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Bill Gates questions worth of space exploration for improving humanity (2013) (businessinsider.com)
58 points by sprt on May 14, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 97 comments



Good to know that Bill Gates shares this viewpoint. It's not that space travel is wrong or doesn't have great potential. It's just that, in my view (and I guess it's also BG's judging from his short quote only), it cannot not alone bring humanity into the bright future. Look at how we are (mis)treating the environment. Look at all the greed, corruption and anger around us. Anyone seriously thinks going to new worlds will change these human tendencies? Of course not.

I see only one truly worthy alternative - education, with strong emphasis on sustainability and care about the environment, as well as some sort of moral principles that would help prevent spending trillions on new ways to kill each other (aka defence) in future generations.


> sustainability and care about the environment

The reason we have a solar power industry at all is because satellites needed robust long term power sources, not because someone cared about the environment. The first solar cells were invented in the 1880s, and were so inefficient -- less than .5%! -- they were little more than a scientific novelty. They stayed this way for 70 long years, until Bell Labs began researching them as a source of power for satellites in the 1950s.

Space is an extremely demanding environment, and it's precisely those demands that actually drive the development of technologies that enable us to radically reduce our environment impact on the Earth.

Human beings living on the Moon or on Mars will need to reuse and recycle everything imaginable, for instance, creating closed-loop systems where there is little to no waste. They will have to grow food in ways that recycle nutrients instead of destroying topsoil. They will have to be able to make extremely reliable products, and they'll have to be able to reuse and repair these items in ways we will never have the incentive to do in a disposable consumer economy.

It's simply not economically efficient to develop those kind of technologies terrestrially. It's cheaper to dump obsolete electronics and ship them to some impoverished part of the world, like rural China, where they contaminate the ground water and poison the air and the residents.( http://tinyurl.com/toxic-e-waste )

The planet is big and human labor and human life is cheap here. Recycling is optional here. Up there, it's not. It's only the extreme demands of manned space that will drive these sorts of advances.

It ain't just about shootin' rockets up into the sky.


It's kind of sad how people fail to realize how much of the modern technology they take for granted may not have ever been invented if it weren't for various space programs around the world.

Beyond that, I personally believe that NASA and the Soviet Space Program already saved the world once by allowing the US and the USSR to have a public competition in the midst of extreme nationalism. Without the space race, who knows if we would have been launching ICBMs instead of Apollos?


Your point and the OPs are not mutually exclusive. It's sad to think that we may soon have the capacity to colonize other planets, yet remain incapable of calming the handful of petty & destructive emotions that plague us.


Completely agree on the point that putting hard constraints like living in space is a good driver for reusability and sustainability - tech that can be put in use on Earth later.

But let's look a little deeper why pollution is happening in the first place. Don't you think that people's greed and desires of having more and more things contributes to this at least a little? Overconsumption? Short-term profits? But what if we can fix _that_ at least a bit? Now that's a question I'm much more interested, since I believe it can have real effect and stop the runaway consumption culture.


Of course peoples greed contributes to this problem. Each and every one of us have some suspect ancestors in our gene pool. It's how evolution works, so saying "But we're greedy and we need to fix that first" seems silly to me - you're fighting millions of years of evolution. That doesn't mean that I want to see unfettered capitalism, but these problems won't go away by sitting around a camp fire and singing Kum Bye Ya My Lord.

Our consumer consumption culture won't change until it has to, whether that means folks going into space and living in an incredibly demanding environment or it becomes untenable on this planet. Wish it were different, but that's just how this stuff works.


There is money to be made in space (such as mining asteroids), but I don't think that's the biggest driver of going into space. If it was, you'd see much more emphasis placed on unmanned space travel. What we have instead is people motivated by exploration. When people first travelled to the North Pole, South Pole, top of Everest, etc... they didn't do so out of greed, I'd suggest they did it 'because it was there', for the challenge and wonder of experiencing somewhere new.

Colonies on Mars is kind of a grey area, only because Mars isn't the final destination, there's plenty more in this solar system/galaxy/universe to explore. There are some people who probably see it as just another place for humans to take over, but I'd suggest those aren't the pioneers, they tend to be the ones that come in later once the risks are reduced.


>> I see only one truly worthy alternative - education

I strongly agree - but education in regular sense - schools, etc probably won't do. We maybe need something closer to the training Buddhists monks get in a monastery, a training that deeply changes the structure of their mind, and instill them with deep compassion and caring for others, eclipsing at enlightenment.

But:

1. Buddhist monasteries aren't scalable - they fit only a rare few, they take too long, and are very hard. And it seems that with science/tech we can create something better.

2. Once we have the tech - it isn't trivial to use it. People fear messing with their brain. How do we prevent abuse. Making people too relaxed and compassionate may make them less fit for the 21 century. How do we integrate this. How do we convince everybody .etc.

I feel like this is THE biggest question of our current century, because once this can be offered mass scale, human nature changes deeply - and everything changes with it.


It doesn't have to be that complicated though.

For example, there's a window of opportunity in everyone's lives where the brain is at its most plastic and 90% of development occurs: between 2 to 5 years old. Yup, preschoolers.

We can focus the education there to create a more compassionate and creative generation.

One source: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.medicaldaily.com/brain-deve...


Yes! I strongly agree and your definition of education if very close to what I had in mind.

I also see Buddhist ideas as one of very few hopes of real change in the world. Yet, as far as science goes, the best it can do is help spread these ideas (internet, which we already have). Personally, I don't believe in brain-changing tech for the near future at least. It will be always up to the individual so go sit in the corner and do some meditation/self-improvement. That's not scalable indeed.


There is already brain-changing tech, drugs.


Being Buddhist doesn't magically strip away anger, hate, pain, and violence. I get what you're saying though. I do think education on these philosophies would help.

http://world.time.com/2013/06/20/extremist-buddhist-monks-fi...


>And it seems that with science/tech we can create something better.

Are there any leads on how to accomplish this ?


Why "change these human tendencies"? They're part of what's made us what we are today, and I don't think that undisputed mastery of an entire planet is such a bad place for a species to be. And even if you don't feel the same way, it's hard to see how undisputed mastery of only one planet gives humanity a better chance to eventually engineer itself into something more what you'd like it to be than does undisputed mastery of several.


I don't agree that these tendencies are what makes humanity great.

First, you seem to think that humans are somehow special and above other species at who's expense "we became the masters". Would truly superior being not care about less superior ones, at the very least (not to mention intentionally killing them, often for fun).

Second, fighting these tendencies will make everyone's lives better. These are basic things: less wars, crimes, better air quality, increase in happiness. I believe greed and corruption and related qualities are what prevents that from happening now.

I guess what I'm saying is that we got caught up with technology so much that we put all out hopes and dreams into it. But it cannot (in any near future) make us morally and spiritually superior. And why even bother? There are other ways to go about doing that. Education. It's a much longer and harder route, but it seems to be the proper one. Otherwise we are just waiting for a tech product what would fix all our problems at the push of a button - ridiculous.


Almost nothing to which you're responding is anything I've actually said.

Too, you contradict yourself. You decry the sense of superiority you imagine my words to express, while two paragraphs later favoring one of your own - and, more crucially, you fail to recognize the inherent contradiction between your apparent desire that we act in ways which make us "morally and spiritually superior" (to whom? by whose measure?), and your dissatisfaction with my point that we're in a position to act at all, and might do well to value even the less apparently savory of the traits which got us here.

Your arguments revolve around a preference for a particular sort of destiny which we might choose to make for ourselves. I'm talking about how we've put ourselves in a position to make any such choice to begin with. They're not at all the same thing. And, in general, I'm less concerned with the particular sort of future we choose - I don't even think that's something we're within millennia of being able to do, on the level of our species as a whole - than that we choose our more immediate actions with an eye toward the more immediate goal of maximizing the chance that we reach a point where we're able effectively even to contemplate such lofty purpose.


except the undisputed mastery of a planet is worth nothing if it leads to the destruction of said planet.


I don't see any reason to imagine that lies within our power to do. If we exerted all the singular, concerted effort of which our entire species is capable, we might at most annihilate ourselves and make a mess that the biosphere will need as much as a million years to evolve beyond. But a million years is nothing on a planetary scale.

And if you are worried about that - all the more reason to favor expansion into space, I should think! The thermonuclear genie will never go back into the bottle. Nor will any other. Better, don't you think, to ensure we have at least some part of our species beyond the reach of at least some of those genies, should they turn on us?


A million years? I think you over-estimate how insignificant we are to this planet.

I'm not advocating we destroy the environment, but we really can't do a whole darn lot to it. Can we set off every nuclear weapon at once? Sure, but even that will likely just ruin the surface for 50,000 - 100,000 years. Life will continue, just not humans and most likely nothing of any size.

If we manage to throw the planet into a run-away greenhouse cycle like Venus, yeah, life's done here but that seems like a tall order (though I am not well read or well versed on this subject matter so I could be wrong on this count.

Ok, off the soap-box, you were making the same point as me :)


But not doing space travel does not fix the environment. Fixing the environment is an orthogonal issue.


As long as the resources are not orthagonal the problems are not orthagonal. Meaning the money and effort shooting rockets could be put into fixing the environment, the "defense" problem, and all kinds of suffering and death.

One could argue that space could give us a shitload of resources to solve those other issues.

On a related note I would like to plug the meme that "humanity" as a whole is worth shit; what matters is the qualia of actual humans and then other possibly conscious beings. I don't care whether there are humans somewhere in space if we down here die from nuclear holocaust, global warming, aging or hunger. I am not "humanity" and neither is anyone else. We are all individuals striving to survive and not suffer, and sure we can cooperate in that endeavour and create superorganisms to aid us - but the emphasis is on "aid", which is not "enslave". I shit on any superorganism building meme that does not put actual humans or consciousnesses first.

EDIT: typos


But the amount spent on space travel compared to all the other expenses is negligible, making it orthogonal for all intents and purposes.


Bill Gates was answering in the context his own philanthropic efforts. He, and billionaires like him, certainly would suffer from major opportunity-cost losses by investing in space travel suboptimally.


I wonder whether those experts and resources used on space could do feasible climate engineering...

The only environmental existential risk (apart from the human extended phenotype of course :) ) is climate-based, no?


You can't really make people work on things they aren't interested in though. The experts that are involved in the space industry may not function well in other industries, regardless of imminent doom.


But money spent on space interested experts could be spent on climate interested experts.


We are going in circles. My original point was that the money spent on space travel is negligible compared to other expenses.


Absolutely. One helps and complements the other quite nicely. Yet currently it feels the focus is very much shifted towards space travel. Sure, it's much more glamorous to fly through space sci-fi style than dig around in the garbage dump. Oh well...


> Fixing the environment is an orthogonal issue.

Not at all. If we, as a species, don't fix the environment, we aren't going to be around long enough for space exploration to become technologically and economically practical.


Space travel neither takes away from nor impedes fixing the environment. Heck, the annual NASA budget is half what Seattle is blowing on a transit tunnel that goes a few miles.


NASA's 2017 budget is $19.5 billion. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is estimated to cost $4.25 billion.

Trump's proposed EPA budget is $5.7 billion.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaskan_Way_Viaduct_replacemen...



I think the general point holds as $19.5B is a rounding error in the US's budget. There are issues with the lack of funding to EPA but with respect to this discussion it's a straw-man.


The research that is necessary for space exploration leads to terrestrial technology as well. Another poster above mentioned how solar panels would not be nearly as efficient as they are if Bell Labs didn't spend the time researching them for satellites. That's just one example. Nasa is currently working on a ton of different research projects with an extremely small budget. One of these projects is designed to take water from waste products such as human sweat, urine, and other gross stuff and recycle it back into drinkable water.

Here are some more examples:

> NASA’s microencapsulating technology enabled the creation of a "Petroleum Remediation Product," which safely cleans petroleum-based pollutants from water.

> In the 1990s, NASA scientists at JPL developed software capable of correcting for GPS signal errors, enabling accuracy within inches. The software is called Real-Time GIPSY (RTG). John Deere licensed the software and used it to develop self-driving farm equipment. As of 2016, as nearly 70% of North American farmland is cultivated by self-driving tractors, which rely on RTG originally developed at NASA.

> Dr. Alain Gachet founded Radar Technologies International (RTI) in 1999 to use satellite generated data to identify probable locations of precious metals and during its use found it could also detect water. The system developed with this data, WATEX, uses about 80 percent of its data inputs from publically available NASA information. This free information allowed RTI to develop the WATEX system to successfully locate water sources, such as in 2004 at refugee camps during the War in Darfur.

> So-called space blankets, developed in 1964 for the space program, are lightweight and reflect infrared radiation. These items are often included in first aid kits.

> Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company developed a fibrous material, five times stronger than steel, for NASA to use in parachute shrouds to soft-land the Viking Lander spacecraft on the Martian surface. Recognizing the durability of the material, Goodyear expanded the technology and went on to produce a new radial tire with a tread life expected to be 10,000 miles (16,000 km) greater than conventional radials.

> Firefighting equipment in the United States is based on lightweight materials developed for the U.S. Space Program. NASA and the National Bureau of Standards created a lightweight breathing system including face mask, frame, harness, and air bottle, using an aluminum composite material developed by NASA for use on rocket casings.

> NASA developed a cloud compute platform to give additional compute and storage resources for its engineers, called Nebula. In July 2010, the Nebula code was released as open source and NASA partnered with Rackspace, to form the OpenStack project.[42] OpenStack is used in the cloud-based products from many companies in the cloud market.

The above is just a small sampling of some of the technologies born or improved by Nasa research. Nasa, of course, is not the only organization in the space research and exploration game. As you can see, research for space exploration almost always has some level of terrestrial utility.


Let's not forget Tang!


The issue is opportunity cost of resources spent on space exploration.


Forget about human beings. As far as we know, Earth is the only source of life in the galaxy or even universe. There is no guarantee it exists anywhere else, or that it will continue to exist here. In fact it is certain one day life will cease to exist on Earth.

As the only life form capable of spreading it off planet, I feel like we have a moral obligation to do so before it is snuffed out.


Good point. Still, chances of spreading it will be higher if we don't kill ourselves first or drown in our own garbage - that's where things are going so far sadly.

I don't believe that fixing self-destruction and pollution is that much harder than finding a way to travel to distant stars. Why are people assuming that that's the case and putting all their hopes on space travel?


> Why are people assuming that that's the case and putting all their hopes on space travel?

is anyone doing that? the relative market values/investment in tesla (solar/electric sustainability) vs spacex strongly suggests otherwise. where is your straw man?

i say we let the few astrophysicists out there do astrophysics if they've attracted the capital rather than reprioritize based on your subjective unquantifiable morality.


> is anyone doing that? the relative market values/investment in tesla (solar/electric sustainability) vs spacex strongly suggests otherwise. where is your straw man?

You're bending my words a bit. Tesla's function isn't to stop self-destruction or clean up pollution. At best it will not add more to the pollution. That's just the tip of the iceberg and there's a lot of damage already done that should to be undone. But hey, there's no money in that so why bother, right? This kind of one-dimensional judgement further contributes to humanities pile of problems.

>reprioritize based on your subjective unquantifiable morality.

It maybe "unquantifiable", but it definitely exists and plays a vital role. Just look at Mr Gates' activities. I don't believe you can fix everything by putting capital in the right place. That will always give human greed an advantage over good will.


> But hey, there's no money in that so why bother, right?

What are you talking about? Waste Management is a phenomenally successful ($15B) company. I invest in several companies in water treatment. You're just getting worked up without researching or even acknowledging the people on the ground, moving these fields.

> It maybe "unquantifiable", but it definitely exists and plays a vital role. Just look at Mr Gates' activities. I don't believe you can fix everything by putting capital in the right place. That will always give human greed an advantage over good will.

This is just a nonsensical platitude. What about Mr. Gates' activities wasn't enabled by the business Microsoft? All that "good will" is enabled by the "human greed" you demonize. Not the other way around.


Why is it an either or scenario? We should do both. We have a duty to do both.

Life on earth will one day end regardless, though. While we have the chance we should be doing everything we can to distribute it as widely as we can.


> it cannot not alone bring humanity into the bright future

and

> Look at how we are (mis)treating the environment

It took the realization that we are living on something that's not flat, and actually sharing the same sphere, to make people conscious that we are at risk when damaging the environment. This is linked to everything we have learnt through our exploration of space and the fact that we could NOT find find life so far on any other planet in the solar system.

Not sure why you think it's no so important. Actually, it's the other way around. In order to better protect our environment, we need to do more research to better understand the climate models of other worlds and make correct assumptions on ours in the end. If we only study a system with n=1, we can never be sure about our predictions.


Space exploration and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. In fact, like you mentioned, they complement each other nicely.

What I'm pointing at is that space exploration is not as big of an achievement as fixing "bad human tendencies", however, strangely almost nobody is talking about that. Instead space travel for many people is becoming some kind of silver bullet for humanity's future.


Actually there's a reason to think that space exploration may be one of the most important means for fixing "bad human tenancies".

Populating new places can enable a new start and experimentation with new forms of social organisation. Escape from the momentum of tradition.

But that's just speculation, right? It's actually not, because we've already seen demonstrations of this, like the founding of the United States and the democratic system they put in place there.

(I heard this viewpoint from reading Robert Zubrin's "The Case For Mars" https://www.amazon.com/Case-Mars-Plan-Settle-Planet/dp/14516...)


Moving resource extraction off-planet (metals from asteroids, nuclear and solar energy creation) and moving manufacturing off-planet will truly save the environment.


Serious question: How do you get the energy (and other resources) back to earth in a way that is cost competitive with extracting them here? If it costs more money, people will use up what's here before they import the resources from Mars.


Bringing a thing from space down to earth should, if we're smart about it, be a free source of energy. If it's very expensive instead, that's from some combination of insufficient capital base and poverty of ideas. For instance, a skyhook -- a spinning tether in orbit -- could lower one payload into the atmosphere and boost another into space, at no net energy cost.

A pretty good, if very old, popular intro to this kind of thinking was Heppenheimer's Colonies in Space (free on the web now).

Mars seems unpromising because it's at the bottom of a gravity well, has an inconvenient atmosphere, should be preserved for scientific research while there's still a chance of traces of life, etc. Asteroids seem way more useful, and the Moon is nearer.


So, polluting 2 worlds instead of one? Nobody will stop exploiting Earth even once new worlds become accessible.


I'd much rather pollute Mars, a dead rock, than the Earth.


Agree, yet it's not an either Mars or Earth question. Judging by priorities of corporations (making money, of course) it will certainly be both Mars and Earth.


In fact, the whole concept of "pollution" on Mars makes little sense. We could convert it to radioactive slag and plaster it with "Eat at Joe's" billboards, and it wouldn't hurt anyone or anything.

What we ought to be doing with Mars is terraforming it. I'd start by collecting extremophile bacteria from Earth and letting it loose on Mars and see if any of it takes hold.


> polluting 2 worlds

How are you polluting another world if there is no life there in the first place?


Good question. Perhaps. However, my point still remains that it will not stop the pollution on Earth - which will remain much cheaper to do.


A cultural change is also necessary. Our civilization is divided and weak, because we still have a tribal mentality that prevent us from looking at the bigger picture. We still think in terms of "us" and "them" and who will get the upper hand, who will get this territory, this resource, who will "win", who will look "stronger", etc...

The economy also have to change. We must rethink our definition of wealth. What is wealth? Vitality, time, resources and intelligence. Money only helps creating a movement, but the accumulation of vast sums of money is problematic as we're seeing now. Money needs to circulate.

Women will also play an important part, here. Humanity can't progress if 50% of its population can't develop to its full potential.

We need more women in position of leadership, in science, but also in position of religious leaders, because yes, a huge percentage of the world is religious and women can contribute in lots of ways there.

We need more cooperation, more responsibility. Instead of thinking in terms of nations, we'll eventually have to think in terms of civilization if we want a future that is desirable.


The original opinion came from a billionaire monopolist. Even the very best humans can have bad traits. Should we really wait/expect that to change and should space exploration wait?

We're still floating around on a single planet in a single solar system in a universe we know almost nothing about. Like a fly crossing a highway, it seems dangerous to me.


We need more Nobel prize winners in politics. They seem to be more honest, more caring for the greater good, etc., and thus more fit for the job (I know, right now it seems the opposite is true). And in case they lack all these characteristics, at least they pushed the boundary of knowledge.

Perhaps this is unrealistic, but we could increase the admission requirements of politicians. First show that you care about more than just yourself for at least a decade or so, and then you may decide about the fate of millions of citizens, their offspring and planet Earth.


Nobel Prize winners are notoriously kooky when operating out of their narrow areas of expertise, Cf. Linus Pauling, Kary Mullis, Luc Montagnier.


We could still have elections, of course ;)


Not sure why you think we need Nobel prize winners, but we do need more scientists in politics. I think that would greatly help scientific discoveries to shape policy and legislation. Since the last election, there have been some efforts to recruit scientists:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/thanks-t...

http://whowhatwhy.org/2017/04/22/imagine-congress-filled-sci...


Seems like a false equivalence to me. Your statement is:

Space travel cannot fix humanity polluting the environment, therefore we should not do space travel.

space travel is not there to fix humanities issues, it is there to provide an option for survival if humanity faces an (self-induced) extinction event.


"Look at all the greed, corruption and anger around us."

"Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral" (first we gorge ourselves, then the morality.)

These are interesting thoughts. But lets not forget what unsound good old Billy used (and MS still used) to establish his former OS monopoly.


I love Elon Musk's original vision. I think we need one backup plan as radical as that.

But when you have others like Jeff Bezos jumping on the bandwagon, it becomes a race and I wonder about the true motives. Race for what? Humanity, ego or boyish dreams to conquer space? Let's not forget that Earth 1.0 is the best one we've got, by literally lightyears.

If humanity is the concern, let's start with fixing it. Fix poverty, fix the environment. There doesn't need to be a 'magic bullet' that solves all of this at once, because if we have enough rich people targeting different areas, the world will radically improve.

I respect Bill Gates for realising this. He's not perfect, but it's clear that he's less concerned about glamorous legacies. He chooses a few areas he believes he can make a difference in, and he sticks to them.

It's not just for rich people though. If you're interested, here's a link that someone posted a while ago: https://80000hours.org


You're very wrong in thinking this is about glamorous legacies, and in fact it's a really terrible thing to say. The issue is that we're losing our technology, and Jeff and Elon and anyone else working on the problem is saving it. Look, in the 1970s we could send people to the moon, but now costs have ballooned to the point where we can't even send people to the ISS with US rockets, that is, until SpaceX came along.

And here you are, claiming that these people are ego-maniacs that can't get enough and want to be the best, when in fact they are preserving the very technology that once propelled the great country of USA to become the first people on the moon. It's insane that you could say that.

And let me also note that Bill Gates has set the software industry back decades with his campaign to destroy Linux in the 90s. But you're so proud to tear down other great technologists with him! Why?

Finally, you must take note that democracy, a great improvement for life on earth (the kind of improvement you advocate) was created by leaving the oligarchies of the UK and creating a brand new society in a brand new continent. In those times, you would have been a serf living under harsh rule saying that "Those explorers are so self-serving, so self-interested, they don't care about us" when in fact their actions improved your quality of life 100-fold in just two centuries.


The reason for a backup is not poverty or other things that you can possibly fix, but extinction events, such as nuclear war, evil AI, virus etc.


Sure.

We need the backup for worst case scenarios like that.

What about the world as it stands now?

We need the wealthy to jump on that bandwagon, not the former.

I understand that Elon Musk actually wants to reboot space race to ramp up innovation (sorry I can't remember the source, but I believe it was an early interview where he was talking about NASA not being as forward-looking as it used to be.) But it's hard not to be cynical when there is still a lot of suffering in this world. Can't we make everyone in this world at least have dinner everyday?


There are a lot already fighting poverty, diseases and the like, no one did something about space exploration.

So would it be smarter to say that you need another one fighting the former or that you add the first to find a solution for one of humanity's biggest threats in the next century?


In my view, this misses the mark. The primary benefit is the second-order effects. Inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and innovators. New technology developed in the process that improves life on Earth. New scientific advancements. A deep feeling of awe and wonder, that ignores borders and nationalities, and brings us closer together as a species.

Now from an economic and investment standpoint. The most important angle here is one of marginal benefit. If we are already spending 100 billion a year on disease, poverty, and climate change (this is a very conservative guess), how much good is adding a few billion more? It's likely not going to move the needle extensively. However, that money that will make an enormous difference in our space endeavors, letting us reap some of those second order benefits.

This idea is core to approaches that involve casting a wide net or diversifying your efforts -- essential strategies for when information/understanding is incomplete and the possibility space is broad. Very much like where we are at today.

Lastly, we need to look longer term. A space program is essential in moving humanity into the next technological era, and will likely have many unforseen positive benefits. Looking at the two paths, I think 200 years now, all else being equal, the GDP and happiness quotient of a society that invests in space exploration will be significantly higher than in one that doesn't.

P.S. This is also a bit ironic coming from Bill Gates, given the impact the space program had on the nascent computing industry:

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2525898/app-development...


> Now from an economic and investment standpoint. The most important angle here is one of marginal benefit. If we are already spending 100 billion a year on disease, poverty, and climate change (this is a very conservative guess), how much good is adding a few billion more? It's likely not going to move the needle extensively. However, that money that will make an enormous difference in our space endeavors, letting us reap some of those second order benefits.

I feel like this is faulty reasoning. That money might fund a project that otherwise wouldn't get funded which may cure cancer (unlikely, but honestly I'd say finding a moderate breakthrough for treating a specific strain of cancer with a few billion dollars is about as likely as that few billion dollars getting us significantly closer to Mars). It's not that every project is getting funded and it's just how much they get funded - some projects don't get funded at all. Nobody can predict the future which is why startup investing is so hard - the winners often start out looking like losers (DropBox, AirBnB, Google, Tesla, Apple all struggled to raise money initially). And big accomplishments often come from underdogs, like the Wright Brothers (who were up against much better funded and better educated competition). And sometimes the best discoveries are completely accidental - like penicillin.

Nobody knows the best way to allocate resources. I think the smart thing to do is to back things because you believe in them, not because they seem underappreciated. And honestly, Elon Musk has such a cult following that I'd say anything he does gets way more love than all the other things that money could be spent on.


It's possible that even Elon Musk has changed his mind about the value of Mars for humanity. One could view his plan to convince cities replace their roads with 3D tunnels, as preparing a massive shelter for humanity, to protect us against catastrophic risk, instead of a mars colony.

BTW: he has very smart leverage strategies, especially in the context of him a change makes, instead of of the common focus of value extraction of most business people.

Is there any place one can read about such strategies ?


Or the tunneling machines are for building habitats on Mars. Well, it's a fun hypothesis at least. Anything that could improve traffic in major cities gets my vote of approval regardless of what other applications it has.


I think your point is probably closer to the truth. Musk's desire to travel to mars seems to stem from the fact that it's a pretty awesome, adventurous thing to do, so it's one that doesn't fade on some whims. Whatever people say about Musk, he undoubtedly is pushing humanity in a better direction so maybe we should leave him to it.


From [0]:

> Musk is without doubt a dazzling salesman. Who better than a guardian of human welfare to sell you your new, self-driving Tesla? Andrew Ng—the chief scientist at Baidu, known as China’s Google—based in Sunnyvale, California, writes off Musk’s Manichaean throwdown as “marketing genius." “At the height of the recession, he persuaded the U.S. government to help him build an electric sports car,” Ng recalled, incredulous.

Based on the TED talk [1], Musk seems to be proposing a scarce luxury transport solution. The Boring Company is an answer to the question, "What inconvenience do Los Angeles millionaires suffer daily?" And for this he is being elevated to no less than savior of humanity?

[0] http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dol...

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/elon_musk_the_future_we_re_buildin...


Forget about this argument. USA needs tech companies, and they need attractive ones that get investment. You think our tax money that builds roadways and schools materializes out of thin air? No, we need great, powerful, sexy, innovative companies. And guess what guy, those are expensive as all hell! But in the long run the tech gets cheaper and we all get it.

Let's take a trip back to the 1980s. You're looking at a desktop PC company like Apple, tearing them down how their first computer costs $5000 in today's dollars. Should anyone have paid you any mind at all? Of course not! Because of Apple pushing the tech so hard for so long, we now have another behemoth tech company on our country's soil. Have some perspective before you go cutting down tall poppies.


There is certainly a large internet subculture that places undue moral value on space travel.


I'm not opposing what you're saying but I feel like the distribution is somewhat:

80% - Science and its marvels 15% - Humanity survival (IMHO not possible) 5% - So we know more and more and somehow fix problems where that knowledge may be applicable (is that what you're calling moral value)?

I do think that we should be better off spending money elsewhere. I don't know why Trump is so pro-space travel and stuff.


I half agree with Gates.

To me, sending probes into space deepens our understanding of nature and over time that knowledge will benefit humanity. But sending humans into space is really just an exercise in human vanity, like climbing Mount Everest or placing a person at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

For the cost of sending a man to Mars we could send out two probes - one to Mars and one to Europa. Wouldn't that be better for science and humanity?


Tech developed for space is whats saving us though. Push for space -> more science in general. Fewer skeptics. More educated folk.

Have to disagree with big B on this.


I get what he means, but you can spend the next 500 years trying to fix humanity's problems on Earth, it will never end.

Meanwhile, space is the final frontier, and just like our ancestors, we're compelled to go out and conquer it. It's actually an easier task than fixing all the stupid.


Compelled by Star Trek.


Everybody’s got their own priorities. In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don’t see the direct connection. I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into

That' the beauty of it, a lot of rich people with their own ideas and priorities. The world problems existed even before the rich started spending on space exploration, and likely we'll have problems for millions of years.

This quote from Interstellar is thought provoking: "we're not meant to save to earth, we're meant to leave it"


I'd like to add to your quote here. It's not something from the film, but it's something I feel like not enough people understand: The Earth doesn't need saving. No matter what we do, we cannot kill the Earth. We do not have that power. We can make the Earth inhospitable for ourselves, but it will recover. The Earth will keep spinning until the Sun expands and swallows Earth whole billions of years from now.

We, as a species, do not have any sort of power capable of stopping the Earth from doing its thing. In fact, one could argue that we are part of the Earth's thing. We don't exist on Earth, we are part of Earth.


It's funny that he says that because I remember him almost a decade ago asking on LinkedIn "how we will encourage more young people to pursue careers in science and technology". Well, that's how. Space exploration is sexy and intriguing as hell. Take for example how much admiration and awe the Cassini mission has created. We have a tiny vessel in the edges of our solar system some 1,5bn kms away exploring unknown worlds and sending back valuable feedback. You can't but feel humbled by all that. Imagine now what will happen if a few years in the future we find life in some planet out there.

Space exploration will bring more people to science because it attracts a lot of attention. It's intriguing because it involves a multitude of disciplinaries from engineering to biology, geology, physics, astronomy, you name it. Look at how many great sci-fi movies have been produced in the last decade. The reason for that is that younger generations understand technology and are intrigued by it. And there's nothing more intriguing than setting a colony on Mars or sending a probe το Europa to drill on the ice in search for life.

We do that, and thirty years down the road we'll have two or three times as many scientists as we have today. And then they will take humanity further. As they've done for the last 200 years. We live in a time of prosperity due to scientific breakthroughs, from fighting infectious deceases that expanded life expectancy to decades, to improving agriculture productivity and thus increase access to food for more people.


I feel he's come to the conclusion that the right answer is to bring a healthy standard of living, education and stability to the billion-plus people in extreme poverty, who would be contributing far more had they only the chance.


Anyone who's claiming that there is no direct connection between the improvement of humanity's condition and space travel is right; there is no direct impact, but the indirect connection between new forms of society and an overall increase in human well-being is staggering, also obvious.

Look at the pioneers who left the oligarchies of the United Kingdom to start a new society in America. They took their lessons from the oligarchies and forged a new set of rules, a new way of running their country, democracy. They could not have created this new method within Britain! This is the important part: The creators of democracy did so within brand new territory, and then it spread to the rest of the world.

Humans are going to do amazing things on Mars, and the things we do there would absolutely be impossible to do on Earth. However, the incredibly strong and probably breathtaking examples we set for Earth will certainly inspire long term positive change on our home planet. I conclude that if you want to make large, sweeping, positive changes on your home turf, the best way is to set up a much, much better society and wait for them to copy you. Don't waste time trying to convince the people around you who are already comfortable enough!


As a physicist I totally agree, there are more urgent matters.


Asteroid mining is ignored. The value of materials in them is immense and will change the economy. All these scenarios of "X running out in Y years" become irrelevant once asteroid/space industry develops. http://www.asterank.com/


Honestly, I don't really get it either.

As for tech billionaires dabbling in space, it comes down to what they expect to get out of it.

In Musk's case he's managed to create a company that can launch payloads into orbit (and hopefully beyond one day) at what will hopefully be a fraction of today's launch costs if the promise of reusable first stages holds true. He's also managed to do this on a fraction of the budget that NASA seems to be spending on the SLS. Launching satellites is a commercial enterprise so hopefully self-sustaining. Must hopes to leverage this to one day colonize Mars. Well, good for him.

Not sure what Bezos is up to but superficially it looks like a "me too" SpaceX.

So why send things other than satellites into orbit or probes into deep space? That's really what it comes down.

Some will point to the resources out there. This argument I just don't buy because the economics of any material on earth are many orders of magnitude cheaper than what resources from space could possibly cost. Take iron, for example. You're talking less than $100/ton. How could extraction from space possibly compete with that? Obviously accessible iron on earth is ultimately limited but even at $10,000/ton it'll drastically change human society.

So what about colonization of other planets and moons? Well, first you need to ask why. To me, the only goal that makes sense is to ensure survival of humanity by creating a self-sustaining colony as anything built on the premise of requiring supply from Earth is ultimately just a vanity project.

So what would it take to have a self-sustaining colony on another world? If you think about it, it's a lot and I'm not sure it's feasible with current technology.

Also, where? Other worlds are pretty inhospitable. A lot are attracted to Mars but I'm not sure why. It essentially has no atmosphere (pressure is much closer to a vacuum than Earth's atmospheric pressure), which, incidentally, is one of the problems with the Martian (the movie at least; I haven't read the book). It lacks the Earth's protection against UV rays too.

So what about interstellar travel? Sad as it sounds, I just don't think humans are built for it. We live too short a period. The distances are so vast that how would you ever construct a vessel large enough to make the trip and be self-sustaining or have enough supplies for thousands of years and then also propel it to the necessary speeds?

The conclusion I come to is that there are simply too many of us here on Earth and this will resolve itself if we don't resolve it first.


Could it be not as basic as just wanting to get into history books? Being mortal and leaving your mark? At that time, what does anything matter? You shoot for it, burning money, killing people and such and in the end you die. I do know some people think like that so why not your president or the president of nkrrp?


> You're talking less than $100/ton. How could extraction from space possibly compete with that? Obviously accessible iron on earth is ultimately limited but even at $10,000/ton it'll drastically change human society.

I think you misconfigured a word there, but what about the price of getting 1 ton of iron into space? If it's already there, we can manufacture in space. More important is the price of rare Earth metals like Platinum. We could build goods in orbit or build missions in orbit. Space mining and manufacturing should bring about a new era where 3rd world country slave mines shutdown and entirely new products can be made when the high price of rare Earth metals become the low price of common space metals.


Yes but let's put that in perspective.

To get one rocket into LEO currently costs about $100m. That's equivalent of digging up about 1M tons of iron. Obviously it's a lot less for more valuable materials. It looks like platinum is about $1k/oz and Google tells me there are 32,000 oz to the ton so that's about $32M or 3 tons of platinum.

Now obviously if you were living in space you wouldn't need to get things onto or out of the Earth's gravity, which is where things get really expensive, but the launch cost puts things in perspective about just how expensive it it to do anything in relation to space.

So take that platinum. Where is it coming from? The asteroid belt? How expensive would it be just in fuel to go and get it and possibly refine it (assuming you don't find a solid lump of it)? What energy source are you using?

People tend to think too simplistically about energy. Like the holy grail is viewed as getting more energy out of fusion than you put in but fuel is only one cost component of energy. Let's consider:

- How expensive is a fusion reactor?

- How big is it?

- What is the energy output?

- How much does it cost to maintain?

Add all those things up and there is an amortized cost to even fusion energy.

So start adding all this up and the delta-V required to get all of this to and from wherever it comes from and it's hard to come up with an economic model for how this can possibly work.


I think of the long term ramifications of it all. Eventually, the humans on another planet(s) will become kind of a different species. They'll view the universe and life differently than the humans on earth. Probably even look different after a long period of time.

That's why I badly want us to go out into space and colonize other planets. The modern world is flat and there isn't enough diversity in culture and ways of looking at the world. Having people on other planets will change this. (Theoretically)


If establishing a colony on a different orbital body is just a vanity project, then what isn't?


Non-coercive population control, especially through the increase of economic and educational opportunities for women and the distribution of free, convenient contraceptives.


There are not that many useful tasks that can be solved in principle with massive use of rockets based on chemical reaction. But none of these tasks are "mission critical" for survival of the civilization.

Having 10 companies launching rockets instead of current 5 will not make any differences in principle.

It is just a matter of time for next gamma burst or so to wipe out life on the planet. So we need colonies on large enough distances. And Mars does not count as it is too close.

To achieve that goal (civilization survival) we a) must keep our common home habitable and b) focus efforts on finding ways of inter-stellar travelling.


You must choose between a) and b).


I guess, just like he did not see the point of Free Software.




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