The Frontier is not Out There

by Kieran Healy on April 11, 2005

Via “Slashdot”:, a commentary by Michael Huang on “The Top Three Reasons for Humans in Space”:

Humans are in space:
3. To work
2. To live
1. To survive

The idea is that we should be out there exploring and colonizing because people are better than robots at doing a lot of things, because more life is better than less and so we should “establish habitats beyond Earth,” and because life on earth is increasingly under threat and so “If we were [living] throughout the solar system, at multiple locations, a disaster at one location would not end everything.”

These all seem like pretty weak reasons to me.

People are indeed better than robots at fixing things, but the amount of work you have to do to support humans in space is enormous, which is why robotic, remotely-controlled craft have taught us vastly more about the solar system (and beyond) than any human-piloted missions. The second argument draws on a famous quotation from “Frank Ramsey”: about the relative importance of the cosmos and humanity:

bq. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does … My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.

I like this sentiment, but it’s an odd thing to quote in support of striking out to explore the stars. Ramsey goes on to say (in his next sentence), that “I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation.” He’s saying never mind about the vastness of the universe and our insignificance in comparison to it, focus on what’s important — other people and their thoughts and loves here, now.

The last argument is the weakest of all, but the most commonly made. Technophiles are forever claiming that the exhaustion of natural resources will eventually compel us to leave the planet or be doomed. These are also often the same people simultaneously resistant to scientific efforts to assess the scale of human-made ecological problems and optimistic about the likelihood of human ingenuity solving those problems in the nick of time. But it seems to me that if we are clever enough to figure out how to colonize space in non-trivial numbers, we are also going to be clever enough to figure out how to survive here on Earth pretty much indefinitely. Conversely, if we aren’t able to survive on Earth — given how nicely-adapted we are for living here, and with all this food and water and air conveniently provided for us, etc — we’re not going to be able to manage on Mars or Venus or Viltvodle VI, either.



CalDem 04.11.05 at 12:00 pm

That last paragraph really needs some rethinking, the problems of figuring out how to live sustainable here or develop new habitats in space are completely different types. The first one is an incredibley difficult collective action problem where even if technological solutions exist you have to solve the collective action problem in order to fund them. The second problem is much more likely to be solved by a the sorts of giant scale technology projects that we have done well in the past-developing Mars would not require that people on earth fundamentally alter how they live but rather will probably be the result of a number of breakthroughs over probably lots of time.

Also the political economy is really different. Solving global warming etc., requires goring the oxes of lots of politically pwoerful players, investing in exploration could be turned to the financial advantage of lots of well-connected military and aerospace type companies. -See “Red Mars” for a plausible storyline.


abb1 04.11.05 at 12:08 pm

Well, everyone knows what the Top One Reason is: to funnel more taxpayers money to various large private-sector companies, mostly, I gather, the usual suspects – defence contractors.


David Yaseen 04.11.05 at 12:19 pm

As clever as we may be and become, there is the very real possibility that humanity could die out on earth. Whether by our own hands, directly or indirectly, by some weakness in our biology, or by some astrological phenomenon, it’s very possible.

Space is widely distributed and weakly connected. A sufficiently large disruption on one part of the Earth will affect the rest, and all of humanity with it.

As an advocate for the survival of humanity in general, I like the odds a lot better if we are situated in self-sustaining settlements spread far and wide through space. As someone who may be tapped to foot the bill for such a project, I may find myself willing to live with the odds here on Earth.


Jim Henley 04.11.05 at 12:23 pm

I think the “survivalist argument” for space colonization is less about gradual exhaustion of Terran resources than about massive meteor strikes, irruption of the Yellowstone dome and stuff like that. Catastrophic disasters.

I said “Terran.” I’m a big old nerd.


lemuel pitkin 04.11.05 at 12:25 pm

There is nothing more insufferable than space enthusiasts demanding huge sums of money for ther fantasies in the anme of “humanity in general.” I’d be a lot more convinced if these people showed some concern for humanity in particular.

Real people dying today of preventable diseases, malnutrition, war? Fuck ’em. Hypothetical people dying from an asteroid impact sometime in the distant future? Oh my god! We have to build big rocket ships NOW!


lemuel pitkin 04.11.05 at 12:30 pm

My comment was actualyl a bit unfair to David Yaseen — I didn’t read his post carefully enough.

Also, I’m a big fan of space exploration. That’s the other thing that bugs about these humans-in-space people — they end up actually undermining the really exciting stuff. IIRC the problems with the Galileo/Cassini’s antenna were the direct result of its being launched by the space shuttle rather than an unmanned rocket.


Barry Freed 04.11.05 at 12:31 pm

I see the “survivalist argument” as a grass-is-always-greener sentiment. Those who spout it are too educated and too modern to buy into the old pie-in-the-sky of a heavenly afterlife that religion promises. Yet that all-too-human feeling, that gnawing urge, not so much that there must be something else “out there,” but that somewhere there must be a better place, a better time, than right here, right now.

In my considered opinion, the only sure cure for this inauthentic mode of being is lots of excellent sex.


Steve LaBonne 04.11.05 at 12:34 pm

To me the biggest irony is the way useless but outlandishly expensive manned bread-and-circuses missions, and the planning for future ones (viz. Bush and Mars), bleed dry the resources needed for doing actual planetary science via robotic probes. You’d think genuine “technophiles” would worry a bit more about this problem.


Ken C. 04.11.05 at 12:35 pm

I agree that manned exploration, as currently conceived, is pointless and expensive.

Howwever, I think the last argument (“To survive”) is actually the strongest: if an asteroid hits, or massive nuclear war happens, or very-contagious-ebola kills everyone on earth, it would be somehow pleasing for there to be a self-sustaining human colony somewhere else.

That’s a pretty expensive insurance policy, I admit, but maybe we could afford it. Anyway, it’s not a motivation based on running out of resources.

By the way, you’re painting “technophiles” with a pretty broad brush there. Are most scientists “technophiles”? I doubt it.


Mary Kay 04.11.05 at 12:41 pm

We’ll explore and perhaps colonize space because that’s what humans do. We’re curious little buggers and want to go see and/or find our for ourselves. Whatever it is possible to do, somebody somewhere will do.

Possible conflict of interest: I’m married to an actual rocket scientist who does actual space related stuff.



Ken C. 04.11.05 at 12:42 pm

Sorry, I can’t help pointing out: “astrological phenomenon”? Jupiter aligns with Mars, the Age of Aquarius dawns, and we’re all dead?


Jack Lecou 04.11.05 at 1:50 pm

The “weakness” of those arguments is entirely relative to the expense of manned space exploration.

Disagreement between the space enthusiasts and the fix-our-planet-first crowd arises when the latter assume the former want to launch thousands of colonists to Mars next month on $1B/launch taxpayer funded space shuttles.

In fact, I think most such enthusiasts predicate their arguments on the idea that launch costs can come down – way down. Especially if we put such research closer to the top of our priority list.

Once the $10,000/kg problem has been solved, operating an outpost at L4, the Moon, Mars, etc., ends up being not much more costly than one in Antarctica. A “self-sustaining” economy hopefully becomes a matter of critical size and (relatively solvable) engineering problems.

Since I don’t think anybody is opposed to striking out into space per se, most of the objections disappear if/when the first space elevator goes up.


theCoach 04.11.05 at 2:02 pm

I am a bit of an optimist, but the best case for me is that I find it likely that in the near future (100 years out) we will have the technology to stop aging.
I would prefer colonization to limiting people’s ability to have children or setting some arbitrary date for end of life.
This assumes however, that our technological capabilities will so overwhelm current technology, that it is useless to plan for this at the present time.


LamontCranston 04.11.05 at 2:15 pm

I’ve always thought that the continuation of the Human species was a good enough reason to do something, but thats just me.


Bryan 04.11.05 at 2:26 pm

The idea that by colonizing other locations in the solar system we would heighten our own chances of survival is correct. Not because the earth would die and the other locations would survive but because having the other locations would heighten our chances of gaining the knowledge to prevent world destruction either from environmental cataclysm or the meteors etc.

Large public works programs such as space exploration often produce ancillary benefits in areas of new technology thus space exploration might heighten the chance that we develop new technologies that would help humanity survive. Even better the kinds of technologies that we would need to develop to make space environments livable are ones that we might need to solve environmental problems here. The technologies we would need to protect space environments from meteors and other disasters would be beneficial in protecting earth from meteors and other disasters, I believe this founded on my weird opinion that the earth is an environment floating in space and exposed to its hazards. We cannot experiment with protecting the earth, we must protect it, we can experiment other environments and such experimentation will come to pass by the simple expedient of building them.

Finally if we supposed that we had a number of environments supporting human life in the solar system I can’t help but think that our data gathering about phenomena in that area will be better than it is now, allowing us to better extrapolate future threats and deal with them.

None of these matters seem to be touched on in your dismissal of exploration.


g 04.11.05 at 2:44 pm


Colonization has only a limited ability to solve the population problem if we all become more or less immortal. As Malthus might have said, unchecked population increases geometrically but volume-of-space increases only polynomially :-).


Well, of course if the options were (1) the human species dies out, soon, with probability 100%, and (2) we put a lot of resources into space and the human species doesn’t die out soon, again with probability 100%, then just about everyone would agree that #2 is better.

But that isn’t (so far as anyone knows) the situation; rather, by putting a lot of resources into space we can somewhat reduce the likelihood of various particular modes of extinction, most of which don’t seem likely to happen any time soon. In exchange for that, those resources have gone into space instead of being used to do any other sort of good (some of which options might have reduced the likelihood of some *other* modes of extinction).

So: is a 1% reduction in the chance of the human species going extinct in the next 500 years “a good enough reason to do something”? Depends what that something is, right? (Clarification: I mean that the probability is multiplied by 0.99, not that 0.01 is subtracted from it. Since the probability is — I guess — quite low, these are very different.)

Which is not to deny that colonizing other planets would be amazingly cool. It would, despite the danger that we’d wreck them.


John Quiggin 04.11.05 at 3:01 pm

Jack is about right. In the absence of faster-than-light travel, the available locations are Mars, the moon and planetary orbits. Assuming a solution to the $10,000kg launch problem, colonisation of these locations is comparable to establishing a self-sustaining society in Antarctica, except that Antarctica has breathable air.

A closer comparison would be the project of establishing permanent undersea settlements beyond the continental shelves. You don’t seem to hear much about this idea but in Future Shock Toffler predicted its implementation within a generation.


Andrew C. 04.11.05 at 3:11 pm

The objection that unmanned probes have done more than manned exploration is problematic because there has really only been one set of manned exploration flights (Apollo). The Shuttle is a financial and scientific disaster area, not to mention killing a crew member on average once in every eight flights. The underlying reason for the horrendous cost of manned exploration is pork barrel spending on the one hand, and a mindset among NASA employees that is anchored in the Apollo era.

Once one realizes that Apollo was a high tech Potlach, it becomes clear that the space activist community that looks to Apollo as a model is basically a cargo cult. Those days are never coming back, and that’s a good thing. Once the fundamental inefficiencies of the current model are eliminated crewed vehicles will become practical and competitive with robotic probes for lunar and Near Earth Asteroid missions. Humans beat the hell out of robots for tasks that demand adaptability.

The only way to get rid of the inefficiencies of the current model is to eliminate pork, which can only be done with a launch service purchase model (as opposed to a launch vehicle purchase model), and that will only come about after the next great NASA restructuring, if ever.

I’m very frustrated by the widely held view that crewed spaceflight is intrinsically expensive. The limited database crewed launchers, along with their missile based heritage makes it hard to extrapolate future launch vehicle costs. The only crewed launch vehicle designed from the ground up for high flight rate and reusability is the Shuttle, which has been a disaster for reasons having nothing to do with intrinsic technical issues, and everything to do with politics. Anyone interested in how the shuttle got to be such a POS should reading Heppenheimer’s report on the topic, available on the web at
You have to read between the lines a bit, but it’s a long story of requirements piled on to satisfy bureaucratic and political goals rather than the simple objective of building a first generation reusable crewed spacecraft.

Apologies for the rambling – this is a hot button issue for me.


Andrew Boucher 04.11.05 at 4:50 pm

“But it seems to me that if we are clever enough to figure out how to colonize space in non-trivial numbers, we are also going to be clever enough to figure out how to survive here on Earth pretty much indefinitely.”

This strikes me as completely invalid reasoning. Remember “If we can put a man on the moon, then we can find a cure for cancer?”.


jet 04.11.05 at 5:02 pm

Privatize space. NASA is a disgusting pile of pork that should be dismantled until it only exists as a regulating body. Its days of blowing billions to satisfy Senator X’s home town corporation need to end.

A good use of NASA’s budget would be tax breaks for corporations to accomplish NASA’s previously defined missions.


craig 04.11.05 at 5:28 pm

jack lecou wrote: “Since I don’t think anybody is opposed to striking out into space per se,…”

They are. Decades ago, I read an essay by Wendell Berry to the effect that space exploration/colonization/industrialization is bad per se. It went like this:

1) humans are destructive and wasteful.
2) the more wealthy they are the more wasteful and destructive they become.
3) space industry would make them infinitly wealthy.
4) therefore whey would become infinitly wasteful and destructive.
5) 4 is bad.
6) therefore we shouldn’t attempt to move into space.


craig 04.11.05 at 5:32 pm

What jet said. The most common objections to space exploration fade away if we aren’t using your dollars to do it, or taking money away from more obviously worthwhile government programs.

And as andrew c and Heppenheimer said, NASA isn’t all that good at it.

If there were no NASA, SpaceshipOne would still exist.


Wrye 04.11.05 at 5:52 pm

When you look at the possibility that NASA may be forced to scrap the Voyager program in order to pay for [in Dave Chappelle’s immortal phrase]
Mars, bitches! I think it’s apparent what some of the problems with the current approach is. A short term bread and circus effect which will cripple the long-term science.

And it’s the long term which is important; For sake of argument, forget living on Mars, maybe for a century or two, say (the timescales we’re dealing with here are in the millenia at least), but right now there are useful, non-glamourous programs like tracking near-earth asteroids which demand a space focus and could save billions of lives.

As for the commonly held belief that if NASA were scrapped tomorrow all the money would be used to eradicate poverty…well, I applaud some people’s faith in humanity. But I would suggest that there are many far more egregious examples of waste right here on earth that do absolutely zero to advance the Human condition. I am sure you could build a Mars probe or two for the cost of the USS Jimmy Carter, for instance…


Jack Lecou 04.11.05 at 7:36 pm

Since I don’t think anybody who needs to be taken seriously is opposed to striking out into space per se


Juke Moran 04.11.05 at 9:18 pm

Crackead doesn’t pay rent because all money’s going to drug-of-choice, wife leaves taking kids; c.h. doesn’t feed budgies, budgies die, dog, cat, start to take meals at neighbors’, move in; car doesn’t get maintained, starts spewing nasty partially-combusted-fuel-exhaust; c.h. loses place in economy (job)due to erratic, volatile behavior; landlord brings sheriff three months after third and final eviction notice; c.h. lives in car until money runs out, starts various hustles to maintain diminishing lifestyle. Meanwhile, up the food chain four or five steps, major dealer has private health care on retainer, private security in gated community, kids in private schools.
What do we call what they make together, plus the intermediates in the chain?
Whatever that is it wants to get off the planet, because its way of living has made its prospects of continued existence in present modality untenable.
Time to move, because we certainly can’t change, and those primitive aboriginals and agrarian idealists have nothing to offer superior creatures like us.
Ted Bundy on Mars. Oh yeah.


Barry Freed 04.11.05 at 9:33 pm

A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.

Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey’s on the moon.

I can’t pay no doctor bills but Whitey’s on the moon.

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still while Whitey’s on the moon.


The man just upped my rent last night cuz Whitey’s on the moon.

No hot water, no toilets, no lights but Whitey’s on the moon.

I wonder why he’s uppin me. Cuz Whitey’s on the moon?

I was already givin’ him fifty a week but now Whitey’s on the moon.


Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,

The junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,

The price of food is goin’ up,

And as if all that shit wasn’t enough:


A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.

Her face and arms began to swell but Whitey’s on the moon.

Was all that money I made last year for Whitey on the moon?

How come there ain’t no money here? Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.


Ya know, I just about had my fill of Whitey on the moon.

I think I’ll send these doctor bills

airmail special….

to Whitey on the moon.

– Gil-Scott Heron


Walt Pohl 04.12.05 at 3:22 am

NASA is a disgusting pile of pork that put a man on the moon, landers on Mars, probes to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and out to the edge of the solar system. Ultra-efficient free enterprise has managed a single person in space for a couple of minutes.


Ronald Brakels 04.12.05 at 5:00 am

1. We can’t do it at the moment. We can’t build a self sufficent space colony with todays technology and budgets. Sure we could put a base on the moon or mars now, and then after Doctor Doom blows up the earth the colonists can struggle like the cosmonaughts on Mir to keep their lifesupport going for as long as they can. Or more likely they will decide to commit suicide. Better we all die at once. (Well, those of us who aren’t Dr Doom’s minions anyway.)

2. Yes humans are more flexible than robots, but our fingers aren’t, especially when wearing space suit gloves. It’s pretty stupid to send humans into space to give instructions to robots now that we have mastered the technology of sending and receiving radio waves. Leave the brains on the ground, send the robotic fingers up there.

3. If I lose my keys and then go fishing. It is possible that I will catch a fish, slice it open and find my keys. However, I would probably do better if I looked under the cushions on the sofa. In much the same way, if your goal is to save lives, it is probably better to put money into stopping AIDS and malaria than it is to shoot people into space.

4. Don’t give up hope! Yes humans will colonize space, but we need safer and more affordable technology in order to do it. In only twenty years time we might have the technology to build a space elevator, Japanese companies will invent robots that can build mars bases for us, Indian researchers will develop biotech that will enable self sustaining life support, a Turkish man living in Malta will work out how to heal a spinal cord after it’s been riddled with radiation. But to try to do it now is like buiding wings out of wax. They’re just going to melt. It may be glorious, but it will be murder.


Thomas Dent 04.12.05 at 5:39 am

I see some people saying ‘If/When the $10,000 per kilogram problem is solved’… which is like saying ‘If the AIDS cure problem is solved’. Wishing yourself a magic bullet is not a valid premise for further argument.

Anyone who’s read Feynman’s second volume of autobiography knows how dangerously bureaucratic NASA became after the Apollo era. The fact that money is still being spent on the ‘Space Station’ and that the head of NASA can talk about going to the moon again with a straight face, shows that it still is.


jlw 04.12.05 at 9:59 am

Craig sez: “If there were no NASA, SpaceshipOne would still exist.”

But that’s not quite right. If there were a market demand for the kind of service SpaceShipOne could provide, then it would still exist. But there ain’t. The X-Prize was a stunt.

The economics of space flight are such that the only way you can make a profit is if you don’t have to send a product back to Earth. Satellites are great in this respect, as their product is massless radio waves. Also, since commercial satellites don’t have to be brought back intact, the launch systems and overall design can be much, much simpler than what is needed for manned flight.

Sending people to Mars is just another stunt–something we might be able to do, but which wouldn’t lead to much of anything. Proposing it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what we can do in space or, more accurately, what it makes sense to do in space. (Just because we can do something dowsn’t mean it makes sense to do it.)

We’d be better off sending out a fleet of robotic explorers to study the composition of various asteroids as well as prospect for minerals on the moon’s surface. I wanna know whether space can support us before we start planning on settling the damn place.


jet 04.12.05 at 3:16 pm

Don’t be silly. People do want to go to space, and they’re willing to pay for it.


Keith M Ellis 04.12.05 at 3:36 pm

I cannot even begin to understand how this argument can exist in the context which includes the US military budget and the US consumer’s incredibly wasteful consumption of energy (or perhaps that should simply read “wasteful consumption”). Space exploration may be a convenient target for outrage at Whitey’s self-indulgence, but it’s a target that is almost completely trivial. So much so that it trivializes the outrage into something perverse such as bumper stickers against oil extraction or rock concerts to feed the hungry.


Ronald Brakels 04.13.05 at 3:32 am

I think if we are to colonize space, the first thing we should do is improve the health and education of the the poorest people on earth. We’ll need to come up with some really clever ideas to pull off space colonization, and seven billion heads are better than one. I think we’ll also have to learn to get on better as a species if it’s going to work. I mean how many world leaders today would you trust with a fleet of nuclear powered spacecraft? So if we want to prevent our species being wiped out by a metorite, first we’ll have to practice not wiping ourselves out.

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