Men in space bleg

Occasionally I see news stories that I’m too lazy to investigate. I’d rather have my commenters fill me in. I see that Elon Musk’s SpaceX is going to send a couple of men up into space. Why?

More generally, why does NASA still wish to send people into space? What’s the point? Here are some possible answers, none of which makes any sense. You tell me what I am missing.

1. Men and women can do useful things in space. Yes, but can’t unmanned space probes do those things much more cheaply (in terms of money and risk to human life?)

2. You never know what we’ll discover. Yes, but we can discover things much more cheaply with unmanned probes.

3. Mankind needs an inspiring goal. Yes, but we sent men into space 59 years ago, and to the moon 51 years ago. It would have looked pretty silly in 1962 (by which time people were routinely flying in 707s) to recreate the inspiring Kitty Hawk flight of 1903.

I get that sending men into space is an inspiring idea, and ditto for the Moon landing. I just can’t get inspired by doing it over and over again.

So what am I missing?

PS. In my view, the (unmanned) Voyager program was one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements, so I’m not immune to the allure of space. I just don’t see the point of our recent manned activities in space, much less returning to the Moon (which some have proposed.)

PPS. Here’s why I think people are silly when they lament the slowdown in (measured) technological progress after 1973. Does anyone seriously think that we could have had just as much progress in the first 59 years of manned space flight as in the first 59 years of civil aviation, if we’d just tried harder. Sorry folks, but the laws of physics cannot be brushed aside.

Perhaps unmeasured technological progress is higher than we think, but that’s an entirely different question.



31 Responses to “Men in space bleg”

  1. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    28. May 2020 at 09:17

    One reason I see given is that a colony on another planet/moon is insurance against an extinction event on earth. I believe Musk’s goal is to colonize Mars.

  2. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    28. May 2020 at 09:19

    Personally, I would rather see people concentrate on sub-orbital transport. Make it cheap to go from New York to Tokyo in an hour.

  3. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    28. May 2020 at 09:20

    “PPS. Here’s why I think people are silly when they lament the slowdown in (measured) technological progress after 1973. Does anyone seriously think that we could have had just as much progress in the first 59 years of manned space flight as in the first 59 years of civil aviation, if we’d just tried harder. Sorry folks, but the laws of physics cannot be brushed aside.

    Perhaps unmeasured technological progress is higher than we think, but that’s an entirely different question”

    Disagree. The laws of physics can’t be broken, but they can be circumvented. Ever heard of the Alcubierre Drive? space itself can be expanded and contracted to push spaceships faster than light. At least in theory.

    Our measured tech progress since the 1970s with the notable exception of information technology, has been absolutely PATHETIC. That’s part of the reason why real wages haven’t grown as fast as the early 20th late nineteenth.

    We still run on fossil fuels. We don’t have super batteries or cold fusion. We don’t have flying cars.

  4. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    28. May 2020 at 09:24

    It’s apparently a great testament to the power of private industry that they might now be able to do what our country was able to do 59 years ago, launch a person into space.

  5. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    28. May 2020 at 09:31

    There’s no strong near-term reason for the human spaceflight program to continue to get public funding, other than nostalgia and political pork spending. It floats tens of thousands of jobs in a couple well-connected states (especially Florida, Alabama, and Texas), and no US President wants to be the one to say, “Sorry, no more astronauts for now”.

    The closest to a valuable use for humans in space right now would be repairs and occasionally tending experiments in space stations. But if we were singularly focused on that, the human spaceflight program would be a lot cheaper.

    The long-term rationale is that having humans able to sustain themselves in colonies off Earth would make civilization less likely to implode on itself from some combination of disasters and bad decisions over the next couple millennia.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. May 2020 at 09:41

    David and Brett, I don’t believe it would provide that sort of catastrophe insurance, at least to an extent greater than such a colony in Antarctica, which would be orders of magnitude cheaper.

    A South Pole colony could be shut off from deadly viruses and would be unlikely to be targeted in a nuclear war. Perhaps AI run amok would get to it, but then AI run amok would also get to space colonies.

  7. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    28. May 2020 at 10:06

    For an extinction event, I was thinking more like a giant asteroid hitting earth, rather than man-made like nuclear war, or pathogen based. Immune systems are pretty good at surviving pathogens. Otherwise, I agree on Antarctica.

  8. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    28. May 2020 at 10:23

    I see that Elon Musk’s SpaceX is going to send a couple of men up into space. Why?

    In case you don’t know the specific reason: It is a test flight, because the Americans want to be able to carry out transports to the International Space Station again. They’ve been dependent on the Russians for years, which is a little embarrassing.

    Why do we need an International Space Station again? That’s a good question. I don’t know a single good reason why we would need one.
    Critics say the “research” done there is mostly useless.

    As someone else said, Musk’s ultimate goal is the colonization of Mars. This makes a lot more sense to me, and of course you need humans for that, otherwise it’s not a colonization, but here also the legitimate question arises, why robots aren’t taken for the basic and preliminary work more.

    I suppose one reason is the sheer distance. So even though all command and communication signals travel at the speed of light, it still means that they need between 4 and 22 minutes until the signals arive.

    Everyone who plays video games knows that even a ping of 100-400 ms makes the action uncontrollable. Now imagine a ping of 4 to 22 minutes.

    You can’t react adequately to any short-term changes in any situation, the robot would have to do everything itself on site, but I don’t think AI is that good yet, if ever.

  9. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    28. May 2020 at 10:26

    We do send many more unmanned missions than we do manned missions—so it’s not like we do one instead of the other—– have sent 1000+ unmanned missions (versus a 100-200 manned) into space.

    I find what Hubble has accomplished to be phenomenal-don’t know what international space station has accomplished but they do many experiments—supposedly easier done their than here. Also the 5-10 we have landed on asteroids are spectacular—plus of course those that went to Saturn.

    The unmanned is really what we focus our most scientific attention on. Notice a lot of the “manned” plans are private/public. I assume we desire to get insight into the ability to find new elements–who knows—plus there are a seeming crazy number of wealthy humans who want to do these flights.

    In the long run, I assume, it is also done so no other country gets the jump on the other countries militarily—assuming having humans there is useful. we do worry about “pushing” asteroids away from us—don’t know if having humans in orbit helps—but I bet they work on this.

    Plus, of course, we really do likely believe that in a few thousand years or so we can inhabit other planets—-this does not make these concepts less crazy (or not) but helps explain them. If speed of light is a limit, and we cannot figure out how to “drag space” that is a silly pipe dream!

  10. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    28. May 2020 at 10:45

    @Christian List

    There is good research you can do in a space station, but the ISS is too large and expensive for that. A more practical space station would be a lot smaller, and it would only be inhabited periodically (“tended”) for short stints to change out the experiments. The only exception would be if you needed to specifically do a long-term “humans in weightlessness and space” experiment, and the need for those is pretty rare if you’re not sending humans on long spaceflights anywhere else.


    Antarctica is a lot closer and easier to get to, though, than Mars or even the Moon. If things went bad on Earth, a sanctuary in Antarctica might not stay that way for long once boats full of refugees start showing up out of the blue.

  11. Gravatar of Student Student
    28. May 2020 at 10:58

    We are trying to commercialize space. The exploratory phase is over (and actually it occurred faster than setting up a sea route from the west to the spice islands), not its shifted into setting up military installations to protect the outposts. Those that rule space rule the globe. You can do a lot with probes, but you always need boots on the ground.

  12. Gravatar of Brian Brian
    28. May 2020 at 14:05

    Yes, it’s not inspiring to YOU for NASA to keep sending people into space to do things that can be done unmanned. That’s because you value novelty and as we get older it’s harder to see novelty. Some younger people are inspired to work in STEM. NASA probably perceives it as good PR. Low earth orbit like the ISS at 400 km is a trivial distance to signal so the most important distance is the diameter or circumference of the Earth if you want remote control from the “wrong” side of the planet. Or you could just run shifts of different humans on the ground.

    Brett is right, ANYTHING will do to send more money to a swing state like Florida. Remember Newt Gingrich wanted a permanent moon colony when he was campaigning in 2012.

    The NASA budget is 23B dollars. To go unmanned creates savings of less than 23B dollars. Is some number less than 23B a big number? Most people don’t drive an old Honda Civic which is a great car so as a society we are not frugal. To send humans has value as an option so basically unknowable value.

  13. Gravatar of Brian Brian
    28. May 2020 at 14:32

    Yes, we can’t brush aside physics. People complain that airliners today are not much faster than a 1970’s airliner. The power needed to overcome that drag is proportional to the cube of speed. Suppose you need to go 30% faster before people notice and stop complaining about stagnation. Since there’s waiting in the airport you need a big increase airspeed before people notice total time is less. 30% faster is a 120% increase in power. The arithmetic is 1.3^3 equals 2.2. That means better or bigger engines and more fuel. So you need to carry bigger engines and you need to carry more fuel. Which means you need more fuel to carry the extra fuel. Airliners improved in ways other than speed.

  14. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    28. May 2020 at 14:47

    Maybe humans are the best machines to colonize other planets that we currently have.

    They can use relatively diverse foods as a source of energy. Their brains are breathtaking, and use very little energy to perform. Their mechanical properties are not to be scoffed at either.

    Humans also break very rarely, they have low maintance, they can react to new scenarios, they have a consciousness, they can do so many different things, and they can even repair themselves.

    Other machines might help a lot of course, but so far only as sidekick and support, humans are still the puppet master.

    We “just” have to found a colony on Mars, then everyone would realize that humans are urgently needed on the spot.

  15. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    28. May 2020 at 14:59

    From the taxpayer perspective, an even more important question is why not unmanned vehicles for the military in nearly all applications?

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. May 2020 at 15:25

    David, It would probably be much easier to deflect an asteroid from earth than to build a sustainable colony on the Moon. That is, a colony that could survive without help from Earth.

    Student, That’s exactly the sort of argument that convinces me I’m right. If that’s all the defenders of manned space flight have, then I haven’t missed anything.

    Brian, You said:

    “People complain that airliners today are not much faster than a 1970’s airliner.”

    That’s wrong. Airliners are actually SLOWER than in 1970.

  17. Gravatar of Student Student
    28. May 2020 at 17:30


    I agree.

  18. Gravatar of Aladin Aladin
    28. May 2020 at 17:49

    Currently, aside from the standard SpaceX projects, Spacex has been pursuing more innovative projects, Starship and starlink. Starlink creates a global internet through satellite, Starship allows the ability to give anyone the ability to visit space.

    In typical Elon fashion, they are rather overtly ambitious and while well underway the final outcome will likely be scaled down.

    But I have always, in a similar vein to your argument against humans in space, have thought that Starlink was a rather worthy project and Starship was comparatively a waste of time. And given the recent progress on Starlink over Starship, it seems that SpaceX has come to a similar conclusion.

  19. Gravatar of Brian Brian
    28. May 2020 at 19:20

    Speaking of global internet projects, would it be a worthy project to eliminate censorship within China and Russia? How can this be done technically? Would this be awful in the sense that invading Iraq was awful for millions of Iraqis even though the status quo at the time was also awful? Would it be ethically justifiable to gift an entire country freedom of expression? Would interesting times as a gift also be a bane as suggested in a certain Chinese aphorism. I have a hard time believing it would be completely ineffective with the result being completely separate media bubbles.

  20. Gravatar of Wekkel Wekkel
    28. May 2020 at 21:01

    Bob nailed it: it’s not about sending Aman up but a private company sending a man up instead of a public entity.

    In time, private enterprise will make space available for everyone.

  21. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    28. May 2020 at 21:12

    Scott, the excitement around SpaceX is partially also because they count the operation as a stepping stone to their eventual colony on Mars.

  22. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    28. May 2020 at 23:50

    Well gosh darn… why weren’t you around to tell them to knock off those silly boat trips after Zheng He and Barholomeu Dias returned home.

  23. Gravatar of Matthew Belcher Matthew Belcher
    29. May 2020 at 08:15

    There are a lot of tasks for maintaining the ongoing experiments on the ISS that require human intervention. We don’t have nearly enough experience making robots that work in space to leave them entirely automated.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. May 2020 at 09:50

    Brian, The solution is not technical, it’s political. I’ve been to China as recently as 2019, and had no trouble accessing uncensored information. You can even buy a copy of The Economist in a Beijing bookstore. The real problem is that most Chinese have no interest in accessing alternative views, rather they rely on official sources of information. There’s no technical fix for that.

    Wekkel, Even if private enterprise does eventually make that possible, these missions don’t get us anywhere closer to that happening.

    Matthias, That’s a pipe dream. How does recreating something we did in 1961 get us closer to a Mars colony?

    dtoh, Do you seriously believe that manned space missions are “exploring?” Neil Armstrong discovered the Moon? I know you are trying to be funny, but a joke needs at least a tiny glimmer of plausibility.

    Matthew, What experiments?

  25. Gravatar of Matthew Belcher Matthew Belcher
    29. May 2020 at 11:37

    There’s are many:

    Even if you toss out all the research about humans living in space, there’s still micro-gravity manufacturing, reliable systems, materials science, etc. They do their best to make these as self-contained as possible but sometimes require human intervention to repair or re-tool for another study. Even tasks as simple as unloading a cargo container and installing and activating the new hardware requires a human to do it right now.

  26. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. May 2020 at 13:48


    So you think the Europeans and the Chinese didn’t know Arabia existed until they sent a boat there??

  27. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. May 2020 at 13:49

    And BTW…I never said anything about “exploring” or “discovering.”

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. May 2020 at 15:40

    Matthew, OK, but what have they discovered? We don’t go to space to mine or manufacture stuff; that’s cheaper on earth.

    dtoh, “I never said anything about “exploring” or “discovering.”

    Maybe if your jokes are that hard to understand then you should put an accompanying explanation. Are you saying we went to the moon for the same reason Dias went to the East Indies? To trade?
    That’s a bit far-fetched.

  29. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    29. May 2020 at 20:56

    Well SpaceX is being paid by NASA to send 2 people into space. Why? Because it is not tenable to keep paying the Russians to do it. Why? because otherwise the Russians would be the only ones left on the space station. Why did we launch to space station? To solidify the end of history as a collaborative exercise for the world.

    So why are we sending Humans to space? Because we were tired of war… What we know as the space station plan was released in Nov 1989, the culmination of five years effort. Reagan declared in the 1984 state of the union address: “We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain.”

    Many nations are going to space now… but in a triumph of neoliberalism, we can do it by individual will.


  30. Gravatar of nomadscientist nomadscientist
    30. May 2020 at 20:23

    “Sorry folks, but the laws of physics cannot be brushed aside.”

    I (physicist) initially assuming that there were hard physical limits here, but when I calculated it it turned out the irreducible energy cost of travel without our solar system are not that large. If we could get 10% efficiencies and costs at the wholesale electricity price, Mars colonisation would absolutely be feasible. Somewhere between as feasible as colonising Antarctica and colonising deep underground bunkers.

    So SpaceX is right, a few decades of incremental efficiency improvements can open up qualitatively new possibilities. That doesn’t mean they will succeed. NASA on the other hand looks to be deep in Brezhnevian stagnation and probably cannot succeed.

  31. Gravatar of Erik H. Erik H.
    1. June 2020 at 13:59

    Unmanned flight is by far the most efficient way to study *space itself* (Jupiter flybys, space telescopes, asteroid landings, etc.)

    But only human spaceflight can study the effect of space travel *on humans* (for example, the NASA studies on the twin astronauts, and the fascinating results re telomeres, etc.) Those studies are perhaps not as useful for final proofs, but may prove useful to give ideas for new things or lines of attack.

    Similarly, only humans can reliably perform most other experiments in space, especially those performed in vivo. So right now at least, anything involving sustained sub-earth-gravity research can only be conducted in space.

    Those have both current benefit and also future benefit for those who (unlike you) think that there is a likelihood of more space travel, not less, in the centuries to come: Any such space travel will need an understanding of how a lot of things work in zero-g, and, obviously, an understanding of how being in space affects the humans who travel through it.

    The current benefits are more limited. There’s a bit from the continued drive of technology w/r/t space (which has proven useful in the past) but I concede that is less efficient than doing the research without building the associated spaceships.

    But (again, only if you think there’s likelihood of more future spaceflight) there are also the potential future benefits of building a base of development. If you want to explore all the planets, or try to develop in the Oort cloud, you first need to understand zero-g, and rockets, and the effect on humans of long term space travel… and you only get that through sending humans into space.

    Are those greater benefits per dollar than, say, “helping people not starve to death today?” No, especially not for the starving people. But I don’t think the benefits are so marginally small that we can’t manage to send folks up to space while we work on feeding people. We probably have quite a fee expenditures which are just as inefficient as space.

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