Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Role Of The Goverment

Recently I've been pondering the purpose of government spending on human spaceflight. My own politics typically preempt me from such thoughts as I honestly do believe that taxes should not be collected to fund non-essential services. However, I pride myself on being able to set aside my own ideology and think like others, in the hope of learning more about their motivations and possibly even understanding their actions.

With that disclaimer out of the way, what is the legitimate role of government in human spaceflight?

In general, the government should not compete with private industry. For example, if there is domestic production of cars, it is wrong for the government to set up their own car shops. Whatever goal the government is trying to achieve by doing such can almost certainly be better served through regulation or incentives. It's wrong because of the effect it would have on the industry. With the power of the treasury behind it, the government can sell cheaper or invest more in research to make a more attractive product, and while it's true that this would appear to be a public good at first, the resulting elimination in choice as the commercial providers go out of business will inevitably lead to stagnated innovation. Without the profit incentive, all providers fail to respond to consumer demands.

As such, the government should make the fullest use of existing private industry, and encourage the development of more industry that is in the public interest. For example, when launching payloads to orbit, it would be wrong for the government to build their own rocket - or contract someone else to build one for them - if there are already rockets on the market that can serve the purpose. Furthermore, the government should plan their payloads around the capacity that is available and offer incentives for industry to improve their capabilities in the future.

In order to avoid crony capitalism, the government should use competitive bidding and punish price collusion. The government should encourage providers to create products that have customers other than the government and not place unique demands on providers - or at least, such demands should be temporary. When it is in the public interest, the government should allow providers to fail and encourage the healthy functioning of the market.

Ultimately then, what is left for government to do but hand out money to private industry and ensure it is competitive and healthy? Assuming you believe the government should be spending tax dollars, is this just "stimulus" we're talking about?

I think a lot of people see a greater role for government funded human spaceflight than just stimulus. If you agree that government should be involved whenever something is in the public interest but not in the, often short sighted, commercial interest then stimulus is probably enough, but even I see a greater role for government than this.

I often hear claims that human spaceflight is about "research" or "science" that private industry is unable (or unwilling) to do because the return on investment is not immediately apparent. To me, these claims always ring hollow as so much space research is or could be done without humans. Of course, everything I've said thus far could also be applied to robotic spaceflight but it often is already. The situation with human spaceflight seems to be somewhat different.

To me, the goal of human spaceflight has always been obvious. This may surprise some people as I regularly solicit answers to "the why question" and I never seem terribly inspired by the answers I get. The purpose of human spaceflight is to open a new frontier. I have become aware that many people don't know what this means so I will put it more crudely: the purpose of human spaceflight is to find more lands to conquer so that we don't end up weeping like Alexander the Great.

Rather than being uninspiring, some people find this answer outright distasteful. I believe this is because they think of conquering people. So far as we know, the only people in space are the six expedition crew members of the ISS, and no-one is talking about conquering them. I submit that the very first lands which humans occupied, which never before had been occupied, were conquered. I don't know why we can talk about "conquering challenges" but we can't talk about conquering space. It's the same thing, breaking through our limits to increase our sphere of influence.

Space is an especially harsh environment to conquer. It is a grand challenge as JFK described it, but I disagree that this is a reason to do it. To me, that was just a cold war way to say stimulus. The public good created by human spaceflight is the opening of a new frontier. It is a gift of opportunity that we give to the next generation.

Final thought: there are other organizations that reject the commercial interest to act in the public interest. And then we have people like Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow, Jeff Bezos and others, who act both in the commercial interest and in the greater public interest. The frontier doesn't have to be opened by a government space program but, if you've got one, at least give it the right goal.


  1. === The purpose of human spaceflight is to open a new frontier. ===

    I agree, Trent. And therefore, IMHO, what we need to aim for is the ability, as a species, to safely and routinely conceive, bear and raise children at multiple celestial locations.

    If (or once) we can do that then we shall be spacefaring.

    Current terrestrial governments probably are not be the best agencies to pursue this goal.

  2. Indeed.. but I suppose they can pursue the goal of making it affordable for others to attempt to ascertain those answers. I can't think of a better way than stimulus, though mouse/rat experiments are still a possibility. I'm not sure how they pulled it off, but STS-133 carried mice to the ISS and there was no protests. I expect the secret was "don't talk about the mice".. the PETA nuts don't have a long enough attention span to read something like this: and pick out "Crewmembers will perform hardware and animal health checks daily."

  3. I like your rationale for human spaceflight. I find it difficult to say with a straight some of the other justifications, like spinoffs, more resources for Earth, and even asteroid deflection. If we really wanted to simply deflect asteroids, I suppose we might experiment with a few people living off-planet to develop the necessary technology. But this isn't really what exploration is about.

    The problem with government spaceflight, of course, is that it allocates costs uniformly to citizens regardless of their interest in space. To say that "we ought to explore space" assumes that everyone ought to, which I find difficult to justify. The best solution, it seems, is to let markets be free and allow individuals to participate in exploration on their own terms.

    To be practical, there are some functions government could perform that would be difficult for industry to accomplish--namely, to act as trailblazers so industry can follow.

  4. Anonymous2:28 AM

    That the purpose of space flight is to find new lands to conquer is fine. But how do humans figure into the mix? Oh, I guess "conquer" means getting fingers dusty, and leaving footprints, does it?

    It is a simple adage that robots or telerobots can't do what humans can do. Right. That's true. But on a timescale of conquering other worlds, it's not clear that that will be entirely the case. To the extent that one can conquer a world telerobotically, for VASTLY less than the price of footprints, why would we not want to do that?

    Arguments for space flight are too often confused with arguments for human space flight. The role of humans in space isn't really to "conquer", but to expand. There are many reasonably solid reasons for such expansion, species insurance being one of them. You can't expand the human race telerobotically.

  5. Anonymous5:43 AM

    High frontier is laudable goal, and my old target.

    Now however, i think we need to do it to save the biosphere. We have taken nearly all the easy to access minerals that arn't buried under trees or permafrost. Mining the ocean brings the looming disaster of methane clathrate release. (which may happen anyway, with warming).

    Why men instead of robots?
    Try refueling any of the hardware we already have on orbit, or assembling anything with telerobotics. Something that would take a space jockey a few minutes, may well be impossible for a bot to figure out (think of untwisting a piece of wire holding a pipe cover lockout closed)
    We are going to have to start doing 3D laser printing on orbit, and with lunar regolith being instantly usable with just a sifting, the possibilities of tapping into the immense wealth of energy and materials is easily, and economically done.

    The amount of cash we have spent on refunding the gambling losses of the big banks (Bear Stearns? Really?) And two major wars, could already be ROI.
    We need folks up there testing electronic junctions on CMOS, figuring out how to grow plants in micro-grav, learning how to keep fluids moving, how to crush gravel, and spincast metal. This needs to be done. To listen to another Tea Potter spouting about wasting govt funds on space is almost as ludicrous as seeing the Justice Dept and the SEC performing their obfuscating duties.

    If we don't push our grandfathers out of the way, and head out to the fronteir, we will spend our days nursing them in their old age, in a poisoned well of their own making.
    And everything out there will have "made in china" on it. In Mandarin.

    The business of govt is to protect us from business, and the destruction of the commons.
    All the Free Market crap is just someone else trying to latch onto a handle to sleaze another dollar out of the huddled masses.

    Remember the "lease govt offices" fiasco?
    How is the TVA a good protector of the commons?
    Allowing companies to police their own chemical wastes?
    We have already bailed out the banks once, remember the Savings and Loan criminals. They swore we would never have to help them out again. then we elected them. Now they frame the discussions, disassemble the laws protecting the people, and gamble our resources and technical prowess to any offshore corporation that offers them lobbying fees.

    We need to build the tug, the depot, then the lunar launcher. We need to have Luna so the folks working on orbit can live in gravity every 6 weeks or so to stay healthy, and not have to spend all the ISP coming down the well.
    Everything else is easy, and gives our children a way out, and a place to be a hero. Or we can just have more stockbrokers, traders, and video producers.

    Almost 6 billion now..... and most countries, including ours, becoming religious, political, and security conservatives. There is no out but Soylent Green, and i don't just mean the chips.
    It is going to be sheeple, and Corp/Gov soon.

  6. The humans vs robots debate is trivially solved if the goal is to provide new lands to humans. We're not talking about finding new places to mine, we're talking about finding new places to live.

    With that goal, it should be obvious, you can't achieve humans living in space without solving all the challenges of putting humans into space.

  7. I've never met anyone -- and in my 60's -- who expressed concern about future astronauts riding roughshod over the rights of native Martians and Venusians and the like. The general objection most folks have to manned spaceflight is simply that it's a bad, pointless waste of money and human resources. Period. This is self-evident to them.

    Arguably, they're in the class of the short-sighted people who stayed planted in Europe while the Conquistadors and Pilgrims were divvying up the New World, but the history books suggest that the people who stayed put far outnumbered the eventual colonists. Likely that's true today, and will be true tomorrow.

    I think it follows that ANY scheme to transplant earthlings to other planets is going to consume resources which might have been gainfully employed on earth, for the benefit of people on earth, rather than for a tiny handful of explorers and colonists. And I think this is true whether those resources come from a purely socialistic regime, from skinning the taxpayers in a mixed economy, or from the wise and farsighted investment of sagacious capitalists. TANSTAAFL, as some has remarked.

    Boiled down, I don't think it's possible to make much of a rational argument in favor of manned spaceflight (or against it). Our arguments are personal, subjective, tinged with moral and philosphical considerations. "It's a good thing for human beings to do," we can say; "let's do it efficiently and speedily and our descendents will thank us." And no more. The question of which economic system we should employ in reaching that desirable end is an entirely seperate issue.

  8. Maybe you don't talk to the same people as me, but any use of the word "conquer" or "colonize" or "frontier" makes a lot of folks sit up and take notice.. in a bad way. That's why politician after politician has tried to use weasel words to say it in another way. Oh, we want to "bring space into our economic sphere of influence", or investigate "settlements" in space, or do "exploration and development". We already have words for these concepts but they're tainted with blood so we have to think up euphemisms.

  9. Ah! I think I know the phenomena at which you're pointing, but I think also there's a different explanation for it. Americans, Brits, descendents of Brits, most Europeans in general have a friendly attitude towards explorers and colonists, tending to view such historical characters as brave and adventuresome and entrepreneural. Most of the rest of the world, lunkered under European colonizers for centuries, disagree. Indonesia was a prosperous land for native Indonesians, before the Dutch took over, for example; isn't it amusing that all officer posts in the Indonesian army were filled by native born Dutch or descendents of Dutch until Indonesia obtained its freedom after WWII? Ain't it a howler to consider that Indonesian natives couldn't attend college while the Dutch were so beneficitly in charge? Or even high school? Isn't it NICE to remember that the ever-so-efficient British government was supervising sales of opium in China well into the 20th century. Wouldn't you agree that having an American company own Chile's copper mines was really much better for the average Chilean than Chilean firms would have been?

    You want me to go on? Search the Internet, if you don't have a friendly immigrant to ask, or get to know some anthropologists. The point is, many many people do not have favorable memories of colonial rulers or businessmen backed up by Western governments, and their almost instinctive response to the idea that Yankee or European powers should take over the riches of the solar system is horror. Which is why we got the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty shoved through the UN back in the 1960s, just about as fast as the third world nations could form a majority there.

    I.e., nobody cares about stealing land from the worthless Martian savages. Plenty of people are still harboring memories about Grandpa's Tales Of Going Hungry When The Yanquis Fired All The Miners Over Forty.

    Returning to the original comment, I think the best way to make a case for space is to concentrate on the notion that it's good for people in general. Trying to sell someone from some gawdawful South African township on how wonderful it will be when some American company he's never heard of can start mining operations on the moon for something as esoteric as He-3 is unlikely to be succesful.


    So that's one issue. The business about "bring[ing] space into our economic sphere of influence" is actually something else --
    talking about colonies and the like in space gets politicians and other government workers snickered at. So they use euphemisms, or pretend the idea never occurred to them. Frankly I would LOVE to hear an American Congressman or OMB official mention "space settlements" or "exploration and development" -- but they're more likely to spew 4-letter word terms for sex and defecation on national TV than suggest on the back pages of a newspaper that someday people might actually live in outer space.

    We've a long row to hoe, bro!