Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mission into space >>> "We’re making a mess of this planet - it’s probably good for another 200 or 300 years, so it makes sense to get out there and find another one."

This blog has been looking at technology and the promises of progress:
Futures Forum: Techno-promises unfulfilled >>> Where did the future go?
Futures Forum: Technology and economic progress

Today, a Brit has made it to the international space station - a pretty impressive piece of technology:
Tim Peake: UK astronaut heads for space station - BBC News
Tim Peake launch: Principia crew arrive at International Space Station after nail-biting docking - live - Telegraph

But is this science-fiction, or simply escapism - literally?
Futures Forum: Climate change... and 'Interstellar': degrading soil and running out of food

This is from today's Yorkshire Post:

Is Tim Peake’s space mission actually worth it?

British astronaut Tim Peake prepares for launch ahead of his mission to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Shamil Zhumatov).

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Yorkshire space experts give us their verdict.

FORMER Army pilot Tim Peake is making history as the first official UK astronaut, having blasted off from Kazakhstan on board the Soyuz spacecraft.

But his involvement in the six-month mission to the International Space Station hasn’t come cheap. The UK invests an average of £240m a year in the European Space Agency, while the UK Space Agency has an annual budget of £322m.

In a time of continued cutbacks, can such spending on space exploration be justified?

“More than ever,” insists space journalist and commentator Jonathan Levy, “especially when you consider the challenges our planet faces in terms of environment, energy, food and other resources.”

Jonathan, from Hull, says that where once space exploration was simply sparked by curiosity about our place in the solar system, it is now driven partly by necessity.
“We’ve got to look for all opportunities to manage what we’ve got and make the most of our resources,” he says.

“The science fiction of going to space to escape a dying planet is a bit far fetched, but our ability to utilise technology to help the planet ride out these challenges is going to be incredibly important. Just putting things into space stretches our technologies and the experiments we do up there are designed to have direct benefits for medicine, agriculture, weather, environment and the development of advanced materials we can put to good use on Earth.”

Space enthusiast Robert Harrison, from Holmfirth, hit the headlines a few years ago when he captured images of the Earth from the edge of space using a helium balloon. He has been monitoring Tim Peake’s mission with interest and, if anything, believes there is even more significance attached to the mission.

“We’re making a mess of this planet,” he says, “it’s probably good for another 200 or 300 years, so it makes sense to get out there and find another one.” He believes the experiments due to be conducted by Peake and his fellow astronauts will help pave the way for the eventual habitation of far-off planets.

“Some of them are looking at the long term effects on people being in space and how to minimise any negative impacts. We can send robots and cameras out to do this stuff but inevitably what follows on is people. The next mission to the moon is due in around 2020 and will probably put living quarters there as a staging post ahead of a manned Mars mission in 2050, so it’s important to identify the risk to humans from long term exposure to space.”

However, both men agree that in terms of the future of space exploration we will shortly witness the dawn of a new era in which private companies begin to take the lead rather than governments.

“Commercial space flight such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is not just about tourism but putting commercial payloads into space,” says Jonathan Levy. “Things are moving from government subsidised flight to commercialised space travel. But a lot will depend on what returns they get on their investment in terms of delivering benefits back to Earth that people are willing to pay for.

Then, of course, there is the age old argument that we’re pre-programmed to push the boundaries of our knowledge of space simply because it’s there.

“We have always been a species that has wanted to explore,” insists Robert Harrison. “In the days of Christopher Columbus they got in their boats and sailed across the oceans. This is just the same. We’ve explored pretty much every inch of this planet, it’s time to set our sights on something a bit further away.”

Is Tim Peake’s space mission actually worth it? - Yorkshire Post

NASA has been at pains to point out the technologies which have emerged from the space race:
NASA Technologies Benefit Our Lives
NASA - Space Program Benefits: NASA’s Positive Impact on Society
5 Things We Have Thanks to Space Exploration | Care2 Causes

David Graeber disagrees:

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

No. 19: 2012

As someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I remember calculating that I would be thirty-nine in the magic year 2000 and wondering what the world would be like. Did I expect I would be living in such a world of wonders? Of course. Everyone did. Do I feel cheated now? It seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.

At the turn of the millennium, I was expecting an outpouring of reflections on why we had gotten the future of technology so wrong. Instead, just about all the authoritative voices—both Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that we do live in an unprecedented new technological utopia of one sort or another.

The common way of dealing with the uneasy sense that this might not be so is to brush it aside, to insist all the progress that could have happened has happened and to treat anything more as silly. “Oh, you mean all that Jetsonsstuff?” I’m asked—as if to say, but that was just for children! Surely, as grown-ups, we understand The Jetsons offered as accurate a view of the future as The Flintstones offered of the Stone Age.


It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism. Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo. We are used to thinking of the Politburo as a group of unimaginative gray bureaucrats, but they were bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams. The dream of world revolution was only the first. It’s also true that most of them—changing the course of mighty rivers, this sort of thing—either turned out to be ecologically and socially disastrous, or, like Joseph Stalin’s one-hundred-story Palace of the Soviets or a twenty-story statue of Vladimir Lenin, never got off the ground.

After the initial successes of the Soviet space program, few of these schemes were realized, but the leadership never ceased coming up with new ones. Even in the eighties, when the United States was attempting its own last, grandiose scheme, Star Wars, the Soviets were planning to transform the world through creative uses of technology. Few outside of Russia remember most of these projects, but great resources were devoted to them. It’s also worth noting that unlike the Star Wars project, which was designed to sink the Soviet Union, most were not military in nature: as, for instance, the attempt to solve the world hunger problem by harvesting lakes and oceans with an edible bacteria called spirulina, or to solve the world energy problem by launching hundreds of gigantic solar-power platforms into orbit and beaming the electricity back to earth.

The American victory in the space race meant that, after 1968, U.S. planners no longer took the competition seriously. As a result, the mythology of the final frontier was maintained, even as the direction of research and development shifted away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories.

The standard line is that all this was a result of the triumph of the market. The Apollo program was a Big Government project, Soviet-inspired in the sense that it required a national effort coordinated by government bureaucracies. As soon as the Soviet threat drew safely out of the picture, though, capitalism was free to revert to lines of technological development more in accord with its normal, decentralized, free-market imperatives—such as privately funded research into marketable products like personal computers. This is the line that men like Toffler and Gilder took in the late seventies and early eighties.

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns. To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program. Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities. One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

A case could be made that even the shift to research and development on information technologies and medicine was not so much a reorientation toward market-driven consumer imperatives, but part of an all-out effort to follow the technological humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war—seen simultaneously as the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, and, at home, the utter rout of social movements.

For the technologies that did emerge proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone. Along with the export of factory jobs, the new work regime has routed the union movement and destroyed any possibility of effective working-class politics.

Meanwhile, despite unprecedented investment in research on medicine and life sciences, we await cures for cancer and the common cold, and the most dramatic medical breakthroughs we have seen have taken the form of drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Ritalin—tailor-made to ensure that the new work demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally crazy.


What are the political implications of all this? First of all, we need to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of capitalism. One is that capitalism is identical with the market, and that both therefore are inimical to bureaucracy, which is supposed to be a creature of the state.

The second assumption is that capitalism is in its nature technologically progressive. It would seem that Marx and Engels, in their giddy enthusiasm for the industrial revolutions of their day, were wrong about this. Or, to be more precise: they were right to insist that the mechanization of industrial production would destroy capitalism; they were wrong to predict that market competition would compel factory owners to mechanize anyway. If it didn’t happen, that is because market competition is not, in fact, as essential to the nature of capitalism as they had assumed. If nothing else, the current form of capitalism, where much of the competition seems to take the form of internal marketing within the bureaucratic structures of large semi-monopolistic enterprises, would come as a complete surprise to them.

Defenders of capitalism make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological growth; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way as to increase overall prosperity; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world for everyone. It is clear that capitalism is not doing any of these things any longer. In fact, many of its defenders are retreating from claiming that it is a good system and instead falling back on the claim that it is the only possible system—or, at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own.

But how could anyone argue that current economic arrangements are also the only ones that will ever be viable under any possible future technological society? The argument is absurd. How could anyone know?

Granted, there are people who take that position—on both ends of the political spectrum. As an anthropologist and anarchist, I encounter anticivilizational types who insist not only that current industrial technology leads only to capitalist-style oppression, but that this must necessarily be true of any future technology as well, and therefore that human liberation can be achieved only by returning to the Stone Age. Most of us are not technological determinists.

But claims for the inevitability of capitalism have to be based on a kind of technological determinism. And for that very reason, if the aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world in which no one believes any other economic system could work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but any radically different technological future. Yet there’s a contradiction. Defenders of capitalism cannot mean to convince us that technological change has ended—since that would mean capitalism is not progressive. No, they mean to convince us that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but that those wonders take the form of modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (“I hear they are going to have flying cars pretty soon”), complex ways of juggling information and imagery, and still more complex platforms for filling out of forms.

I do not mean to suggest that neoliberal capitalism—or any other system—can be successful in this regard. First, there’s the problem of trying to convince the world you are leading the way in technological progress when you are holding it back. The United States, with its decaying infrastructure, paralysis in the face of global warming, and symbolically devastating abandonment of its manned space program just as China accelerates its own, is doing a particularly bad public relations job. Second, the pace of change can’t be held back forever. Breakthroughs will happen; inconvenient discoveries cannot be permanently suppressed. Other, less bureaucratized parts of the world—or at least, parts of the world with bureaucracies that are not so hostile to creative thinking—will slowly but inevitably attain the resources required to pick up where the United States and its allies have left off. The Internet does provide opportunities for collaboration and dissemination that may help break us through the wall as well. Where will the breakthrough come? We can’t know. Maybe 3D printing will do what the robot factories were supposed to. Or maybe it will be something else. But it will happen.

About one conclusion we can feel especially confident: it will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or any form of capitalism. To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

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