In reference to http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/08/14/1510258 "NASA's Cashflow Problem Puts Moon Trip In Doubt"
A lot of the comments in this one are regarding the inability of NASA, or government in general, to get the space program working in any meaningful way. I think that this post http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1336589&cid=29068913 sums it up pretty good:
The government has made it abundantly clear that it understands and cares little for scientific progress. It doesn't matter whether you lean left, right, or upside-down, the fact of the matter is that neither Congress, nor recent Presidents, have serious desires to see progress made in scientific realms for purely progressive reasons. As other slashdotters have pointed out numerous times, there is an enormous list of spin-off benefits that come from manned-exploration of space. Not only that, but direct benefits such as a progression of the human species beyond its own world are a payoff in and of themselves. Politicians don't care. If something won't result directly in votes, money, or power for politicians, then there is little chance that thing, be it a movement, a field, or an ideology, will get any serious backing from the legislative or executive branches.
This can also be seen in the Green movement, for example. Rather than fund or seriously investigate truly sustainable energy sources such as breeder reactors and fusion research, the government wants to hop on a trendy bandwagon (votes) that involves the more inefficient methods of solar and wind energy production and the costly subsidization of corn-based bio-fuels (money).
So what is the solution then? If government can't do it, who else can we turn to? This user gives us an answer:
We can, and should, therefore kiss off serious government spending towards goals like space exploration. True development and innovation will come in this field through privately funded space organizations and governments of other countries.
Ah yes, the private industry. They'll save us, right? I don't think so. First of all, the last time we went to the moon, it took the combined effort of hundreds of companies working for fat government money, and coordinated by that central agency, to pull it off. Now somehow we expect some single company or another (with perhaps a few subcontractors) to pull off this same massive effort? The only reason space companies like the ones this guy mentions are getting anywhere at all is because a) the technology for doing many things is somewhat cheaper now, and b) super-millionaires are throwing lots of cash at the problem in long-term investment style.
To respond to both these points: a) the technology relevant for space travel hasn't progressed very far relative to lowering most of the costs involved. This is primarily because most of the technology that needs to be developed is in fact only done during a space-program, not before. The space program creates spin-off technologies to the other markets, but seldom happens the other way around. And b) No company is going to have the massive amounts of money that a government does to pour into these projects, thus they will not be done in any reasonable amount of time, leading to no profits for a long time, meaning that most of these programs I am predicting will simply die out.
Now let's look at this poster's comment deriding the government for not having the "will" to spend enough for space travel. He is probably right in this regard, as for the most part, any successful politician will only be so because s/he places priority on money, power, and votes. So why then is the private industry so much better? Are they so very humanitarian? No, they want money, and power, just like the politicians do, and that's not going to get us anywhere. Even if it did, can you image what space would look like run by corporations? Billboards on the moon? Space hotels for the rich that the middle class will probably never see?
But that doesn't matter really. The point is that this is most likely to not happen at all, and simply because of the inefficiency of capitalism. That's right. People like to talk about how "efficient" it is because it is so good making sure that all processes are done the "cheapest" way possible. However, since money doesn't actually represent anything physical, the "cheapest" in money cost may still mean high costs in terms of natural resources, human labor, energy costs, or externalities like environmental damage or economic damage to other nations, or even your own (remember that most companies are competing against somebody, and in a scarce system, most of the time one company's gains are another one's losses). And speaking of competing companies, how do we expect 5 million different companies, all after their own self-interest, to somehow match the level of efficiency and coordination that a single, centralized body can?
But wait, I hear people saying: The government isn't efficient at all! Well first of all, of course not. It's run by politicians, what do you expect? Second, it can be, when the politician's don't interfere too much. Look back at the Apollo program. They got it done, didn't they? Not nearly as well as was physically possible, but they met the minimum requirements laid out by Kennedy.
So what do I mean by "physically possible"? Ah, here we are at the crux of the matter. What I mean is that from a purely physical standpoint (including the natural resources, installed technology like factories etc., trained technical experts, etc.), we were, 40 years ago, capable of at least what we did back then, and possibly a great deal more, had we done a better job. Therefor, today, we should be able to do at least that well, most likely far better, due to much greater technology. There is nothing stopping the physical plant of North America from producing a working space program that can take us to the moon, Mars, and beyond in reasonable time without negatively impacting the lives of people on Earth. So why then can't we do it?
It has to do with scarcity. We are using a scarcity-based economic system that severely limits what we can do with our natural resources. 200 years ago, when we had natural scarcity conditions, this was fine, because there was nothing else that could be done about it. However, we have had the capacity to produce an abundance (post-scarcity) of goods and services for nearly a century now, but we are instead throwing it away like setting fire to a huge pile of money. If we were to utilize a post-scarcity economic system that emphasized physical efficiency instead of made-up numbers (like in current economics), then we would find ourselves not only able to live much better lives, but also have a really superb space program. Heck, if we had done it back when this idea was still new 80 years ago, we might have been to Mars already, and had people living on the moon. Who knows? The numbers showing what we are physically capable of (as opposed to what we are currently economically capable of), once you look at them, are truly staggering.
Does this mean that we have to become an evil, centralized state like the USSR to pull this off? Not at all. Technocracy has shown us a way to gain all the benefits of controlling technology in an efficient, centralized way, without having to restrict people's freedoms in the same manner. In fact, it would likely be the freest form of society on Earth. Sound impossible? You won't know unless you give it a serious look now will you?