Having just read a scathing attack on the idea of continued manned space missions on CNN, I feel compelled to point out some overlooked points and answer the author’s main question about manned space missions: What’s in it for our money?
Back in pre-colonial times, the economies of Europe were fairly self-contained. They manufactured whatever goods they needed, grew their food, and traded stuff back and forth. They didn’t really need the expense of going to the New World. Such voyages were quite expensive and fraught with danger – storms, sickness, hostile encounters, etc. – and many of these voyages lost money as a result. Why did the merchants and countries spend that money, then?
For the countries, the overriding consideration was military and political. More territory, more empire, and the capacity to protect/defend it drove their missions. We’re certainly not talking about that sort of reasoning for space missions (or, at least I hope we aren’t.) Besides, the CNN article specifically drones on and on about the cost of the missions and what we get (or don’t get) for that investment. So, the better question is this: “Why did the merchants spend the money to repeatedly go to the new world?”
Not the drag out a tired and overused buzzword, but the answer lies in the paradigm shift that a colonial presence has on manufacturing and technology. You can’t look at it as a really long-distance sales call, because that won’t pay for itself. (How can you build the cost of the trip into the price of a can of coffee? What space colonist will pay $8 billion dollars for a Starbucks?) Rather, consider the impact that a remote colony has on the economics of everyday living. Right now, on Earth, we recycle many products. Not all of them, mind you, just the ones that make economic sense to recycle – meaning, the cost of the recycling process costs less than the cost of acquiring new replacement materials. That’s not always the case, though – it’s far cheaper to just make a new coffee cup than to recycle the old ones. We have the capacity to recycle alot more than we do, but we don’t because the economics aren’t there. Now, consider a moon base where every pound of cargo carries an enormous cost in transportation. Don’t you think that will change how they approach recycling? Suddenly, a new coffee cup will cost far more than recycling the old one. Suddenly, the stagnated technology and science behind recycling will figure out better and cheaper ways to recycle. Do you think we could use the fruits of that research here on Earth?
How about energy? Surely you don’t expect a moon base to run on regular oil deliveries? No, they’d need to take advantage of alternative fuels like solar and nuclear – fuels who’s technological advances are slow here on Earth, but because of need would take off on the Moon. Don’t you think we could use the fruits of that research here on Earth?
In these economic hard times, it’s easy to advocate cutting out expenses we think we don’t need. In the case of manned space exploration, and specifically the manned base on the Moon or Mars, this short-sighted approach could end up far more costly than any mission we could dream up.