Wednesday 12 November 2014

How Not to Criticise Space Exploration

What a stupendous achievement. The landing of a space probe on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 300 million miles from Earth is one for the history books, up there with the first space flight, Moon landing, and interplanetary mission. Sure, the Philae lander might be sliding about the surface a tad but nonetheless this is a triumph of ingenuity and engineering. The gratitude of progressive humanity everywhere is with the European Space Agency team in Darmstadt.

Not everyone will be celebrating, however. There are three leftish critiques sometimes levelled at space exploration. The first, articulated by the American civil rights movement during the Apollo programme was the resource argument: that this kind of expenditure is immoral in the context of unequal societies in which poverty and want remains unresolved issues. It's an argument opportunistically appropriated by the right to delegitimise British aid to India's poorest. After all, as readers know, India recently became the third space faring entity ever to a put a probe in orbit around another planet.

The second stresses the social usefulness of these sorts of programmes. Or, rather, the lack thereof. The Apollo missions exemplify this perfectly. A gaggle of astronauts were dispatched to a lifeless rock to collect soil samples, plant flags and play golf. Was the hefty price tag and effort required justified by the scientific insights gleaned from sticking pieces of the Moon under a microscope?

Ultimately, both these positions support the adage that you cannot have critique without morality, but that morality is no substitute for critique. Space programmes were formerly driven by cold war geopolitics. Now it is the grubby business of extending markets into the heavens. From the point of view of capital, Apollo was a very handy taxpayer stimulus/transfer to the aerospace industry. And from there came all kinds of spins offs that have found applications elsewhere, the most cited example being ... velcro. Today, while the Indian space programme appears as an obscenity the country is now positioned amongst the most advanced space faring states. If the commercialisation of space proceeds apace over the coming decades, its independent capability gives it an edge in the emergent industries. Likewise, as asteroid prospecting is being considered a serious, if long-term investment proposition the ESA have the expertise and track record of landing craft on mountains of ice and rock ambling about the solar system. Even something that appears obviously useless as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism/vanity project isn't all that it appears. Ferrying celebrities to the edge of space is an utter waste, but the goal - a cheap and reusable space plane that in later iterations could deliver personnel to orbital facilities is a massive opportunity to the firm that can develop and patent that technology.

Then there is the third strand. Writing of new science fiction blockbuster, Interstellar, George Monbiot complains that this, and by extension spacehead obsessions generally, are about a flight from the Earth. It's more than fantastical escapism, it's political escapism. For all the star-crossing optimism of space ideology, it beds in a sense of despair, of writing off the Earth and its problems and starting afresh. It suggests that the answer to our problems is more and better technology, that human agency should be expended on wonder gadgets rather than politically addressing the inequalities, the environmental degradation, and the profit motive that underpins it all. The strong implication is uncritically celebrating space-related futurity blinds us to the present, rickety, antiquated capitalist mode of production.

It doesn't have to be like this. There is absolutely no need for socialists to be po-faced about space exploration. Our job is to examine the political economy of this industry, to note the interests that lie behind it, the silly myths and ideologies. We have to seize hold of the utopian impulses and imaginative power it inspires and politicise them, not deplore them. Marx's critique of capitalism did not stop him from celebrating its genuine achievements. That attitude is our starting point, not Luddism.


David Timoney said...

The recent revival of Western interest in space is more about business "leaders" (Branson, Musk) taking over the vanguard role of the state (more in appearance than reality), thereby proving that private enterprise rather than government now gets things done (ignoring the examples of the Indians, the Chinese etc). The ESA probe is significant not just because of the technical achievement, but because it shows that extra-terrestrial exploration is best left to robots rather than chucking meat into space.

The internal logic of capitalism requires that it exploits resources at a marginal rate - i.e. it looks to the next least expensive. Asteroid mining and colonies on Mars are at the back of a very long queue. We are still exploiting resources on land, which are the cheapest to access. Deepwater drilling and seabed mineral extraction are in their technological infancy. At a global level, we have have barely (ahem) scratched the surface.

Branson's rocket-cum-glider is suborbital and designed to reach 110km above the Earth's surface. Low Earth orbiters, such as the ISS, are about 340km up. Most satellites are in orbits between 2,000 and 35,000km. The idea of the "reusable space plane" ended with the Shuttle, more because it was too expensive compared to rockets rather than because of the fatalities. Virgin Galactic is to an orbital ferry what a skateboard is to an ocean liner.

Chris said...

I presume your line about the Apollo missions being a noble enterprise of discovery, playing golf on the moon, were a joke. Because space exploration is no joke but fundamental to control of the planet. They don’t spend those billions on boys own adventures! There is a very real purpose behind it.

Those who control the heavens control Earth!

However, your comment, which I show in quotes below, reminds of the Hayekian argument for the anarchy of capitalism,

“And from there came all kinds of spins offs that have found applications elsewhere, the most cited example being ... velcro.”

Well yes, war technology has led to numerous discoveries but imagine if those minds, instead of being directed to fighting war had been directed to fighting global poverty, imagine those resources being applied more directly to progressing humanity, where the spin offs become the actual aim.

What I am trying to say is that you can’t justify allocating resources to say, war production, with the argument that it might provide benefits elsewhere. No make the argument to stop war production and apply the resources directly to benefit humanity!

So the question does become, do we throw resources at the heavens, in the hope that there may be spins off down on Earth.

Chris said...

The last line should actually read:

So the question becomes, do we throw resources at the Earth, in the hope that there may be spins offs up in the heavens rather than the other way round!!

I guess my logic is, if you consciously try to solve problems on Earth this would be better than trying to consciously solve problems in the Heavens and hope there are a few benefits for Earth.

It is a critique of your advocacy of space exploration for the reason it provides side benefits while ignore the opportunity cost of actually applying those resources used in space exploration directly to Earthly needs.

It is not like things don't need sorting out down here you know.

Phil said...

Well Chris, as I'm sure you'd agree campaigning against war without leaving the fundamental structures of capitalism untouched is a non-starter. Likewise, cancelling space programmes in the name of poverty reduction is similarly a utopian hope - especially when the sums for the latter are negligible compared to resources wasted on war, low tax regimes, and other such obscenities.

That doesn't mean we should be blind to the political economy of space exploration, and I would certainly never suggest anything so naive about the Apollo missions. Nevertheless, socialism or not, the future of our species can only be guaranteed in the long-term if we spread beyond the envelope of the Earth. All technologies that in some way enable that to happen should be *critically* welcomed by socialists.

Phil said...

I hear what you say, David. But we are talking long-term interests here. The time will come when a more flexible space plane will be developed, or space elevators become a viable option. When that does happen the economics of space stack up. Those who hold the patents for the steps being made in this direction now stand to gain massively in the future.

Chris said...


I think I was only criticising your notion of the benefits of spin offs rather than the space program in general. My point is that if there is a problem don't solve it by hoping there is some side benefit from some other venture but deal with the problem directly. For example some advances in war technology have benefited medical research but imagine if the resources had been thrown at medical research instead of war, that may have resulted in greater development than the side benefits of war production produced. You can't talk about the benefits of spin offs without mentioning the opportunity cost.

The way things are going the problems on Earth will mean humanity disappears long before space exploration and human occupation of other star systems becomes a reality.

Maybe addressing the problems on Earth more directly will benefit the space program in the long term, and if ever something was a long term project it is humans in space. The short and medium term is down on Earth.

Gary Elsby said...

I remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon live ( I was in the airplane hanger).

My primary school in the 60's was turned over to accommodate this science and we were in a literal frenzy during the build up. As it happened I was in the class of the teacher leading everything scientific and it was fantastic.

Some years later, as a teenager, the headline wrote, 'Moon rock coming to Stoke'.
The old museum catered for this event with a Appolo display.
The queue that I was in stretch for over a mile, the whole City was up for this.

Space missions are still fabulous to me and the robot rovers are quite brilliant on Mars.
The Viking mission that got there around 1977 told a real tale often not heard anymore.
No life and no sign of life and no signs of past vegetation able to support life 'as we know it'.
The recent rovers said similar.
Those that disagree with this science should not own a computer of a phone as that would be a little disingenuous, wouldn't it?