Michael Battalio

Friday, October 26, 2012

Serious conversations (part 42):

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The fortieth through forty-second entries deal with space, space travel, space exploration, and its merits.

        Previously the merits of science research (advancement of the economy for one) were discussed; specifically, space exploration both manned and unmanned was debated. In the previous two entries we waxed on about the lack of scientists who are also politicians and the aimlessness of NASA. We continue on by pointing the blame squarely on inept politicians and their greed for pet projects.

        There really is no doubt to me that the public faith in the government to do good has dropped dramatically in the last couple of decades. I don’t really have an explanation for it. It is, however, the reason that NASA lacks direction. Conservatives are such stalwarts on the uselessness of government and the magical ability of privatization that for the first time in generations the US does not have a way of getting humans into low Earth orbit, much less space itself. (I try to be as moderate and independently minded as I can, but the conservatives are really doing a good job of making the government ineffective in general.) And we are 10 years at best from getting back there, so we are 10 years from having the space faring capacity of the early 1980’s. That’s not how you capture the imagination. In 10 years no one will be excited about getting back to where we were 40 years earlier. On top of that money is wasted as politicians go through the revolving door, picking money for random projects, because they know nothing about science, that are shuttered when they leave.

        Again, the root cause of all of this poor understanding in science is that we let lawyers be in charge of funding. That is absolutely stupid. Of course NASA is floundering. Of course we aren’t doing anything about climate change or overpopulation or finding new sources of energy. We are letting people with no or at best limited knowledge of science, who are only trained to argue, make the decisions on what is important. The fact that climate change is a political issue is sickening to me and just about every other atmospheric scientist, yet there is nothing we can do about it now because it has become politicized.

        Back to the point of the discussion. I have to say that space exploration is of much higher importance to me now that I’m working for a couple of professors who study the atmosphere of Mars. Several of the satellites that they were hoping for have been canceled, and the project that was to fund my RA position was not funded. So, my perspective is very biased now. Even in light of that I can say with certainty that space exploration is crucial to the survival of our species and all life on earth. Something catastrophic will happen to the planet, even if it is a billion years from now, and all will be lost if at least one species does not find a way to expand beyond our solar system.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Serious conversations (part 41):

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The fortieth through forty-second entries deal with space, space travel, space exploration, and its merits.

        On the other hand, humans are big, heavy things, and they require a lot of effort (read: money) to get to outer space, much less orbit. The planet does not currently have the economic excess to be funding a lot of human exploration. The argument can certainly be made that the money could be applied to the deficit. However when you look at the history of human spaceflight, it doesn’t really take that much money. When you compare the operating budget of NASA to the deficit, even increasing the budget of NASA ten fold is a drop in the bucket. So at the very least we should not reduce the budget of NASA.

        Also, one could argue that all the money that we might waste on human spaceflight should all be applied to robotic missions or other endeavors. We could accomplish so much more with a lot less money if we limit our space program to robotics. However, I would again argue that without human spaceflight, we lose the imagination of the public, and without that the space program would be nothing today. So I maintain that a limited human spaceflight program is necessary for the continued survival of the unmanned program.

        Speaking of NASA: I think the problem with NASA right now is a lack of vision and drive. The directive of NASA has changed every few years or so. W Bush wanted to get us to Mars, but Obama has curtailed that completely. And I can’t even remember what Clinton wanted NASA to do. Again the problem is that the President (generally a lawyer by trade) is in charge of the budget of a purely scientific enterprise. He has no idea what it should do nor should he, yet he has ultimate authority over it. The president should not be issuing the mandates for NASA or any other scientific body. An independent panel of scientists should run NASA and be completely apolitical. The budget of NASA should be pegged at the inflation rate, unless the Congress wants to give it extra money to fulfill some request on behalf of the people. Otherwise no branch of government should have any say over the actions of NASA. Assuming that will never happen, at the very least we need another situation that demands something of NASA (at some point global warming will become that situation, but I won’t live that long) in a short period of time. Everyone working towards one goal is the way to get things done.

2003-2016 Michael Battalio (michael[at]battalio.com)