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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The social critics' reply

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2J

The social critics' reply

In spite of the long list of actual and potential benefits of space, social critics find that the standard case for exploration falls short of its target. For many important space activities do not have the obvious beneficial consequences of weather and communication satellites. Where is the obvious payoff from a probe of Jupiter or Titan, from landing a vehicle on Mars, from scooping a bit of Halley's comet? Few accomplishments of space exploration rank as high as the discoveries made with telescopes in orbit. But how is the information from space astronomy going to put food in children's mouths or a roof over their heads?

In emphasizing the practicality of space technology, the standard case makes intellectual orphans of the very things that bring to exploration an air of mystery and excitement. What it leaves out is the heart of space exploration: our sense of adventure, our urge to explore, our need to satisfy our curiosity. A justification along practical lines fails because it excludes those aspects of the enterprise that ignite the imagination and stir the soul about the conquest of the cosmos.

Many supporters of space exploration would like to argue at this point that scientific knowledge has value in itself, but this only brings us back to the original debate. Is scientific knowledge more valuable than achieving this or that social aim? We have not answered that question yet. Of course, merely a small portion of the space budget is allocated to science (while most of it presumably goes for more obviously practical activities), and since the space budget is not that large to begin with, taking the money away from the heart of space exploration is not going to solve the social problems anyway. Nevertheless many social critics would not accept this reply because the actual sums spent on space science are large, even if they represent a small fraction of the space budget in the U.S. The proposed price tag for the Hubble space telescope alone was around $1.5 billion, and the actual costs have run much higher. That kind of money will not solve all the social problems of the world, but the social critics think that its judicious investment may do a lot of good. Besides, the cost of the International Space Station is likely to rise to about $100 billion, an extraordinary sum by any standards (we will see in Ch. 7 that many space scientists actually oppose the space station).

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