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This essay is about space. No, not parking space, living room space, or that empty space between some people’s ears. I’m talking space between planets, between suns, between galaxies. I’m talking space in the astronomical sense or the cosmological sense. Why space? Easy: because I like thinking about space. I guess that’s a result of my reading so much science fiction as a child. Remember Robert Heinlein and his “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” novel? They were actually living on the Moon in caverns under the surface. They had really smart computers and really old social problems in particular with government. But I digress.

Is space important? If you are using the internet to read this essay then it’s important to you; if you live in an area where hurricanes sometimes occur, space matters to you. If you are a member of the military then you should care about space. If you like to eat then space matters. I could go on but if all else fails I’ll mention that if you care about the survival of humanity as a species you had better care about space. Of course, if you don’t give an expletive about anybody else in the world but yourself and you live in a cave somewhere on roots, berries, and mushrooms then you should skip this lecture and all the rest as well. You’ve made yourself totally irrelevant.

Let’s start with space exploration. Humanity has turned its eyes toward the skies for as long as there have been human beings. Moonlight has always been important to our species, and the sun has even been worshiped. These heavenly bodies provide most of what makes earth habitable at all given the low levels of technology human beings possessed at our origins. The sun provides energy and the moon supplies a stable angle of inclination of the earth’s axis. Just imagine what the planet would be like if the earth were wobbling like a spinning top slowing down. So we really needed both sun and moon to exist at all. But I don’t think we have to worry much about losing either any time soon so we’ll pass on.

Humanity eventually began traveling long distances and found the stars useful as indicators of direction. We were exploring nearby space (relatively nearby) in those days. But even when the exploration was at distances that one could walk in a few weeks, exploration could result in one getting lost. Space, with its stars, could help solve that problem. Time passed and human technology became more sophisticated. Trade routes were established over land and water. It was expensive, or even fatal in some cases, to go astray in following those routes. So the motivation for learning more about space now included a desire to get or keep money.

If you want to study space, one of your most useful tools is the telescope. Seeing afar was made much easier or, in many cases, possible, by those lenses. Of course one of its first uses was commercial. If you could see a ship approaching port before anyone else, you could profit greatly. Of course your profit would be at the expense of others. It would be their loss because the physical object money of the time and of the present gives the impression that one can gain money only at the expense of others who lose that money. Remember how outraged you feel when you think of the government just printing money and giving it to someone who hasn’t earned it? That’s the nature of our physical object money lying to you, telling you that others can benefit only at your expense. How does it harm you for others to eat, wear clothing, get medical treatment, or go to school if we ignore the money aspect? Is there not enough food or clothing or doctors or teachers? We can produce more doctors and teachers and food and clothes and houses and toys and, well, just about anything consumers can consume. How does someone else getting something they want or need harm you? So this great invention, the telescope, was hoarded and made secret so that the few who had them could keep that commercial advantage rather than being produced in great numbers and given to sailors and other explorers. The physical object nature of their money slowed the adoption and use of the telescope. So the exploration of space by looking at the heavens with telescopes was delayed.

Exploring space led Newton to his laws of motion and confirmed those laws to the limits of the existing instruments of the time. And speaking of time, the measurement of time has been crucial to our exploration of space. Great prizes were offered for the invention of a clock that would be reliable over months aboard ship. Since the clocks of the time used pendulums to keep time ships had real problems with the rocking and swaying which threw off the timing of the pendulum swings. Those prizes were considered to be a tiny price to pay for the huge increase in profits that could result from ship captains knowing where they were. Clocks were, therefore, consequences of the exploration of space. And that should be enough to bring us up to the exploration of space in the 20th century. The concepts concerning the size of the world had been increasing for thousands of years but with the development of science thanks to the exploration of space that understanding of how much space there is greatly expanded. What had been a single flat world had become one of several planets circling the sun. That sun had been discovered to be one of thousands of suns. Those suns had been discovered to be one of millions and then billions of suns in the Milky Way. That Milky Way galaxy had been found to be one of thousands and then millions, and then billions of galaxies. And the 20th century allowed us to realize that those billions of galaxies were moving away from each other, mostly, though even the galaxies existed in clumps. What constituted all of space and the observable universe has been increasing at a dramatic pace. We are even being presented with strong evidence in our laboratories that there are many universes very like ours to a considerable degree. The exploration of space has led us to fantastic conclusions with far more; probably even more fantastic conclusions still to come.

In the middle of the 20th century we began to explore space off earth by actually sending instruments and a few people into that space. We have now come to the part of the history of exploring space which most people think of when one mentions exploring space. Of course, all physical exploration using our bodies or instruments is exploring space. Philosophers and mathematicians can explore ideas without moving in space but other explorations require space. But outer space is now being explored. We have seen up close photographs of the moon and the planets and their moons. We have seen the sun with its spots and flares and churning, rippling surface. We even know what the earth looks like from over 200,000 miles away. Along the way in developing the technology which has enabled us to do these remarkable things we have spun off byproducts of that space exploration such as cell phones, better weather forecasting, and ground-penetrating radar. These are engineering triumphs rather than triumphs of science. There is a quite meaningful difference between the two. Science helps us understand things by telling us when we are wrong, when we are just fooling ourselves. Engineering turns that understanding into useful products some of which can be used for more scientific exploration.

Do you remember the story about Ben Franklin, the American scientist and inventor who tested the hypothesis that lightening was the same kind of thing as those static shocks one could get by sliding one’s feet on the carpet in winter when the air was dry? He flew a kite in a thunderstorm and was lucky to not be killed in the process. That was science being performed by an individual, using materials one could find about the house or buy cheaply from a local store. Galileo and his inclined planes testing hypotheses about the rate at which objects fell is another example. Newton was an alchemist who did chemical experiments in his home. Yes, back in the day almost anyone with the leisure time could conduct experiments because the equipment needed was not expensive, relatively speaking. Today that’s not the case. Today, meaningful experiments in many fields are likely to be quite expensive. This is especially true when it comes to experiments about space away from earth. One can buy a cheap telescope but though it will be many times better in many ways than the telescope that Galileo used to study the planets it will not provide the kind of evidence necessary to test new hypotheses about what’s in space away from earth. Thus, unless one is quite wealthy, one needs the resources of a collection of people in order to make further progress in our attempts to understand and explain the universe.

This need for lots of money to explore space has resulted in the dominance of governments in off-planet activities. The dreams of Robert Heinlein in “The Man who Sold the Moon” of businessmen being the first to set foot on the moon as a commercial venture were just that, dreams. Think of the cost of even getting into orbit around the earth in 1958. Think of the billions of capital that were needed and of the decades of delay in getting any return on that investment. What businessman is going to invest in a project that will not return a profit, if any, until long after the businessman is dead? Think about it.

Those satellites which provide communications were first put up there by government-built rockets from government installations using government-developed technology. The companies that used them did not do the development work on the rockets. They paid the government to launch the satellites the companies had built. So business has gone into space off earth, but on the backs (financially speaking) of the taxpayers. It is only in the 21st century that business has been somewhat successful at building the rockets and payloads that can transport people and cargoes into orbit.

On July 20, 1969 a human being set foot on the moon. After a few return visits it was decided that there was no money in it so mankind stopped going to the moon. No lunar base was established. No research station was located there. The bright promise which the science fiction community envisioned for humanity drowned in a sea of red ink. Congress and the rest of the world’s governments decided that space exploration could be put on the “back burner” so to speak: Except for military applications, of course. There’s always lots of money for military applications and instruments for spying on the world. So the nature of our money stopped us in our tracks, even though we had done all the heavy lifting of research and development to produce the hardware and software. We knew how to put heavy payloads into orbit and ship goods to the moon and bring back parts of the moon. We just decided to let the equipment rust and have those crack engineers work on other things. Going to the moon was like building the pyramids. You build them for political reasons and then let them gather dust.

Fortunately the experience and the science that was accomplished along the way – almost by accident as far as the politicians were concerned – did turn out to be very useful. The knowledge of how to build heavy-lifting rockets was not all forgotten. Ways to further explore space on the cheap were discovered. The space programs in the U.S., Russia, and Europe were joined by programs in Japan and China. Yes, much of this activity is to soothe national pride and honor, but we really are exploiting getting into space much more these days: We have telescopes in space now. The air is much clearer up there being nearly a vacuum.

A couple of years ago in February of 2013 a meteorite hit earth’s atmosphere over central Russia and exploded with a force equivalent to a small nuclear weapon. The shock wave broke many windows, buckled some building walls, and injured scores of people. Earlier, in 1908 over Siberia, a larger meteorite struck the atmosphere (another glancing blow) and exploded with a force of about 1000 times the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This blast flattened some 80 million trees over an area greater than 800 square miles. Still further back in time, a meteorite hit Arizona excavating a crater over 500 feet deep and more than half a mile wide. That one hit about 50,000 years ago when there were probably no human beings in the Americas to notice. Even in Africa and Europe they would have noticed the dust making beautiful sunsets, however. That one generated about 10 megatons of energy.

Astronomers tell us there are millions of asteroids and billions of comets out there a small fraction of which already cross the earth’s orbit from time to time. So we must expect to have such events in earth’s future. If we continue to exist as a species on earth for thousands more years, covering the planet with our habitations and infrastructure, we must expect to experience asteroid (or meteorite if you prefer) impacts from time to time. Small impacts are more common because small asteroids are more common. But larger impacts are inevitable statistically speaking. So how has humanity reacted to this threat from space? How much effort and attention has been paid to preventing or recovering from disaster so far? What proportion of the corporate budgets of the businesses of our world is being spent on meteorite defense? I estimate that it’s as close to zero as makes no difference. What about the budgets of nations? Governments are supposed to protect their citizens, are they not? Well, see if you can find meteorite defense or asteroid collision prevention in any nation’s official budget. There must be some allocation to at least look for incoming rocks. I know the astronomers, both professional and amateur, do look for such things. I understand there’s a near miss coming in 2028 or so by an asteroid. But what if its orbit around the sun is bent by that near miss with earth so that in a few years it will return and strike the earth? Do you really think we will be able to do anything about it? Will our governments spend billions to prevent that impact? Perhaps: If the corporations can make lots of money on that effort. But won’t there be politicians saying that God would never allow that to happen or that it’s just a massive conspiracy by astronomers to get our tax money for themselves or to seize power? You know, the kinds of things we are hearing about global warming and humanity’s role in that heating process? Will humanity actually have the will and the organizational capacity to be effective in efforts to prevent such a disaster? Remember the U.S. space program to reach the moon and return during the 1960s? We managed to accomplish that great feat thanks to a lot of inspired and idealistic young engineers and scientists and a few similarly inspired older ones. Of course, that effort was a national competition for political reasons. The fact that the scientists and engineers were idealists who actually did the work was not the important factor in getting the job done. The allocation of the money to pay for all the research and development, all that expensive gear, and all of those engineers, was the crucial component. Without that money the project would never have been even started.

We see that money is easily allocated by governments for political purposes or to pay off supporters (like those large subsidies) but it is not so easily allocated to attack problems that harm ordinary people in large numbers like type 2 diabetes, pollution, and smoking. These problems are well known and don’t frighten us very much because we are accustomed to them. For problems that are seemingly years down the road, like global warming and species extinction, we really don’t care, and our politicians can ignore such problems. Look at your local infrastructure if you don’t believe me. Are there any bridges in your area that need repair, or problems with your water supply? Do your streets have potholes?

Until it appears that there’s a big asteroid on the way that will strike in just a few years, don’t expect the politicians to allocate the money to find or do anything about such asteroids. This, too, is due to the nature of our POM, our physical object money. This is depressing. Let’s go to something more pleasant.

Tourism in space is being touted by a couple of private space corporations. They expect to charge many thousands of dollars for a brief ride into what passes for space near the earth. One will be able to see the stars not twinkle, the curve of the earth’s horizon, that there are no lines demarking nations when seen from space, and weather from above. If the ride is at night, one will be able to see lightning in the tops of clouds. Sounds like fun to me if you don’t get nausea from the free fall, but there are other dangers – even in near space – besides the threat of throwing up in free fall. There’s all that debris left over from other launches of material into space: Thousands of small objects moving at thousands of miles per hour. Eventually those orbits will decay and the junk will slow down and fall out of orbit to land on earth or be burned up in the atmosphere. But that will take hundreds of years. There’s also radiation in space which our atmosphere absorbs, deflects, or otherwise shields us from. Cosmic rays, which are high-velocity protons, strike our atmosphere and generate showers of secondary radiation. Above the atmosphere there’s nothing to protect a human being from being struck by those protons except the walls of the space craft or space station. Those walls don’t really do much good. Even the solar wind, the radiation and particles being expelled from the sun by the solar magnetic storms, damages the human organism even though we are protected to some degree in low earth orbit by the earth’s magnetic field. And if you prolong your stay in space in free fall, your body begins to suffer from the lack of gravity. (Well, technically you are being attracted by gravity and you are falling but you keep missing the earth due to your lateral motion.) So your bones lose calcium and become fragile since they aren’t needed to support your weight, and your muscles, being unused, atrophy. In other words, after a year in space you can’t even walk upon your return to earth and it takes some time to recover.

These and many more problems confront humanity in any effort to have people go into space. Does that mean that we should huddle on our “blue marble in space” and forget about leaving the planet? Not if humanity is to survive as a species. The earth may have been our place of origin, we may have evolved on earth, we may depend on its air and its gravity and its water and so forth but the earth is a very dangerous place indeed. It isn’t just those asteroids hitting earth it’s those super-volcanoes like that under Yellowstone Park which have the capacity to destroy humanity. It’s those sudden changes in climate which we seem to be bringing on. There are plagues as well which could bring about our extinction. If humanity is to survive for another 10,000 years we really have to have independent colonies off the earth and the sooner we get them out there the better. Even our terrorists are getting more powerful all the time. It’s easy to picture some doomsday weapon in the hands of crazies who would rather have humanity go extinct than to fail to get their way. Spreading out at least through the solar system is about the only way to avoid having all of our proverbial eggs in one basket.

The bad news is that it’s hard to get off earth. The good news is that all the resources of a physical nature that we need are already out there in overwhelming abundance. The energy of the sun can be collected using mirrors and photovoltaic cells to generate far more energy than humanity has available on earth. Those asteroids which constitute such a threat to life on earth also contain all the elements in metals and other elements which we might want. Comets have plenty of water and carbon-based compounds. We can produce artificial gravity using spin. We can use water as a shield from radiation and cosmic rays. In other words, we can find solutions to all those problems of establishing independent colonies in space. That’s assuming we can solve the problems of the nature of our money, of POM.

How would we relate differently to space with a non-POM economic system? Note the crucial differences with regards science and resource allocation present in a non-POM economy. Science is a path to great wealth in a non-POM economy because increases in our understanding produced by science enable great increases in benefits and great reductions in harm. Just think of the benefits derived from vaccination that we have experienced over the last 100 years. Many children died of measles in the 1920s but hardly any do today. That’s due to vaccination. Many people died of smallpox in 1820 and now almost no one has died of smallpox in the world for at least a score of years. But in other ways as well, think of how the internet has increased human productivity over the last 20 years. Most of my audience can remember that far back I would guess. Would you really want to go back to the internet technology of even 20 years ago? In today’s economy, how much of the wealth produced in using the advances of science have gone to the scientists who made the discoveries? Only a tiny fraction – and most of that was not a direct result of their having advanced human knowledge. Today a scientist has to go into business and almost become a corporate person in order to generate wealth from their science activities. In a non-POM economy, scientists would be among the mega-wealthy with more money than they would realistically be able to spend. Needless to say, that fact would provide far more incentive for parents to encourage any scientific bent they might detect in their children. The provision of science education would be a source of wealth for educators. (Think of the money Bill Gates teachers should have received for their hand in his financial success.)

Therefore considerably more resources would be available to science pursuits. And that would not be limited to the physical sciences. Think of how much relatively small improvements to social relations and effective work teams would be able to generate in income. All of the social sciences would be potential “gold mines” for their practitioners if their findings were actually put to use successfully. As you are well aware, schools for poor and disadvantaged children are pretty bad and those children do not do at all well in academic pursuits in schools on average. Think of the increases in income available to those who would tap that undeveloped resource in a non-POM economy.

So there would be far more scientists and far more science practice as well as better integration of results in a non-POM economy. Therefore we would have far more resources and understanding to employ in the solving of problems regarding space. Problems of the threats from space and problems in the exploitation of the resources of space would be the more quickly solved so that we could move on to solving still more of the unlimited supply of problems the universe presents.

And that brings us to the allocation of resources in a non-POM economy. We have just mentioned the allocation of science education and science practice resources. What about the resources to use to detect and successfully resolve problems presented by the dangers inherent in the universe. What would a non-POM economy do about threats like the possible asteroid collision we mentioned earlier?

First off, no matter whether we are talking about detecting the incoming threat or taking some action to deflect or disperse the asteroid or comet, the resources employed would be quite useful for other projects. Telescopes and their attendant computers and such to search for asteroids would also be useful for a host of other astronomical research and exploration. If we are looking for asteroids to mine we would be most interested in those which come close to earth because they would be coming to us rather than our having to go so far to get to them and also because we would not have to transport the materials so far to get them to where they would be used. Thus, we would already be searching the skies for asteroids which might come near earth because finding them would generate considerable income due to net benefits produced. Mining asteroids also requires going to them with equipment to modify the asteroid, in the case of mining by removing some of the asteroid. So to deflect or disperse an asteroid we would have to reach the asteroid, which mining asteroids would already be doing. So producing the goods and technology to get to the asteroids with all of the necessary equipment would already be a source of considerable income in a non-POM economy. Then there’s the technology for altering the orbit of an asteroid. You can imagine that changing an orbit might make an asteroid far more valuable for example. An asteroid that was placed into orbit around Mars might become an important factory for producing exploration and colonization equipment. That would be far more valuable than an asteroid which was often far from any useful planets and moons. Therefore, one would expect the development of such technology to be quite profitable for a non-POM economy.

Let us briefly contrast this allocation of resources with that in a POM economy. Only those organizations which were actively involved in the mining of asteroids would have any interest in developing that technology. One would have to be an employee or vendor to such a company to work on such products. But the mining of that first asteroid with POM, our current money would require a huge up-front investment from a single company or national government. In a non-POM economy, the investment would be made by millions of people and would be rather small for the vast majority of those persons. There would not have to be (and most likely wouldn’t be) a single organization involved. The government would have nothing to do with the project, and participating in the project at whatever level, whether as a crucial participant or as a peripheral member of the vast team would not cost anyone involved any money at all. Their time and effort, whether mental or physical or both, would be the only expense. True, the physical capital goods that some may give, to contribute to the effort, might be at risk – but those goods did not cost the owner any money either. As a result, such activities as will be needed to protect us from the threat of a space rock would take place in a non-POM economy as a matter of course and could not be thwarted by some Senator from wherever objecting to the passage of some pork-laden bill in Congress.

But let’s look at the super-volcano problem humanity faces. To survive that one, there would need to be independent colonies off earth. We have already noted with the asteroid problem that the requisite skills and resources would be developed for other needs and reasons and some of that same reasoning also applies to space colonies. But predicting super-volcanoes is something that is far less accurate than predicting asteroid orbits. What if the threat is definite but the timing is a matter of several thousand years’ leeway one way or the other? Would a non-POM economy take meaningful action for such a threat? I think it would because like now, there will always be some number of people, perhaps a tiny minority, who are willing to risk time and resources on the long shot chance that their efforts will pay off. Building shelters and stockpiles of food and other necessities in the event of the eruption would continue to be just the kind of thing they would do. There will always be people like that who prepare so that a nucleus of humanity might survive on (or off of) earth through the years of environmental disruption which a super-volcano would produce. They would have far more resources available for such activities with non-POM than with POM. Making a tiny contribution of capital goods to such projects would be an attractive gamble for many suppliers of capital. This sort of thing would be quite easy and simple with non-POM. It’s almost impossible to arrange with POM thanks to the suspicion and competitive divisiveness we get from POM.

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