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Miracle care

By Tom Toles
c_03252010.gif Star Wars II

I was going to write about libertarians today, but that will have to wait. Some commenters have replied to yesterday's post about manned space flight, and I'd like to respond. The argument that space exploration yields spin-offs is pretty spurious. Any large expenditures on science and technology are going to yield spin-offs. Spending on robot technology doesn't produce spin-offs? If we stop short of the race of killer robots that torment Matt Yglesias's imagination, I think we'll have valuable spin-offs galore. And surely there are those who think terrifying Yglesias is an end unto itself.

But the argument I'd really like to address is this one, sent in by a reader:
As Stephen Hawking has observed, it is important for humans to spread out into space to ensure the survival of the species. I cannot myself perceive being to unimaginative as to be satisfied with sitting here on this rock until we annihilate ourselves or the Sun burns out.

First off, the sun isn't going to burn out for at least the next several billion NASA funding cycles, so I think we can relax there. But look at the other threat cited -- the “annihilate ourselves” part. I have heard the argument many times from intelligent people that it is presumed that we will destroy ourselves and/or planet earth, so time to head for the exits. There will never be an exit for the vast majority of earth's population. Do the math on the required number of rockets. But far worse, it is a very short step from pretending there is an escape to giving ourselves tacit permission to ruin the one planet that is the only real option our descendents (YES, THE GRANDKIDS!) are ever going to have. Preposterous exodus scenarios that feed this sense that taking care of earth is optional are not just poorly thought through, they are dangerous ideas. --Tom Toles


By Tom Toles  | March 25, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Democrats, Health care  
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No one mentioned Tang.

Posted by: dudeupnorth | March 29, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse


Thank you for bringing a bit of rational thought to this topic. I think the majority of your respondents simply aren't considering just how exceptionally difficult, expensive, and dangerous even short trips out of Earth orbit are, let alone attempting to lift the kind of materials required to live there in any productive way.

Dreams are great, but the money put into just one shuttle launch is sufficient to send robotic explorers to every planet in the solar system, and any effort to "colonize" the Moon (simply impossible without regular service missions from Earth to keep it alive) could send robotic explorers to nearby stars.

We need to look at the cold hard truth. Earth is it; we need to plan on staying here for a long, long time. Any thoughts of leaving this place on behalf of the species' future are folly -- we've evolved to survive on THIS planet and our bodies are exceptionally specialized to its environs. When the planet goes, we go with it. Plan accordingly.


Posted by: _sagrilarus | March 26, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Amen, FergusonFoont!

Add to that list of "spinoffs": pacemakers, zippered plastic bags, various sanitary devices, now-commonplace surgical robots... the list goes on and on.

You probably use at least one NASA-inspired product every day, Mr. Toles. I know I use my handy zipper bags every day to preserve my food so that I don't waste half of what I cook. And that's a good thing, because wasted food is a major expense and environmental hazard. Please keep in mind that there are millions of people who might not even be alive without NASA's work. It does matter.

I'm not saying it couldn't be done more efficiently. It probably could. But we work with what we have, and we should support the engineers, scientists, astronauts, mechanics, etc etc who make our lifestyle possible through space exploration.

Posted by: whiteflame128 | March 26, 2010 1:09 AM | Report abuse

Wonderful satire on the Miracle Care of Obamacare.

Other side effects make include short sidedness of this administration that the public would not stand for such a reform plan. Wait, things are becoming clearer now, with the Census 2010 in place, let's count all the illegal immigrants. Obama's big push for immigration reform next on the agenda, connecting the dots is drawing a clear path to debt as we have never seen in this country.

Posted by: fromthecheapseats | March 25, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Actually, the spin-offs from research into space exploration are significant and relevant to many, many fields, and are not limited to "Tang." Indeed, we wouldn't be communicating this way without discoveries in material technology, electronics and miniaturization that are directly related to manned space research.

Many of the spin-offs are virtually unknown to the public and could only have been accomplished in the microgravity of orbit with human supervision. Just one of maybe twenty to thirty experiments that accompany each Shuttle flight to space resulted in the ability to manufacture a new "Zeolyte Crystal" catalyst that reduced the price of refining gasoline by roughly a cent per gallon. That, of course, pays for the space program forever right there.

But spin-offs are not the chief benefit we derive from the manned space program. With each generation of children we educate and raise to become productive adults, there are a large number of those whose early interest in science is ignited by spaceflight, with manned spaceflight being the most effective in attracting young minds. When it comes to science, you've got to get them when they're young or risk losing them to more lucrative fields of study, like those that lead to a surplus of reptilian lawyers and greedy MBAs. Of course, this early interest in science sometimes wanes, and only rarely goes into such fields as rocketry, astronomy, or celestial mechanics, but mots more of it results in doctors, chemists, meteorologists, teachers, etc., etc., etc.

It is difficult to quantify the effect that manned space flight has had on this stimulative effect, but I believe it to be substantial, and without it a lot of young minds will be lost forever to less productive, less beneficial pursuits.

When we curtail basic research, which is what NASA's manned and unmanned programs are all about, we eat our intellectual seed corn and face greater famine to follow. And I believe our intellectual malnutrition is severe enough already, given the rise of the "TEA Partiers" and whatnot in recent years, don't you agree?

Trust me on this: Scientists are seldom attracted to such aberrations as the TEA Party movement.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | March 25, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Let me save some time for ya, Toles.

Libertarians are Republicans who like to smoke pot.

Take a survey -- you'll see!

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | March 25, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse


I think you've missed Hawking's point. There can be no mass exodus of people from Earth- there will never be enough resources available to allow any significant numbers to leave. The idea is that if we have settlements in space, then no matter what happens here there will still be humans out there.

But even this seems a bit specious. The real reason for using humans rather than robots is a bit more subtle and difficult to explain. Think of it this way: You could send a robot to look at the sunrise or to go for a walk in the woods for you. But then the whole thing would lose it's point. I think space exploration is like that. However dangerous or expensive, it loses it's point if you send robots.

Posted by: queraro1 | March 25, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"Spin-off's are spurious"

Fine. When your grandchildren don't have jobs because the economy's collapsed due to the lack of jobs requiring highly educated people, come back and let me know what was so "spurious" about the "spin-off's" from exploring space. Never said we could not use robotics until things get safer or for terraforming Mars, but eventually, we need to get people out into space or we will end up like all the other ancient civilizations, our ruins will be dug up by future generations and wonder why our civilization fell when we were so much more advanced than the "ancients".

Posted by: ATrueChristian | March 25, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse


Tell me, do you believe that Earth can continue to absorb and sustain an ever-increasing population indefinitely?

Wouldn't it make sense to move the industry off-planet, where pollution doesn't matter?

Thanks for any thoughts.

Posted by: KevPod | March 25, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

The Democrats will learn that they can do wonders if they do not give up. The lesson is to persevere.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | March 25, 2010 5:44 AM | Report abuse

toles look on the bright side and just think of all the shovel ready jobs for coffin makers

Posted by: carbonhog | March 25, 2010 5:25 AM | Report abuse

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