Nations and Space Travel

I’m listening to yesterday’s State of the Union address, and it has some interesting things in it.

For instance, there’s a powerful connection between space exploration and the nation-state. Space exploration has gone to the dogs as the nation-state weakened because it has no power to survive as anything other than a mechanism of supporting the mystique of the nation.

Space exploration is extremely expensive. The tangible results that regular people can understand will take a very long time to materialize. The biggest immediate value that can be derived from it is symbolic. Remember when the US and the USSR competed in who’d put the first man or woman in space or on the Moon? In the USSR, in particular, gigantic resources that the country simply didn’t have were poured into the space program because of its value to the national prestige.

This is why the address frames the need to restore the space program in nationalist terms. “Let’s make sure we are the first nation to put a woman on the Moon” is a great symbolic victory for a nation.

The only alternative is to wait for Jeff Bezos to get bored with Amazon and start financing space travel. Of course, the downside will be that yet another huge area of existence will be privatized.

25 thoughts on “Nations and Space Travel”

  1. With SpaceX, space exploration is already privatized. NASA is paying private contractors to launch rockets. The private sector is interested in space manufacturing because, for some items, manufacturing in a zero gravity environment in much less expensive. There is already development work on mining techniques that could be used on Mars. Most of this is private sector development, and it goes well beyond Musk. Basically, Trump is out of the loop on this.


    1. My whole research is on the death of the nation-state, so I know better than most just how out of the loop he is. I just refuse to celebrate the death of the nation-state like academics are required to do. National space programs are just one small casualty of this process.


  2. Low cost space transportation and infrastructure construction are necessary to open the space frontier to large scale human settlement (e.g. where it becomes a real frontier). Cost plus government contracting will never do this. Only competitive free markets can do this. It is silly to believe otherwise.


      1. I simply do not believe that farming out every function of the state to a tiny group of extremely rich guys is a great idea. I have actually lived in the libertarian paradise of a non-existent state where a tiny and extremely rich oligarchy ruled. It was a bad experience, so trying to convert me to libertarianism is a major waste of time.


    1. This isn’t about belief but about facts. While the nation-state was strong, space exploration flourished. Once the nation-state weakened, space exploration faded.

      This isn’t about fantasy or belief but facts.


      1. Freeman Dyson wrote a piece for the Aug. 1979 edition of “L5 News” called “Pilgrims, Saints, and Spacemen” where he talked about how mass space migration will take place only when the cost of doing such has dropped sufficiently such that it is self-financing by the small, self-interested groups who really do want to go to space. Only then will the large scale settlement of the solar system take place.

        SpaceX has developed reusable rockets. Blue Origin and several others are working on them as well. Neither NASA, nor any other government-funded space program has ever accomplished this feat.

        The traditional NASA contractors, lead by Boeing, want to have the Senate Launch System (SLS) that will cost about $1 billion PER LAUNCH (expendable rockets, of course). This is just not feasible. The problem with government space programs is the lack of competition to control costs. It is free market competition that provides incentive to control costs and improve performance.

        Having a government owned space program makes no more sense than having a government-owned airline.


        1. I get you, Abelard. I agree that the SLS is a bad joke and a ridiculous waste of money better spent on telescopes and space probes, and the Falcon system is amazing. When Musk joked that he wants to die on Mars, preferably not on landing, he said what I and others like me feel.

          This being said, I don’t want the government to be absent from our future space colonies. The freedom of the frontier only exists when the frontier is survivable by a small group of people with the sort of resources accessible to regular folk. The moon, or Mars, won’t be for a very long while. In this situation, the best chances J. Random Citizen has to maintain any sort of freedom is to have multiple power centers with conflicting interests to play against each other, and SpaceX vs Blue Origin aren’t exactly far away enough from each other for there to be livable space between them, if that makes sense.

          It seems a false dilemma, by the way, to claim government space programs preclude private-built rockets and viceversa. A nation building initiative as Clarissa describes doesn’t require for the rockets to be built by that nation’s government, it requires that reaching for farther shores be presented as something a whole society builds towards, rather than something that’ll make the rich get richer while the rest of us sign ourselves into indentured servitude to pay for our passage. We’ve tried company towns before, and fool me twice, shame on me, you know.


          1. “than something that’ll make the rich get richer while the rest of us sign ourselves into indentured servitude ”

            But almost every new bright idea that people come up with now has that as its goal… We live in the Age of Grift… and grifters aren’t going to make a go of it in space.


        2. Also, some of us do live in countries with government-owned airlines 🙂 They’re inefficient and waste a lot of taxpayer money, but they do maintain 2h-including-airport-time connections from our third tier cities to the capital. I’m sure the people in Baia Mare, f’rex, appreciate not needing to waste a whole day to get to a place where they can start getting to anywhere interesting, and I don’t mind subsidizing that. Hell, I live in a regional capital that can economically sustain private sector flights to the capital and a couple major European cities, and having the national airline maintain flights on those still routes is still worth it to me even if I rarely take them – the privates can’t afford to go full Ryanair dickhead on you when there’s a more-expensive-but-not-hugely-so government-owned ride on the same route that won’t bill you for having a jacket.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. We can argue against facts because somebody said something in 1979. Or we can observe reality and notice that space exploration is dying.

          The analogy with airlines is defective because it’s very easy to demonstrate why everybody needs air travel today but extremely hard to explain something that maybe somebody might need in a distant future.


  3. You post a lot about the dangers of ‘woke’ activists. This small news article beautifully demonstrates the difference between Israeli and ‘woke’ US mentality, and may make one prefer the latter:

    // Rabbi Yakov Ariel, who in the past has described members of the LGBT community as “disabled people requiring psychological treatment”, will be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Rabbinic Literature, Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced on Tuesday.

    In 2014, Ariel ruled that it was forbidden to rent an apartment to two lesbian women, who are “planning to live there in sin and break rabbinic laws regarding sexuality.”

    During a 2016 conference in Ramla, Rabbi Ariel referred to members of the LGBT community as “disabled people suffering from a real problem that must be solved with psychological and pharmacological treatments.”

    “Our role is to strengthen the traditional family unit,” Ariel said. “A normal family is a father, mother and children; an abnormal family is not organized and orderly, it suffers from an array of psychological problems.”

    The choice to award the religious scholar with the prestigious award spawned sharp criticism in the LGBT community.

    “The Israel Prize of hatred and homophobia was presented today by the education minister who called us unhealthy to the rabbi who called us “disabled”,” said Horowitz. “When Labor-Meretz replaces the right, we will finally have education that is pluralistic, tolerant and accepting.”

    Rabbi Ariel refused in a Wednesday interview to apologize for his past statements, saying he would have no regrets if he were to be stripped from the award.

    In regards to calling the LGBT community “disabled”, the rabbi stated that disabled was a “professional term… the professional definition in America 20 years ago,” but did acknowledge that today it would be received differently.


    1. I wouldn’t want to hang out with this guy because he sounds like a major twerp. However, I believe that he should have the right to expound on his beliefs, deranged as he might be, to such audiences as he might find willing to listen to him.

      As for the award, I obviously know nothing about rabbinic literature and can’t have an opinion on whether he deserves the prize.


  4. This is one of those areas where I care less about whatever ideology or form of government promotes it, and I’m just glad it’s being done in whatever form possible.

    Bright-eyed bespectacled enthusiasm for space travel will for sure be exploited, probably already is, but I also I think it’s a large mistake to not recognize it as a major factor all on its own, profit or national pride be damned.


      1. Old-fashioned exploitation might be one of the better outcomes, really. Tech has never worked under commodity market rules (if anything, including commodities, has), it’s about establishing monopolies and keeping them.

        In the case of space, eventually, it’s going to be an issue of control – once you have space travel, you’ve also got WMDs, or potential for WMDs, which is near enough the same thing as far as power games are concerned.

        Any increase in the capabilities of humanity as a whole is going to be initially localized to a relative few, and that relative few will near always use it to lord it over those without, in some cases for literal thousands of years.

        I don’t want to be part of those without, practically; I don’t want anyone to be those without, morally. But I also want these ridiculously amazing things to happen. Anyone who isn’t at least a little bit overcome with awe at the thought of humanity becoming true spacefarers, well… They’re throwing away an unknown future for a known present – which is still a relative few lording over those without.


        1. I personally have very little enthusiasm for space exploration because it’s such a long-term, uncertain bet. There needs to be a payout in the now. I’m pretty certain that’s how most people think.


    1. There is a reason, though, why that enthusiasm has plummeted since 1961, right? For the generation of my parents it was a mega big deal. For my generation, it’s barely a footnote.


      1. It may be that this is the sort of thing that’s overrepresented in my own circles, but it’s trivially easy for me to think of a dozen people (pop and/or DIY scientishts) who have recently gone on endlessly about the possibilities of spaceflight, rocketry, different propulsion systems or possible difficulties of martian colonization.

        It’s true that broad-based popular support has largely fallen, but it’s probably more feverish than it has ever been with the technicals, and that might actually matter more in our current circumstances as far as getting anything off the ground goes.


  5. Sometimes I feel we don’t advertise the tangible results of space travel enough. Older Americans or not-so-old Eastern Europeans here might remember how non-fresh food used to be super unhealthy and lacking in nutrients compared to fresh stuff, cans used to be a botulism risk etc, whereas right now the semiprepared-and-frozen-on-site bag of chopped vegetables will often be higher in vitamins than the same vegetables sold at room temperature in the fresh products aisle.

    How did we get from there to here, you may wonder?

    The Apollo program got tired of their astronauts getting the shits.


  6. Although I’m against state-sponsored space exploration/colonization with living humans (I support launching probes and telescopes for research purposes) because it’s grossly ineffective, Clarissa is right: since nation-states have weakened, space exploration/colonization have weakened also.


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