Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Inspiration Fallacy


Click the arrow to watch the Florida Today report. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Florida Today reports that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) thinks this December's uncrewed test flight of the Orion capsule will inspire the nation to once again embrace an Apollo-style space program.

Rubio believes that flight will help spur excitement about the space program, which could in turn generate support for increasing NASA's $17.6 billion budget.

“When people see that capsule exit the Earth's atmosphere and reenter once again, they'll remember what we used to do in the 70s and 60s during the Apollo program, and they'll be motivated to tackle that again in a new frontier, a new challenge for our country, and that is placing boots on the ground in Mars,” he said.

Several independent groups recently, including the NASA Advisory Council and the National Research Council, have concluded that NASA's goal of a mission to orbit Mars by the 2030s is not feasible as currently funded.

Rubio agreed that was a concern, but said the agency's budget reflected a disconnect with the public about what the space program is doing, exacerbated in recent years by the shuttle's retirement and lack of a clear goal for a while.

“I think the way address it is by getting people excited and engaged and committed to a space program that's vibrant,” he said.

Paying homage to President Kennedy's leadership and the Apollo era, the Florida Republican said it was essential for the U.S. to lead the world in space exploration.

And so we have yet another politician who reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of why Apollo happened and its public support.

Mr. Rubio thinks Orion will help the public “remember” Apollo and be magically inspired to support a huge NASA budget again.

But the current average population in the United States is 37 years old. They weren't alive during Apollo.

Using 2013 population estimates from Census.gov, only 40.4% of the population was alive at the time Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in July 1969. I doubt they've forgotten.

About 23.2% of the population is under 18 years old. That's the age group big bloated government space programs are supposed to “inspire.” Just how doing Apollo again will inspire this demographic is never explained. Nor are we told what it will inspire them to do.

As reporter James Dean noted, several recent studies have estimated a government Mars human spaceflight program could take decades and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Just how an empty Orion capsule designed to make work for displaced Shuttle employees doing two orbits before it splashes down into the Pacific Ocean is going to inspire taxpayers to spend hundreds of billions on Mars escapes me.

It's also a myth that the vast majority of Americans in the 1960s supported the Apollo program.

A 2003 analysis by space historian Roger Launius showed the opposite:

... [M]any people believe that Project Apollo was popular, probably because it garnered significant media attention, but the polls do not support a contention that Americans embraced the lunar landing mission. Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.

These data do not support a contention that most people approved of Apollo and thought it important to explore space. The decision to proceed with Apollo was not made because it was enormously popular with the public, despite general acquiescence, but for hard-edged political reasons. Most of these were related to the cold war crises of the early 1960s, in which spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation.

A 1993 analysis by Sylvia Kraemer, Director of the NASA Special Studies Division, concluded:

... [T]here is more to learn from opinion polls than that a good proportion of adult Americans support the space program. We can learn that social and economic security are not competing goals with space, but interdependent goals. If we want to increase public support for space, we must increase the number of Americans who have the economic freedom to take an interest in something besides getting by, day after day. We can also learn that the majority of those who support the space program can distinguish between the bread and circuses of space travel. They're content to experience extraordinary adventures in the movie theatres; for their tax dollars they want real return in expanded scientific knowledge and understanding. Finally, we can learn that we need to increase that return, not just for scientific careers, but for the ordinary people who pay our bills and for their children, our children. Ultimately the space program is for them, as all investments in the future must be.

There's little “real return” in an Apollo redux or a Mars stunt.

But there is real return in the microgravity research aboard the International Space Station, which is the primary focus of the Obama administration. I wrote a July 2013 blog article listing five microgravity research discoveries currently on the market or in clinical trials.

For politicians such as Mr. Rubio, their primary interest in a government space program is to create and protect jobs in their districts and states. In the above Florida Today clip, Rubio talks about jobs. That's fine, but it's a shame his concerns are more parochial and less visionary.

If he wants to inspire the next generation, explain to them how NewSpace is creating an entirely new economy here in the U.S. based on opening low Earth orbit to the masses. That will create a lot more jobs than fantasizing about an Apollo rerun. And provide far more tangible benefits for the public.

FOX 35 News Orlando
Click the arrow to watch the Fox 35 Orlando report.

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