On Space Travel and Research

Thomas L. Wayburn, Ph.D.


Former Summer Undergraduate Intern at White Sands Proving Grounds

Summer Faculty Fellow at NASA-Ames Extraterrestrial Life

Once aspired to be astronaut, probably could have made it, but saw the error of my ways.

Last V-2 fired exploded almost directly over my head (to nearest second of elevation).


But his chief captor, Professor Weston, had meant plenty of harm.  He was a man obsessed with the idea which at this moment was sweeping all over our planet in obscure works of “scientifiction”, in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put in its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe.  It is the idea that humanity, having sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances, which are God’s quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome.  This for a start.  But beyond this lies the sweet poison of the false infinite – the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our species – a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant.  The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary. – C. S. Lewis, Perelandra.


C. S. Lewis has made the entire moral case.  Normally, Christians have the worst conceivable morals.  (Some, unlike Jesus, are not communists even).  But, C. S. got it right this time.  Bully for him.  I couldn’t have said it that well.  I shall stick to utilitarianism to disqualify space travel and most space research, although space research can claim a few useful results – but then so can devil worship.  By the way, I do not object to the deployment of a few communication satellites by unmanned rockets so long as they are never used for business, in any of its aspects, including the funding of scientific research.

Time does not permit fleshing out this essay at this time, although probably it will be included in my book.  Smart guys like you can supply the arguments and probably think you know why you know better.  Now, if we have two lines of reasoning that lead to contradictory results, it is insufficient to check every step of the argument you favor and accept its conclusion.  You must find and explain the mistake in the logic you don’t like.

Space Travel Uses Excessive Energy

I employ mostly arithmetic in my arguments in this section, which are based on “Thermodynamics, Availability, and Emergy”, so it’s unlikely that I have a mistake.  You must make a case for a larger sustainable supply of (high-grade) energy and, in addition prove that none of the undesirable effects will occur in a plentiful energy scenario.  How will you prove th at human economic development does not supplant wildlife habitats?  If you are callous about that,  …

Prove That It Causes Starvation

See “Thermodynamics, Availability, and Emergy”. 

NASA Not Forthcoming in Revealing Energy Costs

The bottom line, though, is that we can’t afford the emergy to go into space.  A scientist who represents NASA at scientific meetings (twice while I was in attendance) was unable to tell me how many kWhrs are consumed on a typical space-shuttle mission.  That’s something he should know.  That’s the first thing I want to know.  You can bet the number of people who have to starve to death to pay for a shuttle mission is shocking and, as previously shown, it is proper to view it from that perspective.  (There may be a thousand problems that would have to be removed before one could say that space research was the cause of their deprivation; but, when all those problems were removed, space research would stand between themselves and life itself.)

Easy To Get a Handle on Energy Costs

Take total energy budget for space research and multiply by the ratio of the national energy budget, E, to GDP (E/GDP) listed in the DOE data base.  This is an approximate value; however, for economic activities this vast, the distribution among economic sectors is sufficiently close to the distribution for the entire economy that this simple device will give a useful figure for energy costs.

Reference to Availability and Emergy

A discussion of emergy analysis applied to the space program is omitted from this version.

Big Science Bad for Everyone

In previous centuries, science was done by a few people working alone or in small intimate collaborations and great things were done, usually slightly outside the pale of mainstream social life.  Now, science is part of that mainstream, which has the entirely desirable effect that large numbers of people are able to experience its joys.  However, the Space Program is an example of Big Science, which has a number of potentially undesirable consequences:

Spin-Offs Can’t Justify

Unfortunately, spin-offs are not a good justification for a mass attack because if one wishes to develop a new adhesive it is most desirable to go after it directly rather than wait for serendipity.

Huge Overhead Passed on to Public

Very large costs  are passed on to the taxpayer or consumer in some way.

Worker Ants

Many ancillary workers haven't the slightest idea what their job means and probably couldn’t care less.  This contributes to stress and alienation, which permeate our society nowadays.  Many scientists become mere tools of a handful of “big guys” who decide everything.

Competing Scientists

“Look out for that guy behind you; he’s got a knife.”

Scientists Have Improper Obscure Agendas

Some scientists have obscure agendas, which may not even be ethical.  Many are advancing scientific fields in which they may be deeply interested but which are not useful to space research and will soon arrive at theoretical dead ends before dropping off the scientific landscape forever.  Scientists do not always choose their points of departure and directions of inquiries wisely.  In our opinion, most of space research constitutes an unwise choice.

Politics Subsumes Science

At my first meeting of my colleagues at NASA Ames the discussion was not about space research, or extraterrestrial life but rather about office politics.  “If anyone not in our chain of command asks you to do anything, come to me immediately.  This is an ‘end run’ and we must guard against such incursions into our territory.”  This was typical of what seemed to be the prime concern of NASA scientists.  I perceive this as a difficulty of our space program, which perhaps can be remedied, but frequently politics subsumes science and genius is stifled.

Scientists Involved in Mass Attack Less Creative


Humanity Not Ready for Export

See epigraph.

Space Pollution

Space junk etc.

Some People (Not Me) Think It Affects the Weather

Excessive rain and flooding in the Spring of 1997 has been attributed to shuttle missions by intelligent and observant laymen (non-scientists).  Also, excessively cold weather has been attributed to shuttle missions by the same people.  Typically throughout the ages in matters of deep controversy or questions involving profound paradigm shifts, laymen have been correct whilst scientists have persisted in error religiously.  Regardless of the actual case, one can easily imagine a public outcry if recent flood victims should imagine for one minute that NASA has caused their misery.  As much as I despise proponents of space travel whenever I am able to set aside their humanity, for example, when they appear on television or produce motion pictures, I am not willing to circulate the type of rumor that would set the radical right to work making explosives.  That would be a cheap shot of a type rarely seen outside the hockey rink.  I have nothing against hockey as a sport except the difficulty of making a “play” work well enough to score a goal!

May 2, 1997

Can’t Solve Population Crisis

Moreover, space research cannot solve our desperate over-population problem, notwithstanding the specious reasoning of people like Julian Simon.  Try to calculate if it can.  The National Space Society (NSS) says not.  More to the point, it exacerbates the problems attendant upon excessive population because it consumes tremendous amounts of available high-grade energy - both directly and indirectly.  Everyone left behind would have nothing but a burnt out shell after those who had purchased survival, or, rather, a slight chance at survival, had departed this shining orb, this home of homes, this Earth.

Bound To End Up in Disappointment

It won’t help.

Creates False Heroes

Astronauts indeed!  Christie McAuliff (sp?) actually planned on parlaying her stroke of “luck” into a run for Congress!  A friend of mine was a candidate, but lost out to Christie.  He had no such ambitions.  He just wanted to be a more interesting teacher.

Frivolously Dangerous

It’s glamorous because they can get killed for nothing.  I read the science report printed daily in The Houston Post during the missions.  Science?  I think not.

Easy To Sabotage

But, most frightening of all, as anti-technologists perceive these drawbacks of space research - especially manned missions to far away places - they may wish to sabotage us. This is easy to do.  I doubt that they can be stopped and the possibility exists that some insiders could be appropriately disillusioned to bring about this worst case scenario. Undoubtedly, many fanatics consider that the human race has done such a bad job with earth that any means are justified to prevent them from exporting their destructive attitudes and social irresponsibility elsewhere in space.  Another Challenger?  Probably something much more catastrophic.


Space is the common property of all of humanity or of a population larger than humanity or of no one.  To invade space, especially with commerce (viewed metaphorically as a disease like cancer in this essay), would be improper even if every single human being signed off on it.  But that is quite impossible as I shall not sign off on it and when I am gone someone will take my place.  In effect I am saying that I share the custodianship of space and you may not invade a domain of which I am the steward.  Just stay out of my space; I don’t permit it.  What’s that you say?  The common will must prevail.  Only if it can be defended according to the principles of aesthetics, reasonableness, and utility, and the intrusion of commerce into space is guaranteed to be defeated on all three counts.  Someone said that the exploration was a joint international effort, therefore it was sanctioned by all of humanity.  My reply is that the leadership of the sovereign states of the world and of the United Nations does not represent all of humanity.  On the contrary, it is opposed to it.  Leadership represents essentially – itself.

Permit me to make one more observation with respect to who has the authority to permit the exploration of space.  Let us begin by asking who has the authority to permit the exploration of earth?  We all know the famous explorers, e.g., Columbus, were not truly explorers but rather invaders.  America had already been “discovered” by the people who lived there.  When I bought my five acres in Upstate New York, I did not buy the mineral rights.  Who retained the mineral rights and why?  But, what about the deed to the property that I did obtain?  A title search was made (at my expense) and the history of the transfer of ownership was traced back through several “owners”, but not very far back.  What would have been discovered if the title were searched back to Columbus?  On the wall of the local barbershop hung a map with huge areas of the county ceded to John Doe, say, by King George III.  Where did King George get the authority to cede parts of Upstate New York to anyone?  By the sword, that is, illegally and immorally by every rational law of God and man.  Now, if the title to every piece of land in the United States is in doubt, how can authority to explore outer space be valid?  Outer space is unoccupied, so you say.  I’m sorry, but that won’t wash.  Who has the authority to give one person the right to occupy it rather than another?  The answer is no one.  I have provided a short essay in Vol. II [12] of my collected essays elaborating my position on space research.

Commercialism Forbidden

I have ... learned that trade curses everything it handles; and, though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.  – Thoreau

Space is part of the commons that belong to every sentient being in the universe.  I, for one, forbid the intrusion of commerce into my legacy, which is sufficient to disallow it.

From CHAPTER 11.  A REFORMED SOCIETY WITH A NATURAL ECONOMY in On the Preservation of Species by the author.  This was written on or about October 28, 1996 also at Houston.

Question 5.  Since posterity cannot express its wishes, how are we to protect the rights of posterity and who will do it?  How will posterity’s share of the earth’s resources be used?  Who is the rightful guardian of the rights of posterity to the earth’s natural resources?  [Note added 1-22-97:  Extend this question to the rest of the universe under the absurd notion, adopted by the space community, that the entire universe is the legacy of the human race.]

I guess we all are.  I wish to propose an interesting possibility for the edification and amusement of the reader:  We all know that we have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.  That means we ought to have over one trillion ancestors only fifty generations ago.  But the population was smaller formerly not larger, therefore many of our antecedents must have been the same people.  Now, suppose my wife and I have (the maximum allowable) two children.  These in turn take mates (assuming monogamy, etc., persists) and each couple has two children.  If I count my in-laws as part of my posterity, after n generations the number of my posterity is P = 2 ∙ 2n + 2n-1 = 5 ∙ 2n-1 – assuming everyone lives in the youngest two generations; that is, no one dies before his grandparents, everyone reproduces, etc.  Now further suppose that the carrying capacity of the earth is ten billion souls.  Then, taking P = 10 ∙ 109 and solving for n, my posterity will exceed ten billion souls, the carrying capacity of the earth, in only 32 generations, or, allowing 25 years per generation, 800 years.  After only 800 years, all of posterity could be my posterity.  I wish to have a voice in defending the rights of my descendants!

Question 6.  In view of this possibility, how much input should I have in decisions concerning the use of these resources?

I must exercise the veto power at the very least, but this discussion is far from over.

Houston, Texas

October 10, 1994

Revised September 27, 1996

Revised September 27, 1996


Inaccessibility of Outer Space

Taken from "On the Conservation-within-Capitalism Scenario" on September 30, 2005

Some people might object that, while sustainable growth is impossible on Earth, we should in no wise limit our thinking to this tiny orb.  This is a fair objection that deserves a serious answer.  Within our lifetimes, travel to distant worlds has become almost routine – in fiction if not in reality.  I wish to point out the principal objections to this idea at this time:

1.      Ultimately, colonization involves conquest and depredation, which was never right but perhaps excusable at the time of Magellan as no serious philosopher had addressed the issue previous to Magellan’s time as far as I know and, even more likely, as far as Magellan knew.  Nowadays, it would be very difficult to find someone who would not acknowledge that most serious philosophers reject conquest and depredation as acceptable behavior.  Even the predatory Neo-Cons cloak their rhetoric in Liberal, i.e., politically-correct, clothing.

2.      The limitation of travel speed by the speed of light makes travel to extra-solar planets capable of supporting life inconsistent with the longest lifespan of a human being that can reasonable be expected to be achieved within the Twenty-First Century – dreams of suspended animation notwithstanding.  Suppose, on the other hand, that, despite the improbability of doing so, a spaceship could be built sufficiently complete that the children, the children’s children, and so on for many generations might enjoy a reasonably bearable life living on that spaceship perhaps under conditions no worse than conditions on Spaceship Earth; and, suppose, in addition, that such a nation of space travelers could retain as part of their cultural heritage the understanding of their mission as space travelers to continue human existence upon a habitable planet at a distance of many light years from Earth.  Supposing all that, the generation that was faced with imminent arrival at the destination would necessarily regard the arrival as essentially the end of the only world they had ever known.  Although, in this thought experiment, we know that life might go on, they might anticipate it with the same dread as we should experience facing the end of life on Earth.

3.      To make life on the spaceship so comfortable that the impending arrival at the distant habitable planet will seem like the end of the world would require a truly large spaceship - perhaps the size of a small moon.  To build it would require harvesting the very last of the useful resources of Earth.  The expected energy returned on energy invested is poor.

Houston, Texas

May 11, 2005