White elephants… IN SPACE!

Suggestions for what exactly to do with the International Space Station are always welcome. Michael Benson, writing in The Washington Post suggests sending it to the Moon:

The ISS, you see, is already an interplanetary spacecraft — at least potentially. It’s missing a drive system and a steerage module, but those are technicalities. Although it’s ungainly in appearance, it’s designed to be boosted periodically to a higher altitude by a shuttle, a Russian Soyuz or one of the upcoming new Constellation program Orion spacecraft.

This seems a little crazy, but then so does spending $156 billion on the ISS in the first place (check out the discussion on Slashdot about the technical side of it). As it is, we don’t seem to be getting much in the way of tangible benefits from the ISS. As Michael Benson points out:

But if the station’s goal is to conduct yet more research into the effects of zero gravity on human beings, well, there’s more than enough of that already salted away in Russian archives, based on the many years of weightlessness that cosmonauts heroically logged in a series of space stations throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. By now, ISS crews have also spent serious time in zero gravity. We know exactly what weightlessness does and how to counter some of its atrophying effects. (Cue shot of exercycle.)

In any case I’m fairly cynical about the medium-term benefits of human space travel. We have enough trillion dollar problems here on Earth without wasting money on white elephants like the ISS.

elephantI agree that people need frontiers and visible symbols of human progress. To inspire a sense of wonder about the universe is very laudable, but surely we are not so unimaginative as to be unable to find other, less literal, frontiers than space?

Advances in biology, neuroscience, and computer science can provide enough sense-of-wonder to keep everyone happy. Also these areas are much cheaper to pursue (in comparison to space travel) and have the potential to yield much more practically useful results.

Purely scientific study can be pursued by unmanned probes without going to the expense of transporting tin-cans full of hominids billions of kilometres to plant a flag.

[story in The Washington Post via Slashdot][image from chidorian on flickr]

3 thoughts on “White elephants… IN SPACE!”

  1. The US spends more on war than it does on space. It spent more in Vietnam than it did on Apollo, and it’s spending more in Iraq than it is on the ISS. Besides, focusing on “tangible benefits” is just right-wing speak for “where’s the profit?”

  2. I think there’s a good point to be made here. We’d certainly gain a lot more if we were to put this money towards a manned Mars mission.

  3. The US spends about 17B dollars a year on NASA, not very much at all. Certainly NOT the trillion dollar exaggeration TJ points out in his article. I grew up in the 60’s, when the possibilities of space travel excited this nation, where engineering schools were full and technology spin offs provided the foundation of our current culture. These are the same arguments that killed off the moon landings and the Apollo program in the 1970s and the reason why we haven’t been back there in nearly 40 years. Certainly we should be proud of that lack of progress and achievement, shouldn’t we? I guess we should all still believe in a flat earth and still reside in the old world? Christopher Columbus, what did he know? He should have just stayed home and sailed around the Med. Bah, who needs exploration, don’t we need to spend money solving problems here at home? 156 Billion invested and 2 Billion annually to stay in the game. I vote to stay in the game and press forward and see where it takes us.

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