Basketball and Astronauts

Ken Layne had a Foxnews column the other day about the NBA versus "football" (soccer to Yanks).

I think that the NBA is contributing to a national tragedy.

There are millions of kids of school age, particularly in the inner cities.

There are a few dozen job openings for NBA players in any given year.

I weep when I think about the millions of kids who, instead of studying, spend all their time shooting hoops and dressing and talking like their NBA heroes, hoping to win that lottery.

How many of them won't beat the odds, but will instead grow up with no skills except shooting baskets and dribbling? It offers a tantalyzing possibility of life out of the ghetto for a few, but a chimera of cruelly misleading hope to the many.

While I would never propose actually abolishing the sport, I'm convinced that the world would be a better place without it, at least as it's presently constituted.

But it's not the only siren call to false dreams — there's another.

When I was a child, the nation was preparing to send astronauts to the Moon. I remember sitting in my pajamas, watching John Glenn's rocket lift off. In school, we were told that in the mid-seventies, we would have lunar bases, and in the mid-eighties, we would send people to Mars. We were told that if we studied our math and science, that we might be one of the ones to go.

It was a scam, and one worse, at least in terms of the odds, than the NBA.

There are only a couple of hundred slots available for astronauts, and (particularly given the reduced crew size on the current space station) it's possible that some of them will never fly, even after selection and training. Based on NASA's current minimalist plans, the chances of any of those schoolkids getting into space was about one in a hundred thousand. It was, and remains, a lottery with very long odds.

Of course, I'm glad that kids are learning science, and it's exciting to see them actually able to participate in real space science. And at least, unlike the unsuccessful NBA contestant, they'll have a marketable skill from it when they grown up.

But it simultaneously frustrates me that this is the only way we're teaching them to think about space — as something that's only about science (thus turning off those who don't think they're good at science), and that it's something that they can do only if they work with government agencies like NASA.

I'd like to see schools have design competitions for space hotels or lunar resorts, or missions to mine asteroids or divert them to save the planet, or build solar power satellites out of them.

And I'd like to see private sponsors, like Hilton, or Bechtel sponsor them, so that we can broaden kids' minds to think about space in a context other than science, and NASA. I'd like to see space camps that don't just (or even) simulate Shuttle missions, but that provide exposure to a variety of activities in space that might be done privately. I want them to see space as something in which they can engage as participants, and not just as voyeurs.

And mostly, I'd like to see policies put in place that will encourage all of these things and others to happen, rather than, as is presently the case, to discourage it, so that the vibrant space dreams of today's youth won't be betrayed as were those of my own generation.

Don't Fence Me Out

There is a proposal to fence off the Moon from development, as described here by Richard Steiner, a conservation expert and professor the University of Alaska: 

Diving headlong into the lair of wannabe lunar colonists, Steiner said that the industrial development paradigm that's existed on Earth for some three centuries has been "utterly devastating".

What was it that was devastated? Is he looking at it from the viewpoint of rocks, or people?

"We should put our best foot forward, not as greedy industrialists or empire builders or with militant intention, but rather with compassion, respect, humility and with genuine curiosity," Steiner said.

How does one have compassion and respect for a lifeless sphere of rock?

What's wrong with greed? Doesn't he have any idea how economics works?

Why do I even ask?

What about using lunar or other space resources to help an energy-impoverished Earth?

"Personally, and I think millions and millions of people on Earth see the Moon as a sacred icon and it should remain as such," Steiner said. "To turn the Moon into a quarry and strip mine…I think if you put this out to a global referendum, I would virtually predict that 80 percent to 90 percent of people on Earth would object to this idea," he said.

Yes, I'm sure that the billions on earth will be happy to live in squalor and poverty, as long as the Moon is untouched...

"If the Moon is owned by anybody…it's owned by everybody," Steiner argued.

That's an argument?

My house is owned by me. Does that make it owned by everybody? To economic ignoramuses like Professor Steiner, it probably does.

Actually the reality is just the opposite. That which is owned by everybody is owned by nobody, to disastrous effect. But I'm guessing he's never read anything by Garrett Hardin, despite the fact that he's supposedly a "professor."

"Most of the people on this planet would object to the notion that the primary reason or even a reason to go to the Moon or into space is for resource extraction and exploitation. That's my political guess," he added.

Yes, and of course, politics should reign, rather than economics or rationality.

Though I suspect that, given the choice between additional resources to improve their lives, or a pristine Moon, most on earth would choose the former. That's my political guess. Not that political guesses should mean anything.

There is virtually no way, Steiner said, that space resources can be applied in the near-term aggressively enough to reverse the course of biosphere destruction on our home planet.

Well, attitudes like his make it a certainty. It's called "self-fulfilling prophecy."

The way to short-circuit the prospect of a dead-end Earth is to control population and consumption. "We need to start living within our means. We need to deal with this in the next 10 to 20 years. This is hugely serious," Steiner said.

Indeed. Authoritarian schemes like this are always "hugely serious."


Very little mail from last week's column (dissing roundball should fix that this week), but reader John Charles writes:

No one ever claimed that Apollo was about settlement and colonization. It was exploration. If not the governments, then who will fund space exploration? Certainly not individuals, and not (so far) private enterprise. The private sector has never done anything in space that was not pioneered by a government, and then usually only by using government-provided (and taxpayer funded) infrastructure, knowledge and even hardware.

Where are the non-governmental sources for space settlement today? Show me even one that has produced more than a glossy brochure centered on a diatribe claiming government interference, and I will start to believe you.

And Evgeny Shafirovich of the University of Notre Dame writes:

I advise you to read Zubrin's paper more carefully. If you do it, you will find that his plan includes transportation of liquid hydrogen from Earth to Mars. You cannot produce methane (CH4) and oxygen from only the Martian CO2. You need hydrogen or water. In his plan, he preferred hydrogen but, as he wrote previously, water might be advantageous if found on Mars. Now it looks that water has been indeed found, and I think it is good for the propellant production on Mars.

Well, I thought I said that, but if I wasn't sufficiently clear, thank you for clarifying it for the readers.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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