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 â€œcompellingâ€?”
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 â€˜convincingâ€™ 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 isnâ€™t one for civil human space flight. Itâ€™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 NASAâ€™s civil human space flight program”.
Some are a bit more pragmatic, such as mike shupp, who chimed in that “I donâ€™t think youâ€™ll ever find a â€œcompellingâ€ 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 isnâ€™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.
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!