Natalie Merchant, "Space Oddity"

>> Tuesday, April 24, 2012






A bit o' buzz over at the Gawkerverse: Gizmodo liveblogged the announcement a group of billionaire investors wants to harvest asteroids for precious materials and io9 got excited that stunt filmmaker extraordinaire James Cameron, lately back from the bottom of the ocean, is one of the investors. This is all sorts of exciting.

So I know I've been down on the idea of manned space exploration. And I still am, mostly, though if private investors want to do it, it seems to me I can't object. I think there's a distinction in my mind over science, which is generally a public good, and business, which perhaps generally ought to be in the private sphere unless we're discussing utilities. From where I sit, robots can do better science than people, at least right now. Actually, they can do better industry, too, which is why the investors are focusing on sending out robot prospectors, to be followed by robot miners, though they can't help noting that water would be good for people, too, if any went out there.

Though this is all more complicated than that: I'm not opposed to government nationalizing certain sectors of the economy if they can either run them more efficiently or more justly (i.e. public transit, say for instance, doesn't have to turn a profit or even work that well to be a public good, and a more profitable and more efficient transit system might not be one that provides equal access to everybody; and you could replace "public transit" with "hospital" or any number of utilities). I don't suppose I'd necessarily object to government mining asteroids, I'm just a little skeptical as to whether that's really a good fit for government's obligation to protect and promote the general well-being of the citizenry.

All of which is moot anyway, seeing as how we don't have that civil or economic system in the first place. Constitutionally we have a democratic oligarchy and historically we have a kind of bastardized regulated capitalism.

Which is why we--and by "we" I mean the United States as an entity, as opposed to individual Americans--don't really have a reason to go into space. I don't mean we can't come up with reasons, some of them better than others. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, we made up a reason and that was we had to stick it to the Soviets to prove they sucked and we were win, and also intercontinental ballistic missiles and making sure if anyone had a strategic space advantage that would be the good ol' USA. But (I'm not sure if I'm explaining or justifying this very well) there's not really an institutional reason to do it beyond diplomatic or militaristic reasons; in fact, even when I start thinking about my favorite reason to keep NASA fat as a tick dollarwise, I have to admit that making science is something the Constitution's framers thought gentlemen farmers (and printers, natch) ought to be doing in their spare time and while we have a tradition of government-funded research part of the reason it's such a poorly-funded tradition is this tension between those who think science is a common good for all and those who think science is something corporations do when they need new ways to make money.

I feel like I've gone far astray, somehow. This is what happens when you flail around for a topic near the end of the day and ultimately decide to go with someone performing "Space Oddity" (preferably not Bowie, who we all love but we've heard that ten billion times before and while I really don't get sick of it, I understand some of you might and I take pity; and doesn't Ms. Merchant do a swell job with it, folks? Just lovely) and then add a few comments about a topic of the day that's pretty nifty and exciting but touches on areas you feel a bit ambivalent about like sending people up in tin can balloons and hoping they don't pop all over the place.1

Anyway, rich businessmen in space. Mining water and gold off asteroids. It's so crazy it just might work, and I love it. Good luck and godspeed, gang.





1Speaking of which, let's be clear that if your spaceship suddenly depressurized, you wouldn't swell up like a balloon although lots of nasty things would happen to you and actually there is at least one incident where a person exploded in a decompression event but you'll note they went from nine atmospheres to one and not from one to zero.

As for spacemen, here, read this. Also, this.



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