Yeah, I’ve got your “compelling reason” right here…

So I managed to touch off a bit of a debate over at Space Politics when I took issue with Jeff’s use of the phrase “if advocates can put together a compelling case.” It’s a phrase I grew rather tired of while listening to Dr. Livingston rant about it on a recent Moon-related program of The Space Show. (He’s had a lot of good one’s recently: Dr. Haym Benaroya, Dr. Bernard Foing, Brent Sherwood, and Dr. Paul Spudis) In some sense it’s kind of like the phrase “killer app” which you still hear every now and then. In the case of “compelling reason”, really all it does is provide skeptics with an opportunity to play what I call “whack-a-mole the rationales”. Someone will offer up what they consider a number of compelling examples, and then someone else will come along and knock them down one-by-one, without themselves offering up any kind of metric of what they would consider compelling.

A good example of this can be seen in the comments to my post on “25 Good Reasons to Go to the Moon“. I’ll admit I got a bit snippy in the reply, mainly because the critiques weren’t very good or at times even relevant. For the relevant space posts over at Space Politics – “Lunar water and space policy” and “Compelling reasons, or lack thereof“, I asked a simple question in the comments of the first one:

“So is anyone willing to offer up any examples of what they would consider “compelling”?”

A question that was further refined by Gary Miles as:

“Perhaps if you would provide a defined set of criteria for what is a compelling argument for human space exploration in your opinion, then a ‘convincing’ argument might be easier put forth.”

I went back through to see the results. Jeff, of course, didn’t offer up any kind of metric of what could be considered compelling in his “Compelling reasons…” post (he’s a journalist, that’s not his job), which left the comments to sift through.

Major Tom is an example of the kind of mindset that we’re dealing with, in that after whack-a-moling his way through someone’s comment he concludes with “I wish it were otherwise, but there currently isn’t one for civil human space flight. It’s a legacy of the Cold War, and no one has articulated a rationale since Apollo. Just as the U.S./Soviet competition, a future justification will probably require an exogenous event and become another accident of history.” Admittedly, he does begrudgingly offer up “cooperation (rather than competition) with China may become a driving rationale for NASA’s civil human space flight program”.


Some are a bit more pragmatic, such as mike shupp, who chimed in that “I don’t think you’ll ever find a “compelling” reason for manned space flight, if you mean some sort of reason which convinces everyone.”

common sense offered:

“A case that appeals to everyone
-We detected an asteroid coming our way and we gotta get out of here soon.
-We detected life on -name your preferred celestial body here- and we gotta get going see what is happening there.”

Not too bad as rationales, and I’m certainly on board with the first example, as I take a “Let’s pwn them before they pwn us” attitude towards the big rocks from space. The second one not so much, as I’m just not big on astrobiology.

Other rationales offered include “so the United States isn’t seen as a second rate power or as a super power on the way down.” and “For commercial space the only compelling reason is profits, very high profits to offset the high risks.”

Left undefined, of course, is what “very high” profits means. Anything positive? 5%? 10%? 20%? 35%? As someone who has spent two decades working in the capital markets, I know that the concept of “very high profits” can be a bit fluid and subject to revision. Again, there’s no metric to work against, so how is one supposed to come up with a convincing argument?

I think doogle summed it up best:
“The compelling reason for human space exploration is human life in space.

Eating and drinking and sleeping and shopping and working and playing.

The end”

Which touches at the heart of what human exploration of the Solar system entails – stories of human adventure. But ultimately it’s about even more than that, something touched on in this month’s edition of Moon Miner’s Manifesto (MMM). Only available to members of the Moon Society, MMM has for over twenty years provided articles on the theme of “Developing Off-Planet Resources towards an Earth-Moon Economy”. Pretty hard not to be on board with that. The Moon offers a unique opportunity to develop industry off-Earth in cislunar space with resources from the Moon serving as a springboard to resources from asteroids (as detailed in PERMANENT).


In the September issue, there is an article entitled “Mother Earth reaching for the stars using the Moon as a stepping stone”. It delves into the idea of humanity taking not just itself out into space, but also the biosphere of Earth. Over the long term we will not be able to survive on the Moon and out in space without plants and animals. The idea of plants and animals on the Moon is an idea that a lot of people find engaging, as I’ve discovered in my years of outreach efforts. Evolving that idea further, humanity could thus be seen as the fertilizing agent of Earth, taking its life out into the currently sterile regions of the Solar system and giving them the opportunity to partake in the symphony of life. Hence the graphic that accompanies the story, from the old “Lady Base One”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen light bulbs going off and heard gasps of intuition as people ‘got’ the concept of humanity as the means for the life of Earth to spread out into space. A kind of stewardship role (at least at first) that ventures into philosophical ponderings of things like human destiny and its newest manifestation.

Speaking of plants on the Moon, with the announcement of hydroxyls and possibly water widespread across the Lunar surface, I can’t help but think of the idea posed by Sir Arthur Clarke (IIRC) of growing cacti on the surface of the Moon. Would a root system be able to tap into the phenomenon, and potentially sustain a small cactus in the vacuum and regolith of the Moon? Hmmm…I wonder if there’s any research on the vacuum tolerance of cacti…?

Well I’m off to finish prepping for the Andrew Chaikin talk that’s coming up at the Frontiers of Flight museum (pdf). NSS of North Texas is putting up a static display to hand out all kinds of information on our Moon and local space happenings, and I still have to fish some books out of storage to get autographed for the Lunar Library. See you there!

6 thoughts on “Yeah, I’ve got your “compelling reason” right here…

  1. By far and away the most compelling reason I can come up with for human spaceflight is the following:

    Placing a human into an environment that they have never experienced before will set off a completely unique set of neural impulses that will permanently change the way that they think for the rest of their lives. Putting a person into an environment that nobody at all has ever been before will have positively different neural paths created in their brains. Call this a spiritual experience, a scientific “eureka”, or some other more pedestrian explanation of what happens when you get into that situation can significantly alter your life’s purpose and force you to think differently in nearly every other situation you encounter.

    We should all know of people who have climbed tall mountains and then had the chance to look down onto the surrounding plains and valleys to remark on the experience in their lives. Generations of Boy Scouts head off to summer camp… in part so that they can experience something very different from their everyday lives and make an encounter with “the wild” and hopefully make them into more tolerable adults when they grow up. Occasionally a piece of music or some painting can also just stir your soul to such a way that your entire worldview has changed. This is called being human and living.

    By having people go to the Moon, to live there, to have sex and make kids there, to die there…. that will be an experience that to date nobody in the history of mankind has ever encountered before. Even those brave dozen men and the other dozen who got the chance to at least get to the “far side” of the Moon….. it did profoundly change their lives in a way I mentioned above. One basically abandoned his career as a pilot and scientist to become an artist, and others had a profound sense of mission to do something else with their lives afterward. Mankind has been blessed with the experiences of the astronauts that have already been “up there” and have come back to tell the story.

    One very compelling story I read in a book about the Space Shuttle was about an astronaut who was doing an EVA on the Space Shuttle… and for some reason he was told to stay outside of the shuttle for about an extra half hour while the rest of his crew did a bunch of other things. He was basically left alone to his own devices and was in the Shuttle bay that at the time happened to be facing toward the stars at that moment. Simply taking the time to pause in his life and view the heavens with his own eyes, unfiltered by any atmosphere at all and only a think piece of Lexan between his eye and raw starlight was an experience that was incredibly moving and life changing.

    We need more experience like that. If you want to “think outside of the box” and come up with a genuine solution to many of life’s problems… including the mundane problems we face here on the Earth… we need to have people with these experiences if only so their neural paths are jarred with a different way of thinking so we can come up with a genuinely unique solution that is different than what has been tried before. By thinking differently they will act differently.

    In every instance when mankind has expanded his horizons and traveled to new environments, the exchange of ideas from those new environments and the original locations has lead to tremendous innovation in almost every field of endeavor that mankind has ever touched… from religion, culture, art, politics, warfare, science, and philosophy. It is this that we should seek, and by sending up robots instead of people will never accomplish. Mankind will be richer if we can just “get up there” and experience this for ourselves… even if not everybody can get there to experience it first hand.

    This, to me, is the compelling reason to go up and to colonize space. If we don’t, we are a doomed species worthy of extinction.

  2. Ken, when I “rant” on The Space Show about there needing to be a compelling reason for human spaceflight or returning to the Moon, its not that we space cadets don’t have compelling reasons and persuasive arguments for human spaceflight. While I can’t speak for the guests on my show or for others, I am specifically addressing the fact that the case has not been so successfully made to our leaders and policy makers that they understand and value spaceflight as we do, thus enacting extremely pro space policies or even seeing space issues show up on a list of political priorities. We cadets and space enthusiasts can talk and preach to each other all day long but in my opinion, we are not such a powerful force that we can significantly influence or come close to dictating national space policy. I believe we stand a good chance of seeing the limits of our “effectiveness” unfold with whatever human spaceflight policy comes out of Augustine and the new administration. If our arguments and efforts were so persuasive, we would have had a vastly different human spaceflight and civil space program by now. I am fully aware that many will disagree with me but for those of you who do disagree, please point out to me the successes from our community that have propelled us and humanity to space? Hell, we are fighting to preserve human spaceflight right now and if it were truly valued and appreciated, we would not see our economic problems as a reason not to expand and invest in space development. We would not be hearing the argument we can’t afford this or that. We would know and act on the fact that we must go to space and develop it because we know it to be wealth building for our future, our nation, for humanity. But that is not the case.

    There is an excellent essay that Dr. Paul Spudis recently wrote (see He points out that space does not have to resonate in the consciousness of the public like it does with space enthusiasts. That for space to be valuable, it should be a tool of economic growth such as the railroads, but not everyone has to be on board thinking about it all the time. Its worth reading and paying attention to what he has to say. But political leaders and policy makers are another story. If we want public investment in space and its infrastructure, we need to figure out how to convey to this specific group of people the value, the importance, and the future we all see and know exists with human spaceflight and commercial space development. We need to be able to convey this importance to the right people. My rant on The Space Show is that we have not yet made the compelling case to the right people, instead only to ourselves and to lots and lots of blogs and blog readers. While we have clearly made incremental progress in space development over the years, we have a long ways to go in making it a national policy priority. Right now our timing is critical, probably more so than ever before or at least in decades. I believe and contend that we can do better and that we must do better if we are to realize what we know space is all about. We need to make the compelling case to our policy makers and leaders, not to ourselves.

  3. Dr. Livingston, thanks for stopping by. This post is generating far more interest than I expected.

    I understand your passion, but I’m looking at it from a different perspective. One thing I learned, back when I was doing civic service work in NYC with things like UNA-USA and Rotaract at the UN, was that trying to educate politicians is largely a pointless exercise.

    (1) The politicians change, which means you’re teaching the same old stuff to fresh new faces all the time.
    (2) The staffs change even more frequently, especially at the lower levels, and since those are the only folks you ever get to deal with, you’re teaching the same old stuff again and again to new crops of political flunkies.
    (3) No one is interested in your topic unless you can provide voters (i.e. large membership rolls) or tax dollars (i.e. jobs) in their districts.

    Harsh political realities, but I was advocating the good work of the UN around the world [yes, I know bad stuff happens too – not the point], and even in space which is how I got started on this whole space adventure, and that’s something that is liked way less than space.

    So I’ve given up on the politicians. I’ve never liked the twisted little mental games they play. I’m one of those dinosaurs who believes that we should have Statesmen in our Senate and Executive Branch. So I do my work in the community, and give talks to folks like Mensa and Rotary. And do exhibits at museums and space-related events. And collect space toys for a local toy drive. And collect books for a local reading library.

    And yes, I do blog. But I try to do it in a way that gently pushes for space advocacy while extolling the vast potential that exists in this field. So I blog about scholarship and program opportunities, conferences, (while Eva handles the business interviews) as well as things like ‘Teacher Tools for the High Frontier’ and ‘Summer Space Reading Camp’. I even link to your shows with the authors of books in the Lunar Library.

    What I don’t do is politics, so I’m not interested in swaying them. I work on the general public, so that when the politicians do dick around with the space stuff then the public will get ornery about it, which tends to cow the weak-spined politicians.

    P.S. I’m well familiar with Dr. Spudis’ works and arguments, which come scarily close to aligning with my own thoughts on the matter of space development. I consider him a sort of Moon mentor (along with Chuck Wood over at LPOD, and they both know that). I’m just finishing up a re-read of ‘The Once and Future Moon’ for a review here at OotC. You know, I should ask him up for next year’s Moon Day event…

    P.P.S. I also owe you a show about the Lunar Library and space advocacy, but I don’t yet have a landline. I was hoping to have a house by now, but I don’t think that the markets have adequately corrected and I’m not interested in cashing out a flipper. I’m just looking for my first home (where I will get a landline), so we’ll see what next year looks like.

  4. Ken, I understand your perspective and I used to be more in line with it than I am now because I have come to see that to get things done, policy makers and “political leaders” are the pressure points. We are not yet close to where the private sector can develop space on its own and I don’t think we will be there for many many years. Even SpaceX has the gov. as a client, a Washington, DC office, lobbies for policy, etc. Space does not show up on any list of political priorities regardless of party. I contend that if we want it to change and we want to see space become the economic force and tool that we believe it can be, the pressure points are those that make policy and appropriate funds. We did not invent this system but we can enter it and use it to our advantage. If ACORN can get billions, surely we can do something given that we all know space has far more value and wealth building potential for the nation and our future than ACORN. That’s how I see it. David

  5. Mr. Murphy…While educating politicians may be a seemingly infinite uphill battle when it comes to creating a political landscape which promotes a space fairing society, the fact remains that we must create compelling reasons to enlist their support. The Outer Space Treaty as well as the many other international space treaties to which the United States is a signatory makes any space activity launched from our country or by a U.S. citizen a political affair. That’s the reality. Whether the Administration and Congress favor the right side or left side of the aisle, the fact remains that our political leaders determine how we interact with other nations when it comes to access to and from space; their many different backgrounds and experiences require us to help them share the same vision of the future of transportation. To do this we must show why efforts in space are important with a high return on investment and a managable risk versus gain…in short, compelling reasons…as opposed to other uses for their time, say national health care or some other issue which gives them political longevity.

    Dr. Livingston is telling it like it is. To shape the policies set for space we must educate…continually…those charged with making policies and ratifying treaties.

    Cheers from the Alamo…Dave Hook

  6. Ken and others, in preparing for The special AIAA/Space Show Augustine Commission program in the morning (Oct. 5, 2009 11AM-12:30PM PDT @, I read again the excellent article by Dr. Jeff Foust in the Monday, Sept. 21, 2009 issue of The Space Review. Jeff’s article is titled “The $3-billion-ayear question.” You can read the article here, I strongly urge all of you to read it. In this article, Jeff explores the issue of the need in making the compelling case for human spaceflight. He writes about an excellent approach so read the article to find out what is recommended, but my point in posting this short paragraph is to again illustrate the necessity of all of us making the compelling case for human spaceflight to the population and our political, policy, and regulatory leaders. As you will see in Jeff’s article, the compelling case includes tangible benefits to the population, something back for investing our tax dollars in space. To shy away from this responsibility is to, in my opinion, shoot ourselves in the foot.

    Dave Hook above made some very interesting and right on the mark points in his post above. His comments should not be taken lightly.

    Dr. David Livingston
    Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009

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