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Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions. I emphatically do NOT speak for my employer.

Response to Dr. Mike Griffin's Speech on
Real vs. Acceptable Reasons for Space Exploration

Peter A. Taylor
February 2007

NASA Administrator Dr. Mike Griffin recently gave a speech entitled "Space Exploration: Real Reasons and Acceptable Reasons." This speech discusses the discomfort that advocates of space exploration have with some of the arguments they feel that they have to use.

Dr. Griffin uses the word, "competitiveness" rather than "prestige," but I think we're talking about basically the same thing. I'd tend to lump "monument building" in with "prestige," as well. It's competition for status, on both the personal and national levels. NASA was born out of cold war superpower competition, and while we are no longer in such a directly adversarial relationship with Russia or the USSR, I think that competition for prestige is still a very powerful part of the motivation for a manned space program. I also think that Dr. Griffin is right in saying that people are reluctant to make this argument directly, but I think he has overlooked one of the reasons for this reluctance.

There was a book by an economist, Robert Frank, called Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status, that looked at the economic implications of the competition for social status. Frank was mostly interested in how it messes up standard economic theory when people buy products not because of the products' absolute qualities but because of their qualities relative to what the Joneses down the street are buying. But he also mentioned a paradox that, among other things, makes it hard to get meaningful information about people's motivations with regard to social status. I'm calling this "Frank's Paradox."

Suppose that I am a young, single man, wanting to improve my social status, perhaps to make myself more attractive to the young ladies in my neighborhood. I decide to buy a large, new, obviously expensive car to show off the fact that I have a good enough job that I can afford it. Furthermore, I do this despite the fact that I actually prefer a smaller, more maneuverable car that is easier to park, more comfortably within my means, less likely to get stolen, etc. Now suppose that several of these ladies strike up conversations with me and ask me how I like my new car. Shall I tell them the truth? "No, I don't really like it and can barely afford it. I only bought it in order to show off my wealth and try to attract women." The probable consequence of telling the bald truth in this situation is that I will come across as being insecure, which will have the exact opposite effect on my social status from what I intended.

It seems that the more important social status is as a motivation, the more important it is to deny its importance. I recall reading a news article shortly before the cancellation of the Mir space station program in which a prominent Russian supporter of Mir argued with great heat that the motive for preserving Mir was not just national prestige, but that there were also compelling scientific reasons for preserving it in addition to ISS. My reaction to this statement was, "Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much."

(Incidently, the other day I went looking for a copy of that interview with the Russian official that I could cite, and I was unable to find anything using Google. If anyone can help me find some examples of this, I would appreciate it.)

The problem is that people judge us on our apparent motives as well as on our accomplishments. In so far as our Real Reason is social status, if this is not also an Acceptable Reason, we have to bundle our Real Reason with something else that is a credible Acceptable Reason or we will lower our status rather than raise it.

For example, President Kennedy's "because they are hard" argument drew precisely the right amount of attention to the prestige associated with a Moon landing, yet it was implicitly bundled with the development of missile technology for the Cold War. Without that context, saying that we choose to land on the Moon because it is hard would not have made sense. In contrast, in the movie, The Mosquito Coast, the main character, Allie Fox, builds refrigeration equipment and tries to deliver ice to tropical aborigines. If there were a compelling reason why the aborigines needed a little bit of ice, Fox would have struck the viewer as heroic, but in the movie, he came across as an egotistical fool who put his family through needless hardship. The prestigious "because they are hard" argument has to be bundled with something else, and it matters what that "something else" is.

What I think has changed in recent decades is not that we have gotten away from Real Reasons so much as that the credibility of our Acceptable Reasons has plummeted, and we have gotten more defensive about it. To paraphrase President Kennedy, we emphasize Acceptable Reasons for the manned space program not because these arguments are strong, but because they are weak. Specifically, many of these Acceptable Reasons have depended at least implicitly on launch costs being dramatically reduced in the forseeable future. There may have been an Acceptable Reason for building Stanley Kubrick's moon base in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it depended on a Pan Am Clipper that we have not been able to produce in real life. Until we get our launch costs down dramatically, we will continue to have a hard time explaining what the manned space program is for.

Again, these are my personal opinions. I emphatically do NOT speak for my employer.

Addendum 1: Andy Love writes (2-12-2007),

I like the paradoxical aspect of the situation - it doesn't look good to admit you're doing it to look good. Reminds me of this quote from Dave Barry:
The Rolex Hyperion. An elegant new standard in quality excellence and discriminating handcraftsmanship. .... or the individual who is very secure. Who doesn't need to be reminded all the time that he is very successful. Much more successful than the people who laughed at him in high school. Because of his acne. People who are probably nowhere near as successful as he is now. Maybe he'll go to his 20th reunion, and they'll see his Rolex Hyperion. Hahahahahahahahaha.

Addendum 2 (8-25-2007): Raymond Smullyan writes in This Book Needs No Title: Paradoxes, Labyrinths, and Conundrums:


A: For a person of your accomplishments, you are remarkably modest!

B: I'm not modest.

A: Ah, I've caught you! By disclaiming your modesty, you're trying to create the impression that you are so modest that you won't take credit for anything--not even your modesty! But I see through you! You are affecting the air of modesty, but in so doing, you are being most immodest!

B: It's like I said--I'm not modest.

Addendum 3 (8-25-2007):

I want to amplify my point about prestige being a powerful part of the motivation for the manned space program. Talking about reasons for the manned space program is a little like talking about the reasons for the American Civil War. A serious historian, or a Confederate sympathizer, would probably argue that there were lots of reasons motivating lots of people in different degrees, and that slavery was only one of these reasons. But at the same time, slavery was a necessary condition for the war, and it came close to being a sufficient reason. The war would not have occurred otherwise, and seemed nearly inevitable with slavery. It may be an oversimplification to say that the Civil War was about slavery, but as oversimplifications go, it's a pretty good one. The war made sense in terms of slavery. The other motivations were incidental.

Similarly, we space enthusiasts all have our own pet justifications and mixes of reasons for the manned space program, but prestige seems to be necessary and, if not sufficient, then very nearly so. Certainly prestige is an essential part of what it takes for the space program to be looked upon favorably by people outside of the avid space enthusiast community, who don't take our asteroid mining, solar power satellite, and Mars colonization dreams seriously. The quest for prestige explains why people advocate all manner of glamorous manned space projects in the complete absence of serious economic analysis, and in the face of scientific competition from cheap robots. I believe it is only a slight oversimplification to say that the manned space program is driven by matters of prestige.

But because of Frank's Paradox, it is impossible for space enthusiasts to discuss prestige openly without pretty much defeating the purpose. The space advocacy community thus aquires a similarity to what Kurt Vonnegut described as a "granfalloon," an organization that is incapable of giving a rational account of its own purpose. Wikipedia describes a granfalloon variously as "a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless...," "associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise," or, quoting the original Vonnegut, "a proud and meaningless association of human beings." Perhaps I am doing violence to Vonnegut's original meaning, which may have been the fundamental meaninglessness of these organizations. My point is not to suggest that space advocacy is meaningless, but rather to complain that we are generally incapable of being honest with ourselves about our own motivations. "Granfalloon" is the best term I have found to describe organizations that have this problem. Unfortunately, since the desire for prestige is a fundamental part of human nature, many organizations have this problem, including especially churches and political movements. Frank's Paradox is thus part of the reason why the space advocacy community has a bit of the flavor of a religious movement.

(10-25-2008:) See also economist Robin Hanson's blog post, "Politics isn't about Policy." Politics is driven more by social status than policy concerns.

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