State of the Union

Can Equations Predict Happiness?

Want to be happy? There’s an equation for that, according to British neuroscientists. In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. The Atlantic‘s Cari Romm reports:

In the first leg of the study, the researchers developed the equation by having a group of volunteers play decision-making games, rewarding certain choices with small amounts of money. Every few rounds, participants were asked to rate their happiness on a sliding scale, while their neurological responses to the rewards were measured with MRI scans.

In the second leg, the team tested the equation on a larger audience by turning the decision-making task into a smartphone game, drawing players by the thousands. The results were as their model had predicted: When players expected a reward, they were less happy to receive it than if they hadn’t expected anything at all.

After compiling their research, the neuroscientists came up with this equation as an accurate predictor of happiness:


However, there’s an important catch to this equation that we must consider. As The Atlantic puts it, the neuroscientists’ research “measures only immediate reward, not long-term satisfaction.” The above equation specifically measures your response to expectations and rewards (or disappointments)—not your overall metaphysical state of being. How could one measure and quantify the sort of deep, value-based happiness that truly motivates humans long-term? Maybe there’s an equation for that; but it seems unlikely.

The equation above seems to be describing something a bit different from real “happiness.” It identifies something our society constantly identifies with happiness, but is in actuality quite different: namely, “pleasure.” It can contribute to happiness, but pleasure is neither necessary nor sufficient for real happiness. It’s defined most often as a feeling or sensation of happiness, synonymous with satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification—all the more temporary facets of “happiness.” It describes how you feel in a current moment.

But Aristotle put “pleasure” and “happiness” into very different boxes. Happiness in his conception is the highest good, the end to which we all aspire. But happiness, in his mind, requires ethical living: pursuing the supreme good necessitates that we fulfill our vocation as human beings, with virtue and integrity. Moral virtue is an integral part of happiness—and virtue helps us cultivate a proper response to “pain” and “pleasure” in life. Thus, “pleasure” is not seen as a good in and of itself—it is a facet of life that must be navigated, considered, and rightly responded to, in the larger pursuit of true happiness.

To Aristotle, happiness is an activity: a pursuit, not a passive response to life circumstances or expectations. The word eudaimonia (happiness) carries with it the idea of “flourishing” or “success.” This is something we do, not something we merely feel. In contrast, “pleasure” is exactly that: a feeling. And whereas we may be able to quantify cognitive responses to pleasure and pain, we cannot automatically turn such things into real “happiness.”

Our lost understanding of eudaimonia has turned us into the sort of people who seek out happiness in circumstantial or experiential mediums. And this seeking implies that we have already lost something—something that would enable us to grasp and retain happiness, no matter the pleasures or pains that plague our lives.

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Autonomy and Automation in Old Age

The world’s fast-growing elderly population faces more age-related disease, higher health costs, and fewer children to care for them than ever, while the resulting caregiver shortage puts them at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Some medical professionals, like geriatrics professor Louise Aronson, are proposing robots as a solution to both assist overwhelmed human caregivers and replace those guilty of mistreatment, as “most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Aronson’s robotic geriatrics are no fantasy but an existing solution in places like Japan, which has the world’s grayest population and the economic resources available for $100K, yard-tall robots to be feasible. Yet Japan’s relationship with robots shows that making robot caregivers cheaper might not make them any more successful. Japan’s elderly have rejected the robots, asking instead for humans. The only robots with modest success among Japanese elderly have imitated pets, providing limited social engagement rather than medical care and companionship—tasks still preferably assigned to human caregivers.

As Japan shows, the robot caregiver solution does not fail on economic or technological grounds, where boundaries are largely surmountable with time. Rather, turning an intimate job like geriatrics into an automated service sector is a misunderstanding of the profession at hand, which requires both emotional and ethical investment in patients.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper, countering David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots, explained that such encouragement of human-robot intimacy stems from a misunderstanding of the human as mere biochemical machine. The caregiver shortage does not merely stem from a lack of medical aides to perform mechanical tasks, but also an absence of loving companions who ensure the experience of disability and old age is not a solitary one. These robots, after all, are often explicitly designed to counter the negative health effects of loneliness.

But that loneliness has been cemented in a medical and legal culture that is guided above all else by the principle of individual bodily autonomy. Advance directives and living wills allow patients to lay out their medical decisions ahead of time, discouraging the real-time participation of family members or other caregivers in the medical lives of the elderly. As Leon Kass, then chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, reflected in a 2005 report on geriatrics, “Living wills make autonomy and self-determination the primary values at a time of life when one is no longer autonomous or self-determining, and when what one needs is loyal and loving care.”

This cultural reluctance to participate communally in the care of the elderly often expresses itself as avoiding the “burdening” of loved ones. But as Gilbert Meilaender asked in 1991, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He continued, “I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”

As Meilaender and Kass suggest, the central problem is not medical incompetence, or even moral indifference, but a break in generational relationships. Neither the elderly nor their medical professionals want them to be dependent on robots rather than people, but, especially among the childless or otherwise socially disconnected, the aged may have little choice. As such, the inhumanity of Aronson’s geriatrics may not be a particularly medical problem, but a social problem. As long as we culturally insist on autonomy, we will technologically insist on automation.

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Aggregated Soul, Quantified Self

Know thyself!

According to the Quantified Self movement, data aggregation is the answer to one of mankind’s oldest and most fundamental problems. Its catchphrase, “self knowledge through numbers,” implicitly suggests that objective self analysis by various means of data collection will allow users to reach their goals, whatever those may be.

Lo! Self knowledge, delivered in an easy-to-read graph and often helpfully accompanied by concrete, attainable steps to self-improvement.

The American public has proven incredibly receptive to the idea. Indeed, the Quantified Self movement is nestled within a much larger industry of self-quantification and description. Josh Bersin for Forbes Magazine points out that we have turned nearly everything into a means to this end:

Not only are we instrumenting our bodies, we are instrumenting everything else. … Facebook itself is an “instrumentation” system – it encourages us to post more and more data about where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are with. And Twitter, which now has around 260 million users, has become a self-description engine.

One man has taken to coding himself a daily itinerary. HTML prompts appear at various intervals, reminding him to get up and stretch, tell his wife he loves her, evaluate his energy level, take 10 minutes to think, etc.  Another man used the massive amounts of data he self-collected to lose 100 pounds and launch himself into a successful business career. And then there’s the man who just got drunk.

A look into the ways consumers use the data collection industry gives insight into why they are self-aggregating in the first place: they are telling a story. (Take, for example, the tendency of Facebook and Twitter users to thoroughly chronicle and distribute their existential minutiae.) The “narrative” of the Age of Information is a torrential data stream.

While this transformation seems radical, American society has experienced rapid shifts in the quantity and speed of shared data before. A City Journal article points out that the printing press, telegraph, and telephone each vaulted data distribution to what were then-unprecedented levels. The authors, Mark P. Mills and M. Anthony Mills, make the distinction between two prior stages of the information revolution and the peculiar nature of this latest development:

The first information revolution spawned mass printing and telecommunications; the second saw the ascendance of mass computing and the Internet. … We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

The distribution of this information seems to require no interpretation; only mediation, passive transmission of fact. It is tempting to lament that the qualitative self—man as storyteller, as interpreter—has been largely supplanted by the quantitative self: a man of data and metadata, of fact and sleek efficiency.

Though our imagination may very well have shifted, our nature has not. We are intrinsically subjective, incapable of complete objectivity. The image of mankind rendered by quantification, though ever more extensive, is by no means comprehensive. Scientific description cannot now and never will alter fundamental facts of human nature. Relentless reduction to objective fact cannot somehow circumscribe mankind.

“Know thyself” is an exhortation as profound and relevant in the Age of Information as it was in the age of Classical Greece: there is more to know, more to be known by, than numbers.

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The Limits of Science in Matters of Justice

Chris Mooney of Mother Jones recently reviewed Harry Collins’s book, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, and argued that the public has “no business challenging scientific experts.” Collins’s early work was actually an attempt to debunk the 1950s unthinking reverence for scientific expertise. “Coming out of the 1950s heyday, [Collins] argues, scientists were treated as almost mythic luminaries and geniuses who couldn’t be questioned. And that just wasn’t accurate.”

But Collins’s recent book, the subject of Mooney’s article, combats the subsequent devaluation of expertise brought on by popular skepticism of the scientific community. The assumption of a radically postmodern attitude toward the authority of information caused many to assume that knowledge, like belief, is purely socially constructed. This presupposition undermines much of the scientific community’s rhetorical clout, in addition to muddying the public forum: if expertise cannot be trusted, what can be?

But, as a recent National Geographic article points out, the authority of science has often been misappropriated, with dangerous consequences. For instance, it has been relied upon by the judicial system to legitimate unjust rulings: in one particularly infamous case, Buck v. Bell, the court cited scientific evidence to prove that reproduction on Carrie Buck’s part would burden society with criminality and imbecility. She was forcibly sterilized. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote in the opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The National Geographic article explores the implications for the use of scientific data in contemporary court cases, pointing out that genetics research is being pointed to by defense attorneys with increasing frequency in order to mitigate their clients’ sentences. But the author also takes note of the limitations of scientific findings when they are applied to complex human situations far from the laboratory. She notes that after the Newtown shooting, the Connecticut Medical Examiner took the unusual step of commissioning a screening of 20-year-old Adam Lanza‘s DNA:

The screen will find something. Each of us carries genetic mutations somewhere along our 3-billion-letter DNA code. Some mutations are benign, some are not; some have huge effects, others tiny. But there’s no way to know how (or whether) any of them affects behavior.

Another thing I’d bet on: The media (and the public) will use the results of that genetic screen to explain what Lanza did. We all want answers, and a genetic test seemingly provides a long string of them. Answers from science, no less. But, as was pointed out by many scientists and commentators at the time, searching for answers in Lanza’s DNA is futile. “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence,” read an editorial in Nature. “Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

That’s just it: science answers questions of how, not why. Insofar as the American code of law was written to uphold a set of moral goods—the sanctity of human life, property, and liberty among them—the judgments of the courts are not strictly rational, but moral as well. Read More…

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Treating Heartbreak With a Pill

Instead of comforting a friend after a break up with ice cream and a movie, bioethicist Brian D. Earp foresees the possibility of an anti-love drug, which could nip those regretful feelings in the bud.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology, he anticipates a toned down version of the chemical castration cocktail that is offered to pedophiles today. His paper isn’t science-fiction speculation; he cites antidepressants and other existing drugs that could be repurposed for their anti-romantic side effects.

Earp subdivides love into three components: lust (the desire to have sex with the beloved), attraction (frequent, even obsessive thoughts about the beloved), and attachment (feeling of security with the beloved, anxiety without), and puts together a literature review of possible interventions to short-circuit any of these feelings or a combination thereof.

Omitted from Earp’s taxonomy of love is agape—the love that desires nothing above the good of the beloved, and does not require anything in return. Earp’s interventions all focus on suppressing or dampening the experience of lust, attraction, or attachment, but not on sublimating them into an expression of the higher love of agape. If a patient chose to forgo medical treatment, Earp imagines he or she would address the problem by “focusing on the loved one’s faults, … deleting all of her emails,” still focusing on expunging love rather than transfiguring it.

Among the pathological loves Earp lists that might merit these medical erasures are:

  • Romantic love for someone other than one’s spouse.
  • Love of a battered woman or man for the abuser.
  • Unrequited love that leads to despair or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Incestuous love.
  • Love for a cult leader

In these circumstances, and others like them, Earp concludes that “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology … could be justified or even morally required.” Earp circumscribes this moral imperative to mean that it would be morally wrong to interfere with a person choosing treatment, not that it would be immoral to refuse it, but it is worth noting that most of the examples that Earp cites are ones where the lover would not want to take the drugs, at least initially.

An individual’s choice will be shaped by the soft coercion of friends, family, and society deciding it’s finally time to intervene. Just as voluntary euthanasia has drawn criticism for the potential for weak groups (women, the elderly, the disabled) to feel pressured to die “altruistically” so as not to become a burden, anti-love drugs might create a new social responsibility for the romantically bereft to take their medicine and move on. Read More…

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Save Smallpox, Not Pandas

San Diego can give up its hopes of producing a sister panda cub to Washington D.C.’s Bao Bao in the near future. Both of the San Diego Zoo’s pandas have encountered health issues that make it unlikely that either will work as half of a breeding pair again. The male panda has lost one testicle to cancer and has a heart condition; the female has probably hit menopause.

Of course, these new setbacks only represent a marginal increase in difficulty for the breeding program; the major obstacle remains the pandas themselves. San Diego’s pair are the only pandas in the United States who have managed to reproduce naturally. Zoos appear to have stocked their pens with pandas of the Bartleby variety, who would prefer not to reproduce, despite zookeepers attempts to show the pandas porn, artificially inseminate pandas with the sperm of deceased males, and even build obstacles into the panda pens, in the hopes that the female will trip over them and fall into proper breeding position.

Even when these attempts succeed, pandas have a tendency to neglect or accidentally suffocate the cubs they manage to produce. The baby pandas that survive remain the property of the Chinese government, forcing a kind of sterility on any panda breeding project.

While we struggle to keep captive pandas alive, next week the World Health Organization will decide whether to definitively wipe another species from the earth, one considerably more dangerous. On May 19th, the WHO will vote on a recommendation that Russia and the United States destroy their remaining stores of smallpox. Smallpox has been completely eradicated, so, if the samples were destroyed, it would be nearly impossible for the disease to ever recur as the result of accidental breach or bioterrorism. However, destroying the disease stocks would preclude any further research.

Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the National Institute of Health’s NIAID Integrated Research Facility has been using our national stores of smallpox to infect monkeys with the disease, in order to develop new vaccines for humans. His research, and that of other scientists trying to learn how to contain this and similar plagues, would be cancelled if the smallpox reserves were destroyed.

There is no smallpox equivalent of the panda cams; almost no one can quickly picture the delicate, football-shaped smallpox capsids in the way we can call up images of roly-poly pandas. Smallpox preservation is plainly intended to serve the good of humans alone, and no larger environmental cause. There’s nothing particularly noble or aesthetically compelling about the cause.

Panda preservation should fall into the same category. Zoos are not conserving the panda for the sake of the panda but for the entertainment of the human spectators. Pandas in captivity could not sustain themselves, and there is little hope they can be trained to carry on their species without intervention. Any conservationist who praises themselves for “saving” the panda must recognize that the zoo breeding programs do little more than animate the corpse of the species.

The smallpox stockpiles fall more naturally under the the project of “conservation” than that of panda preservation. Smallpox reserves and research are meant to conserve the existence of humans. Pandas are more similar to the destructively bred bulldog, which also is incapable of reproducing on its own. If zoos wish to keep pandas around, they should admit it is for the sake of humans, not the pandas themselves.

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Polio Breaks Out After the U.S. Breaks Trust

President Roosevelt dining with polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia

Only two diseases have ever been completely eradicated worldwide: smallpox and rinderpest. But hopes for eradicating a third have dimmed with the World Health Organization’s announcement that the spread of polio has become a global health emergency.

After over 25 years of eradication campaigns, polio had been beaten back into only a handful of countries, and, by 2012, polio was eliminated or in sharp decline in all but three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. But, as the virus has come roaring back, the WHO has set travel restrictions on new hotspots. Residents of Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon are advised not to leave their countries unless they have been vaccinated against the disease and cannot carry it beyond their borders.

Pakistan is the cradle of the resurgent polio. Of the 74 cases of wild polio reported this year to date, 59 occurred in Pakistan. The increasing prevalence isn’t due to a new mutation or drug resistance; the resistance is coming from the Pakistani people, not the microorganisms that live inside them.

The vaccinators lost moral credibility when, in order to confirm the identity of Bin Laden prior to his assassination, the United States ran a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad. Although doctors claimed they were going door to door to give inoculations, the blood draws they conducted were used for DNA tests discover whether any relatives of Bin Laden were living in town.

After Seal Team Six carried out their mission, some Taliban leaders banned vaccinations in the regions under their control and over a dozen vaccinators were murdered, forcing Pakistan to put its eradication campaign on hold. The doctor who conducted the operation was arrested by Pakistan’s own intelligence agency and held on charges of treason.

The doctor was accused of betraying his country to serve another government, but the United States itself came under fire for betraying the medical community and putting public health at risk. Scientific American excoriated the United States for disrupting and profaning a historically neutral and altruistic profession. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) said that the CIA operation was a “grave manipulation of the medical act” and endangered the lifesaving work doctors conducted around the globe.

If doctors could be spies in disguise, how could nations welcome them in? In Syria, where polio is spreading amid the chaos of the civil war, how can vaccinators persuade Assad to let them move freely within the country, if they could be doubling as spies, assassins, or gun runners? Read More…

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Man Cannot Live on Soylent Alone

Rob Rhinehart has created a beverage that is “nutritionally complete”: in other words, if you want to, the only substance you will ever have to consume—for the rest of your life—is “Soylent,” his chalky-colored liquid concoction. In his Atlantic piece “The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete,” Roc Morin interviewed Rhinehart, and asked him about the genesis and motivation of the Soylent project. The interview revealed some interesting insights into Rhinehart’s understanding of the “natural,” and his rather Hobbesian understanding of the created world. He told Morin:

Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.

His line about the “natural state of man” can’t help but call to mind Thomas Hobbes’ similar definition: that in the state of nature, man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to Rhinehart’s point of view, food is a basic and practical function that we employ to stay alive. The natural hearkens back to a time of frightening aggression in the created order, and technology is supposed to save us from this natural order of things.

But what of those who believe that “natural” is better? That biting into a fresh, ripe tomato is, in fact, the best thing you can do for both your body and soul? Rhinehart argues that our understanding of such things is skewed by cultural and social precedent. In actuality, he argues, plants are not our friends:

I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.

This point of view negates two important viewpoints: first, the perspective of Christians and other religious people who believe in an intelligent and ordered creation. Second, it undermines the perspective of biologists who believe that nature has evolved to work in conjunction as well as in competition. Food commentator Michael Pollan argues that our social traditions regarding food aren’t bad—in fact, they have historically kept us healthy: before the days of nutrition experts and diet websites, “We relied on culture, which is another way of saying: on the accumulated wisdom of the tribe … All of us carry around rules of thumb about eating that have been passed down in our families or plucked from the cultural conversation.” Additionally, Pollan argued in a 2007 article that evolution has created a symbiotic system between plants, animals, and people—and that we should think of food consumption as a “relationship”: Read More…

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How Culture Wars Hijack Science Discussions

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Last week, I wrote about how scientists and their advocates overreact to surveys showing widespread American skepticism of evolution and the Big Bang. Thanks to former TAC intern Robert Long, yesterday I encountered Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project detailing the evidence of how certain beliefs about science are absolutely more reflective of cultural identity than scientific knowledge.

While his primary focus is climate change, Kahan takes up evolution as a similar issue, and finds:

if you think the proportion of survey respondents who say they “believe in evolution” is an indicator of the quality of the science education that people are receiving in the U.S., you are misinformed.

Do you know what the correlation is between saying “I believe in evolution” and possessing even a basic understanding of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variance”—the core elements of the modern synthesis in evolutionary science?


Those who say they “do believe” are no more likely to be able to give a high-school biology-exam-quality account of how evolution works than those who say they “don’t.”

In fact, he recounts that the National Science Foundation recently proposed removing the true/false evolution question from its survey of scientific knowledge altogether, because they found “giving the correct answer to that question doesn’t cohere with giving the right answer to the other questions in NSF’s science-literacy inventory.” As Kahan continues, “What that tells you, if you understand test-question validity, is that the evolution item isn’t measuring the same thing as the other science-literacy items.” While the other scientific knowledge questions did cohere, the NSF researchers found that their evolution question was instead measuring cultural identifiers, especially “the significance of religiosity in their lives.” Given the fraught cultural history behind the evolution debate, it makes a great deal of sense that a question that has been explicitly framed, by both sides, as an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion would come to be determined by attitudes towards religion.

What was a more surprising result, to me at least, was that “as their level of science comprehension increases, individuals with a highly secular identity become more likely to say ‘they believe’ in evolution; but as those with a highly religious identity become more science literate, in contrast, they become even more likely to say they don’t.” This result is repeated on climate change, as “as their score on one or another measure of science comprehension goes up, Democrats become more likely, and Republicans less, to say they ‘believe’ in human-caused global warming.”

As Kahan takes pains to emphasize, then, arguments over evolution and climate change are absolutely not matters of scientific education, or knowledge vs. ignorance. They’re culture wars. One can obtain an “impeccable” Ph.D. studying paleontology, or practice neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, and still answer an evolution true/false question in the negative. Likewise, one can enthusiastically and indignantly affirm evolution’s truth while not having the first idea of how to explain genetic mutations. Read More…

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SpaceX Sues to Shoot for the Stars

SpaceX Dragon Berths at the International Space Station NASA / cc

Silicon Valley CEO Elon Musk is used to red tape interfering with his transportation companies. First, his electric Tesla cars were kept out of states like New Jersey, when the state’s laws barred the company from selling cars directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man at the dealership.

While that suit is pending, Musk is opening a new case against the federal government, which he claims is unfairly excluding SpaceX from competition to launch Air Force and military satellites. Currently, the next round of 36 rocket core purchases are earmarked specifically for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has successfully completed 9 launches for NASA, though only half of those launches match the configuration required by the Air Force. The Falcon 9 is four times cheaper than the competing rockets from ULA, and SpaceX is working to make their rockets recoverable and reusable with the vertical takeoff/vertical landing system shown below in a recent test.

The bottleneck that SpaceX is facing is a matter of certification. Currently, SpaceX is not eligible to compete for contracts, because the company’s inspection and evaluation by the Air Force is still in process. Musk is requesting that the certification process he refers to as just “a paperwork exercise” be sped up. If the bureaucracy is impossible to rush, he’d settle for it slowing down, and waiting to award the long-term contract until SpaceX is eligible to compete.

After the legacy of the Challenger disaster, it’s understandable that the national space program is leery of embracing the Silicon Valley slogan of “Move fast. Break things.” Although the certification process may be onerous and badly-timed, it is not obvious that these hurdles are more obstructive than helpful.

However, Musk forsees a different danger in delays. In a time of increasing tensions with Russia, Musk believes it’s particularly urgent that America’s national security launches be carried out by an American company. In testimony before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Musk said:

Our Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are truly made in America. We design and manufacture the rockets in California and Texas, with key suppliers throughout the country, and launch them from either Vandenberg AFB or Cape Canaveral AFS. This stands in stark contrast to the United Launch Alliance’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas. In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.

Until 2017, regardless of the provenance of parts, NASA will remain dependent on the Russian space program and their Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS. An all-American industry could give the United States more autonomy in managing launches and logistics.

Ultimately, space exploration is, by necessity, too collaborative for the United States to achieve independence by sourcing their parts differently. Launches and payloads must be coordinated with other nations to keep the International Space Station running. Thus, the ISS was exempted from the recent order for NASA to disengage from their Russian counterparts. Additionally, all nations are forced to work together to manage the proliferation of space junk and mitigate the danger to any nation’s satellites.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is unlikely to revolutionize our pursuit of the stars, but the company has the potential to lower the cost of rockets and raise pressure on competing companies to innovate. The Air Force shouldn’t cut corners to include Musk’s company in the newest round of contracts, but, if a small delay or accommodation would allow SpaceX to participate, we may speed up the pace of progress.

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