Monday, November 09, 2009

Is Space Advocacy a Matter of Altruism or Self-Interest?

The short answer is both.

I had the pleasure of reading a paper by my friend Dr. OZMG concerning the role of altruism in particular professions--in the case of her paper, people going to school to become counselors--but the paper caused me to think about how altruism applies to the arguments used to sell space exploration, development, and settlement.

So what, precisely, is altruism? OZMG's paper defines it nicely as "concern for the welfare of others and/or actions toward that end." One might improve that definition by stating this concern for others implies that the actions done for others are done so without regard to a thought for personal gain, as opposed to self-interested motives, where individuals do things that help others merely to enhance their own social standing or opinion of themselves.

Space advocates have a mixed relationship with altruism, which is partly due to the way space was first "sold" to the public. While the Soviet Union and then the United States launched satellites in 1957 and 1958 as part of the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide scientific endeavor to help the worldwide scientific community learn more about the Earth (arguably an altruistic enterprise), there was no doubt that the two Sputniks and Explorer I represented objects of international competition. Sputnik in fact scared policy makers and media types in the U.S. because there was an assumption--correct, as it turned out--that a rocket capable of launching a 180-pound sphere into orbit could also launch an atomic bomb of even larger size to a target anywhere on Earth.

Nevertheless, the superpowers did their best to put benevolent faces on their respective space programs, even though both used primarily members of the military for their astronaut corps. The first communication satellites were launched and quickly transformed the shape of worldwide perceptions and news broadcasts to the point where "live via satellite" is now taken for granted.

Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and inventor of the geosynchrononous communications satellite, declared in the mid 1980s that his invention had, in fact, made the world a safer and more peaceful place, as it has informed developed nations of imminent and past humanitarian crises while also preventing dictatorships from committing atrocities for extended periods simply because the news of their depradations can no longer be hidden. At best, the record of communication satellites as contributors to world peace has been mixed. True, they have alerted the world to hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, and allowed humanitarian aid to be sent more rapidly than might have been the case otherwise. And on the credit side of politics, satellites have brought the world the images of dissidents squaring off against tanks in Tianenmen Square along with the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia. However, similar images broadcast from Rwanda and Zimbabwe, while just as compelling, have not moved the international community to take action.

More positive altruistic benefits can be seen from weather, environmental monitoring, and search-and-rescue satellites. Weather satellites have been tracking and warning people on Earth of oncoming hurricanes and other storms for over 40 years. Environmental monitoring and land use satellites like LandSat have allowed farmers to detect healthy and unhealthy crops, environmental damage, erosion, and crop yields. And search-and-rescue satellites launched by all of the spacefaring nations have been used to detect and send compassionate aid to ships in distress on the high seas.

Military observation satellites, too, have a mixed record and at least on the surface cannot be said to be altruistic in their purposes. However, satellite imagery has been a critical tool in verifying compliance with nuclear weapons treaties. The most famous military satellites have been the Global Positioning System, or GPS. Originally designed--and still used--to help military units on the ground, in the air, or at sea pinpoint their position and those of their enemies, GPS satellites now have secondary civilian benefits through onboard automobile maps, travel location devices, and even games like "geocaching," where hikers find "treasures" simply by their GPS coordinates. And while GPS-guided bombs cannot be seen as altruistic, they have enabled U.S. military units to more precisely hit targets, reducing civilian "collateral damage."

So, again, satellites as technologies can be applied both to altruistic and non-altruistic purposes--with some satellites performing both functions at the same time.

What about other arguments used to "sell space?" On the altruistic side of things we might credit space exploration with contributing the following direct or indirect benefits:

  • New scientific knowledge, from the Sun to the planets of this solar system to the stars and distant galaxies brought to us by the Hubble Space Telescope. The knowledge and images these tools have brought humanity give us all a better understanding of the nature of the universe and our place within it.
  • New technologies, from lightweight plastic lenses to CAT scans and MRIs to charged coupling devices, originally used to examine images on Hubble and now used to detect breast cancer. The "spinoffs," while often resulting in profits for the companies leveraging them, are perhaps one of the best examples of exploration serving humanit on Earth, albeit not directly or immediately.
  • New resources. While we have yet to tap fully the enormous power of the Sun via space solar power or to tap the potential of helium-3, a more benign element for producing nuclear fusion, the exploration of space has allowed us to expand our horizons and consider less harmful sources of energy to power our world. Power sources are not the only resources available in space. Low-Earth orbit (LEO) offers a unique microgravity environment and high-purity vacuum for developing new materials. The surface of the Moon offers an atmosphere-free location for performing dangerous research that would create harm on Earth, while its Far Side could be used for placing telescopes away from the radio noise of our bustling planet.
  • New places to live. We are still not at the point where we can ensure long-term survival of humans on other worlds, but we will be eventually. The ability to spread human life beyond this world could be one of the greatest gifts of the Space Age, especially if our world is struck by another "dinosaur-killer" asteroid.
  • All of these activities have led some--not all, but some--of our young people to become inspired to get better educations in the sciences and engineering and then to produce other products and services that benefit humanity. While a second- or third-order effect of space exploration, inspiration for education cannot be overlooked. It even causes English majors to go back and get advanced degrees so they can work for NASA, so stranger things have happened.

Of course we cannot overlook the less altruistic reasons human beings have expressed for going into space. These include:

  • New Markets. These include orbital hotels, space-based entertainment, remote-controlled robots on the Moon, and eventually cruises around and to the surface of the Moon. No one can pretend that such things are for anything other than personal enjoyment. That's not a bad thing, but not an altruistic motivation.
  • New Resources and Markets. Right now if we found mountains of gold on the Moon, it would still be more cost-effective to dig for more here on Earth because there's no launch system capable of low-cost access to our nearest celestial neighbor--at least, not yet. And even if resources such as gold or more importantly water are found on other worlds, they will be of most value to people living and building businesses in space rather than people back home. That's fine, as space offers the opportunity for a whole new economy to be formed. But as every economist going back to Adam Smith can explain, economics is not a study in altruism.
  • New Freedoms. This is an argument Robert Zubrin makes in The Case for Mars. If Mars or other worlds are opened up to immigration and prisoners of conscience are allowed to establish new, free societies there that lead to better lives for their citizens, that must certainly count as a form of altruism. However, it must be admitted that any new freedoms desired in space are most likely the result of individuals or groups not getting what they want for themselves on Earth. Still, the United States and its citizens have been the largest donors to humanitarian causes in history, and those donations were made possible by a very self-interested capitalism.

So where does that leave us? As with most human activities, space exploration offers the chance for us to indulge our personal desires but also to seek the good of others. It remains for future space advocates and the audiences they reach to determine which motives will ultimately bring us closer to the stars.

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