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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Death of the Space Program: Are We Squaring With Reality or Are We Volunteering to Die as an Advanced Society?

I'm sure that most of the people who share my views regarding our country's financial condition and energy outlook won't concur with me, but when the death of our space program was announced, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss at what seems like the final capstone on forty years of national decline, during which this country has lost its lead in almost every branch of technology, and has become an impoverished debt addict and de facto colony of China.

The news that President Obama has canceled the funding for Constellation program was no doubt applauded by many people as a victory for common sense and fiscal restraint, and seems not to have registered at all among most of our citizens. In many quarters, the space program is regarded as a costly,wasteful, ecologically unjustifiable boondogle of little immediate utility and doubtful future benefit that consumes gargantuan quantities of fossil fuels and siphons massive amounts of tax revenue from projects of more immediate utility, such as our vast military apparatus and the ongoing efforts to re-inflate the housing and credit bubbles so that our top banksters can justify their multimillion dollar bonuses and the rest of us resume flipping houses and generating loan fees.

To many other people, notably the doomsayers of the Peak Oil community, it was only inevitable that this Promethean endeavor, with its massive energy and financial requirements, would be the first of our advanced technologies to be triaged on the descent from the absolute peak of our energy production, wealth, and technological advancement- a long, steep, wrenching path down hill that, many predict, will end with the death of any technology more advanced than wood-powered steam engines and water-driven mills. Damien Perrotin, of The View From Brittany, states in his post, Farewell to the Moon: "This pattern is likely to repeat itself as the decline in net energy available to our society makes keeping an advanced technology more and more difficult. There won't be any technological cliff, no abrupt return to the Middle-Age. Technologies will just lose momentum as the resources needed to advance them become scarcer and scarcer."

We will be reaching that point very soon, and there is considerable evidence that we might already have reached it. Yet what is more obvious is that the United States has passed its own peak of scientific achievement and advancement , and has lost its former lead in almost every field that matters, just as it has destroyed its manufacturing base and relinquished its economic lead to China and India in the process. More ominously, we have sat idly by as China moves aggressively to lock in its claims on a massive portion of the world's future oil production. At the same time, we have deliberately retarded development of nuclear power, an industry this nation pioneered and once led, and are stalled at the starting gate in the development of more advanced nuclear technologies, such as the molten salt and liquid fluoride thorium reactors, that could provide us with abundant clean energy for many generations going forward, while other nations, notably India, are not waiting for our blessings and are aggressively developing them.

Now, we are relinquishing to other major powers the chance, slender though it may be for anyone, of achieving a human landing on Mars, and developing the rich mineral resources that reside there and on Triton, a moon of Saturn thought to possess vast hydrocarbon reserves. These extraterrestrial mineral resources may well be the only way we will be able to fuel our technology in the coming century. The window of opportunity for developing the technology necessary to send humans to Mars and there build a small settlement from which to conduct extraction operations is narrow, being the brief interval between the present time, and the hour in which we reach the point on the downslope of fossil fuel production at which liquid fuels become so expensive and scarce that any effort that doesn't pertain directly to production of bare life necessities will be off the table. That window is closing very quickly. Moreover, as the grieving Charles Krauthammer points out in Closing the New Frontier, the Ares booster and Orion capsule are essential basic steppingstones along the arduous path that leads to a successful landing of humans on the red planet, and without those stepping stones, our hopes of ever attaining this are crushed. How will we ever make it to Mars and succeed in building a mining settlement if we can't even get to the moon, or into low orbit?

An alert reader might note a certain logical inconsistency in my position here, given my frequently-stated opposition to large-scale, multi-decade government programs that rely on the taxing authority we've granted the federal government, and whose effects cascade and amplify down through generations and produce unforseen consequences that we never bargained for, and that divert money away from private development and enterprise, which tends to be more sustainable and appropriate, to massively overscaled projects that not only cannot justify themselves economically, but destroy the fine-grained economic networks that support large-scaled private enterprises. The space exploration program would seem to be that, and on steroids- a vast  undertaking that oftentimes seems more about national vanity and the daydreams of science fiction writers than about anything that we need to continue as an advanced nation, and that to many is absolutely unjustifiable in a period in which we are increasingly challenged in staying housed, fed, and warm.  Obama himself, in announcing the decision to eliminate $3 billion for the Constellation project from the 2011 budget, framed it as a victory for free enterprise, stating that the private sector is welcome to pick up where NASA is leaving off.

That would be all well if even we still had a significant private sector. Would it be that our most successful and adventurous entrepreneurs, people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, could organize a concern that might be capable of running even a rudimentary space program.But we no longer have a strong, confident, independent private sector that is capable of raising the gigantic amounts of capital required for such an undertaking. Most of all, though, we no longer have the business and political climate in which it is feasible to make plans that take up to a half-century or more to develop and implement, and in which investors feel secure enough to venture massive sums of money  in highly speculative enterprises with massive capital requirements and multi-decade paybacks.

What we do have is a tower of unrepayable debt created by the financialization of our economy, and the most uncertain business climate in two hundred years. The uncertainty created by capricious changes in regulation and taxation, and the mounting costs of servicing government debt, have elevated the risk involved in long-term enterprises requiring massive capital outlays to levels unacceptable to most investors, and the result is that capital has fled heavy industry in this country, and gone into enterprises with a short payback period and immediate results-hence the decline of manufacturing and the flood of money into casino-type financial instruments where the payback is more rapid and the risk is perceived as being more manageable. The result of this process, of course, is the complete destruction of our heavy industry and the perversion of our financial markets, which were created to facilitate industry and commerce, into casinos that have enriched only a relative handful of players who belong to the financial cartel, while impoverishing the country and destroying our ability to finance the productive enterprises that could rebuild our economy.

As a result, the only entity with the wherewithal to support really large and speculative enterprises is the federal government, with its unlimited taxing authority. This would not have been the case a century ago, when people like Vanderbilt and Carnegie built the giant industries that made America not only the richest country in the world, but the most advanced and the one in which the incredible benefits spread to the greatest number of people, elevating our common citizenry from dirt-floor rural poverty to the most comfortable mass living conditions in the world, and offering them opportunities for advancement in a variety of fields that did not exist just 30 years before, just as it created the richest and most successful entrepreneurial class ever to exist at that time.

The result is if any major speculative venture is going to happen, it will be the government or nobody to finance it, and the process of determining just what will receive how much money, or any at all, will be driven not be consideration of the costs and benefits, or long-term needs, but by a purely political considerations, most of all by lobbyists and pressure groups. And as it happens, the most influential pressure group is the financial cartel, who as a group are not much concerned for the ongoing well-being and access to the decencies of life for the 98% of the population that doesn't get paid $40 million dollar bonuses for destroying our financial system. The Wall Street bonus babies won't be the ones suffering as our technology withers and our population spirals down into the poverty, filth, and degradation that was the lot of the majority prior to the industrial revolution, and is still the rule for most of the world's population, but will find a way to profit from our destruction, if only because they'll be able to recruit armies of poorly-paid household servants for a pittance.

Most of all, though, it will mean the end of our aspirations as a people. The greatest gift of the great thinkers and doers of past centuries was what they aspired to, and their passionate belief in the ability of humans to fulfill those dreams. A person might fall considerably short of his goals, but he surely won't exceed them, not even by accident. As Theodore Sturgeon once remarked, if you aim for 100, you might get that or you might get 50, but if you aim for 0, that is exactly what you will get. Now is the time to ask ourselves just what we aspire to- to greater knowledge and whatever advancement is possible to us, or to the life that was lived in the days of hand plows, childbirth on the kitchen table, and streets slimed with horse-droppings. There's no question of which manner of life is more easily attianable, and the human-haters are applauding every step backwards to it we take. Which will we choose?

7 comments:

consultant said...

Which will we choose? I think it's already chosen.

There are a bunch of mega events at play right now that are going to shape our country in ways that most people, including the financial assholes, won't like.

A society reaches a certain level of comfort, then it starts to make decisions that don't account for all the hard work and sacrifice that created the comfort.

Maybe it's the "rise and fall of civilizations" thing. Maybe it's the huge mega events on our watch-peak oil and climate change. Either way, we're screwed in the short term.

I think that's the big story, the short term. Within the next 5 to 10 years.

Here in Georgia, by September of THIS YEAR, if tax receipts haven't picked up considerably, the state govt. will have to CUT 2 1/2 billion dollars from the state budget ( on top of the major cuts this year. This was after the state received its share of stimulus money, which saved some programs). There's not a lot of fat here in Georgia. This is just basic stuff you expect to have in an advanced society.

This new round of cuts is going to eliminate a good portion of govt. at the state and local level in Georgia. Folks are about to find out what limited govt. means.

I've said this before. We've had a collapse of leadership across all the fields in our society. A collapse this wide and deep means you have a failed culture. A culture that no longer can recognize what is important.

There was a reason why we were the first and only country to go the moon, and there is a reason why that is no longer on our agenda.

Nudge said...

Err, if I can put my head on the chopping block for you two to kick around? (in a nice way of course)

The Apollo project happened during a rather special time when the United Parking Lot of America was pretty much at its apogee on many levels. You could almost call the time “Peak USA” if you want. (“peak tailfin” is a popular label too) Higher available energy per capita then (which has been declining since), transmuted through the motor of our economy and the way we turn fossil fuels into prosperity and longevity (and food) and thus allowed us to spend more extravagantly than ever before ~ even to the point where we could fund huge projects that had little or no commercial payback.

While the Apollo program did breed a lot of useful technology that was later spun off to things as fantastically arcane (at the time anyway) as microcomputers, the expensive journeys to the moon did not have any immediately realizable financial payback. That is to say, the lunar soil that cost M thousands of dollars per kilogram to return to earth was not sold back on earth for 10x M, thus bringing in a profit. The pictures from orbit were not sold at the outrageous prices that, say, an authentic recently-discovered Da Vinci manuscript might glean. Ticket sales at the launch site did not pull in any substantial portion of the cost of each moon shot. What NASA put into those expensive boosters and those millions of person-hours did not in itself pull in the kind of dough that would actually fund all that activity.

People may talk about going to the moon, but in all truth it's easier and cheaper to send robotic drones. The round-trip ping times are only half a second or so. A good video gamer with delayed reaction could manage it. What's on the moon? Minerals & sunlight and perhaps some frozen ices near the poles. Otherwise, it's just another airless rock with no indigenous life, like the many others in our solar system.

The Russians are being far more clueful about the real costs of space operations than we've ever been. They charge private citizens a truly hefty ticket price for riding one of their capsules into orbit and back, and the money gleaned from these ticket sales allows them to support the non-profit portions of the operation, such as bringing food & supplies to the ISS. When it comes to practicing capitalism, we could learn a thing or two from them.

As far as the spectre (err, lure, sorry) of distant hydrocarbons goes, a quick look at the energy situation ought to put that in perspective. Let's say, just for kicks, that refined high-test gasoline is available on the moon in quantity, and that all we've got to do is bring it back. Given that it's going to take something like 5,000 lbs of liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen fuels to bring 1 lb of lunar gasoline back here, and that the liquefied hydrogen/oxygen fuels are orders-of-magnitude more potent than mere gasoline, the EROI calculations might show you expending something like 25,000 lbs of gasoline equivalent to bring back 1 lb of lunar gasoline. At that point, the solution is to get a bicycle, not to look for alternative fuel sources for your SUV.

Consultant, this matter has already been decided by necessity. In an era of fast-shrinking tax revenues, immediate needs will get priority, and already there isn't enough money to go around for the immediate needs.

The North Coast said...

Nudge and Consultant, you two are both correct-these are excellent comments.

No, there was surely no immediate payback for going to the moon, and I personally don't believe that the moon is and of itself a worthwhile project.

However, I do believe that not only are Mars and Triton worthwhile, but down the road they'll be necessary- if we want to hang on the half of what we have here. Forget about living in those places- I'm talking about the personnel necessary for extraction operations.

Maybe it IS a futile effort- would cost too much in resources for too long a payback. But if it could be managed at all by anyone, it could pay us back millions of times over in precious minerals that we might be critically short of here.

We'll never again get another opportunity.

But, yes, you are correct, necessities in the here and now have to come first. Yet I cannot help but believe that some money committed might make all the difference for our decendents- might mean the difference between life with the lights and heat on vs the life of a 15th century village.

consultant said...

This is from today's New York Times:

"WASHINGTON — Although the national economy has begun to bounce back, governors said Saturday that the worst was yet to come at the state level, where revenues are still falling short of projections."

Say what? How can the "national" economy have begun to 'bounce back' if the state economies are still falling into the abyss? Isn't the national economy the aggregate of our local (state) economies?

To me this is just another example of what passes for journalism today. It's also part of our cultural collapse. We'd rather lie to ourselves than tell the truth.

Nudge said...

Consultant, the official economists have got spreadsheet models that tell them the economy is recovering. These models give the desired answers as long as the b0rked data keeps getting fed into them, like that hogwash about unemployment “decreasing” just because tens of thousands of people, out of work for a long time, gave up looking for work.

This downturn is just getting warmed up. Hopefully by this time next year, it will be obvious to enough people that the “recovery” is about as real (and as far away) as cold fusion power for home appliances.

Something from the original post: perhaps this is an erroneous guess, but it seems all too likely that there's a wide gulf between running a sustainable, not-too-low-tech society and having all the energy-extravagant commitments of one like ours, including our space programs and our “SUV's for everyone” nonsense. Lots of countries don't have space programs yet still do OK. Hopefully we can rejoin the League of Ordinary Nations sometime.

If some other nation is willing to bankrupt themselves bring back materials from the moon, by all means let them have at it. The energy cost to bring back /anything/ from even the moon (which is far closer than any of the other planets) is such that nothing there would be worth bringing back here, not even platinum coins left lying on the surface for us to pick up.

Looking forward to the post that follows this one.

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The North Coast said...

Could you translate all that, please?