Poor Countries in Space


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Should India get any special consideration one way or the other because they have nuclear bombs? A space program is a fine means to develop all of the pieces for an ICBM system with true global reach, or an anti-satellite system.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Cain says:

      That can generate some efficiencies, as it did in the US, USSR, and China where the early space vehicles were sharing common boosters with the ICBM programs.

      Getting good, cost competitive space launch systems and satellites can generate enormous revenues, whereas getting good at distributing food to the poor – not so much.

      You could say that you’re not going to learn to become rich by becoming excellent at being poor, and you’re never going to become excellent at being poor by ignoring human nature and the ground truth of how people and markets actually behave.Report

      • Rather then efficiency, I was thinking that no one believes a poor or middle-class country that builds a uranium centrifuge complex, or a heavy-water reactor of their own design capable of producing plutonium from unenriched uranium, when they say it’s for electricity generation rather than bombs. But they accept that the guidance systems and large solid-fuel boosters and all of the production facilities for a space research program won’t be repurposed. India, Pakistan and Israel would be the special cases currently, since they have nukes they could put on those missiles.

        Japan is also interesting. Their new Epsilon rocket uses solid fuel for all stages, can deliver 1200 kg to LEO, and has a “mobile launch control” system that reduces the size of the crew at the launch site to eight from 150. They don’t have nuclear weapons, but do have an inventory of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. At least on paper, that would seem to make a nuclear-tipped ICBM with global range something that could be produced fairly quickly.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to George Turner says:

        “whereas getting good at distributing food to the poor – not so much”
        Smart Post? Seriously, logistics is a damn fine field, and I hate to see you maligning it for no reason other than we’re currently not talking about distributing peanut oil to squirrels
        (now, that made PLENTY of money. it was also a national security issue, but that’s a different story…)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to George Turner says:

        Japan is roughly 1-2 years out from a functional military at any given time
        (this is excluding privately owned munitions in the country. if sony can have tanks…).

        Seriously, Japan spends TONS of money on military prototypes.Report

    • Michael, I hadn’t thought of it. I don’t know if there is that much incremental improvement in Earth-bound missile technology that you would get from sending a satellite to Mars above already launching as many orbiting satellites as India has. Thinking about it at an extremely high level, you don’t want ICBMs to reach escape velocity, but that is very important for interplanetary satellites.

      If only we knew some kind of rocket scientist.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        You get another flight of your rocket and boosters, keeping your launch crews trained. Back when NASA was busy, they felt that flying any rocket less than about four times a year makes it less reliable because people get rusty on the check-out, preparation, and launch procedures. Steps are missed. Mistakes are made. Older NASA folks, including Wayne Hale, a former flight director, are worried that this might become a major problem with the SLS. One solution I’ve suggested is to put the ground crews and their families into induced comas (torpor or suspended animation) in between launches, just like science fiction writers have always suggested for deep space missions. To the ground crews the SLS would then seem to have a high flight rate, while to the rest of us each launch would coincide with an Olympic year.

        The other issue is that you have to keep pushing your engineers to go further, think out of the box, and tackle new challenges, or they become maintenance engineers instead of design engineers.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Ballistic missiles don’t have to achieve escape velocity, because they aren’t actually inserting into an orbit, but the chasm between a ballistic trajectory that is high enough to reach around the world & orbital insertion is crossable with a light hop.

        It’s well traveled territory, and places like India are not suffering from a lack of perfectly serviceable engineers. The real hurdle is money, infrastructure, & supply chains. If you have the talent & can afford to get the parts delivered, or afford to build up the infrastructure to build the parts to a sufficient degree of engineering tolerance, you too can blow a cubic fish-ton of money into orbit for a bit of national pride.

        With regard to ICBMs, the trick is not getting them up, it’s getting the MIRVs back down in working order & having them hit their targets & detonate at the correct altitude (nuclear boom-booms have vastly different effects at different yields & detonation altitudes, so once you get your re-entry vehicle back in atmosphere & have it deploy the MIRVs successfully, making sure your X-Mega Ton warhead goes off over your target at exactly Y-meters high is the name of the game).Report

      • So, given contemporary electronics and materials, how hard is that?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        Well, having never done it myself, I’m not too sure, but let me put it this way…

        If the next mission manages to put a working probe on the surface of Mars, we can safely assume India can accurately drop some nuclear bombs on people with ICBMs, especially if the target is incapable of presenting any significant missile defense.Report

      • Side note: the capitals of the only two countries that India really cares about militarily have been in range for a couple decades.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        True, but the call for a rocket scientist was one of technical feasibility, not political reality.Report

      • @vikram-bath
        Oh, absolutely. I don’t see any kind of situation where India would care about being able to target anything in the Western Hemisphere. OTOH, military intelligence is always concerned with capabilities, rather than intent. And the more launch systems with global reach are available, the greater the (admittedly small) chances of someone insane getting control of one, as well as a warhead worth putting on it.

        I’ll pick on Japan’s Epsilon — at $38M per launch, with specs and payload to LEO very much like the Minotaur IV derived from the US Air Force’s Peacekeeper ICBM, and an eight-person launch control team, it sure looks like something that could be easily repurposed. Should there be non-proliferation restrictions similar to nuclear?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        As computers get better, and sensors & electronics get tougher, and algorithms improve, look for what Japan has done to be the way of the future. You won’t stop that genie.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Space launch components are treated about the same as WMD under ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX often says that she can’t say this or that about their Falcon 9 because she doesn’t look good in horizontal stripes. If you packed a Dragon capsule with something that goes boom it would be an ICBM.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        Very true! They are.

        Of course, such regulations haven’t actually done anything more than slow down the flow of information so we can maintain the edge.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:

    “Would you rather the medieval Church had spent all of its money helping the poor, rather than supporting the arts. So that maybe there were fewer poor people back in medieval times, but we wouldn’t have any cathedrals or triptychs or the Sistine Chapel?”

    In a world strongly affected by Malthusian forces, there is a perverse dynamic. Resources consistently “exploited” from the peasants (who produce virtually everything), and redistributed to the elites or toward grand monuments don’t actually harm long the term average welfare of the peasants. The long term effect is greatly to reduce future population growth of peasants (which would put pressure on living standards due to scarce resources).

    I say perverse because I certainly am not in support or in any way defend exploiting peasants.

    Said another way, the longer term effect of the Sistine Chapel and elites with shiny gold buttons resulted more in lower population than lower living standards. The lower living standards were pretty much a given in a population which can grow faster than the rate of economic growth.

    Do note that India is no longer in a Malthusian state, so any logic for monuments then vs now are comparing fundamentally different situations.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

      There’s this great scene in Prince of Egypt where Moses and Ramses are discussing Egypt. Moses looks out and looks down and sees nothing but slaves walking around, carrying stones, bricks, mortar. Thousands of them, like ants walking in lines. He asks Ramses “what do you see?” and we see Ramses look out and up and how he sees nothing but monuments and Ramses says “A greater Egypt than that of my father.”Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Roger says:

      Malthus has been proved entirely wrong, and I’m not convinced it’s solely due to the existence of birth control or improved farming technology.

      Everywhere in the world – everywhere – statistics unequivocally show that as people become socioeconomically better-off, they have fewer children. The rate of population growth declines. This happens even in places that have very poor access to birth control.

      If you want to argue that better-off peasants would have borne more children to the point where it strained their resources and made them ultimately worse off, then you need to produce some kind of evidence backing that up, because currently the overwhelming evidence indicates against it.

      There’s no shortage of alternatives to your theory. For one thing, being less heavily exploited may have enabled more of then from escape from serfdom and thereby decreased landlords’ control over them. When the power of farmers relative to landlords increased following the Black Death (due to labour shortage), effects included urbanization and a better-off peasant class. If that had happened earlier due to the peasants not being so exploited, the “middle ages” may have been a lot shorter. Pretty much across Europe, the destruction of serfdom was a necessary prerequisite for industrialization.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Sorry, Katherine, but I have been unclear.

        Allow me to clarify.

        Malthus as we know said that a species can out-reproduce its resource base. This leads to what we now call a negative feedback loop. Fewer and fewer resources per individual eventually leads to stress on the growing population.

        Malthus then went on to say that people can proactively control this via such actions as delayed marriage, birth control or via wars and such. He recommended delayed marriage (Victorian for women having less sex).

        Nowadays everyone seems to associate Malthus only with his warning, not with his recommendations, and when we do what he actually recommends people incorrectly assume this proves him wrong. Let’s give the man a break.

        The other (supposed) take-away of Malthus is that economic progress is futile. The reason is that as fast as we create new techniques to farm, plow, or domesticate livestock, or switch from two field to three field agriculture, or whatever that the bounty from these actions will eventually be claimed by a larger population as per Malthus.

        Population actually grew from around ten million at the end of the ice age to somewhere south of a billion before the Industrial revolution But people did not live longer or healthier lives (indeed they probably were of lower average health and worked longer hours at the end of the period vs the start). GDP growth per capita as estimated by historians was almost flat for all of history. Easily googleable.

        History shows without exception that Malthus was completely correct up until the time he wrote his theory, which was right before the industrial revolution. In general )within a couple of dollars per day) every society prior to the first industrial revolution lived on approximately what we would consider about two to three dollars a day. This was true of Rome, China, the Aztecs, the Hawaiians, the ancient Egyptians, and so on. Those that lived in the higher range tended to either control birth rates (delayed marriage and abortion most commonly), or to have recently experienced the less positive shocks of war, famine or disease (living standards went up after the plague). Again there are multiple sources to validate that average living standards were at or near subsistence levels for pretty much all of history. If you know of any pointing to something else, please do share.

        The modern breakthrough that began just prior to the 19th century in England did indeed flat out prove Malthus wrong. We did out-produce our population growth rates, through superior cooperative networks and the tapping of huge stocks of non-renewable resources (coal, then petroleum). We shifted from a population dependent upon solar energy flows to one which could leverage huge stocks of energy dormant in the earth.

        Thus, the industrial revolution DID overcome the negative feedback loop in two ways, one as recommended by Malthus, one unexpected. The expected way is that as we got wealthier we had fewer kids. That isn’t a rebuttal of Malthus, it is actually what he recommended. The second way is that we did increase our resource base faster (over an extended period) than our population for the only time ever in the history of…. well, history.

        “If you want to argue that better-off peasants would have borne more children to the point where it strained their resources and made them ultimately worse off, then you need to produce some kind of evidence backing that up, because currently the overwhelming evidence indicates against it.”

        From ten million to one billion people over ten thousand years with roughly the same standard of living (probably worse) despite massive technological gains pretty much proves the point…. Up until the IR.

        Now here is where I need to be more clear. As I tried to stress, I am not pro exploitation. I think it was fucked up beyond all recognition. I am simply stressing that peasant exploitation was indeed a force which kept population down. It was a long term positive externality of a fucked up action.

        I agree that the completely that destruction of serfdom was a necessary (though by no means sufficient) precursor to the IR and the modern breakthrough in living standards and quality.

        Also, my point is that even if someone did justify starving unseen babies in prior centuries because it leads to enormous churches and monuments, the same logic no longer holds. We are clearly NOT in a Malthusian world any more and thus India should feed its people. Full stop.

        Sorry if this wasn’t clear.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Sorry for the misunderstanding, Roger; I get that we agree on the main point (the current world is non-Malthusian).

        Population actually grew from around ten million at the end of the ice age to somewhere south of a billion before the Industrial revolution But people did not live longer or healthier lives (indeed they probably were of lower average health and worked longer hours at the end of the period vs the start). GDP growth per capita as estimated by historians was almost flat for all of history.

        In the first place, I’m pretty strongly skeptical of the idea that we can accurately estimate what GDP was in the stone age or even in the middle ages. Especially as pertains to places such as Africa and the Americas; our knowledge of the pre-1492 Americas is sufficiently sparse that even population estimates differ vastly.

        In the second place, even if that was accurate it would not inherently establish that a static or declining standard of living was due to increased population growth.

        In the third place, even in the pre-industrial-revolution period wealthier people tended to have fewer children and smaller families than poorer people, which supports the idea that if the working classes were better off, they would have chose to have fewer children.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Hi Katherine,

        Yes, we both agree the modern world is non Malthusian, and that India should help their starving people.

        I agree that measuring living standards is tricky. The important point of Malthus was that productivity gains were kind of undermined by a vicious feedback loop. If we became more productive and living standards went up, then lifespans could increase and population would head north. Even if we followed his advice and restricted child bearing, somewhere else is a population not restricting growth which will soon use their numbers to eye our relative wealth and claim it as their own (for the sake of all the children).

        When you say that the impoverishment was not due to population growth, that was my main point in my first comment. Exploitative elites screwed over the commoners pretty much since the advent of agriculture.

        I think the math, long term, is pretty much inescapable. Unless you can out produce your growth rate (grow per capita GDP faster than population) then productivity gains will be swamped by negative factors.Report

  3. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Great post.Report

  4. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    Yes, the medieval church should have been using its money to help the poor rather than to build massive cathedrals. Providing for people in need, and defending them from exploitation and oppression, is one of the most fundamental commandments given by Jesus. There’s nothing in the New Testament commanding the construction of cathedrals (or in the Old, for that matter – all God asked for was a tent).

    And yes, while a country still has people suffering from severe poverty, it should be focusing its resources on solving that – by improving existing programs as well as by allocating additional funds – rather than on something like a space program. I’d have no objections to Western nations doing the same, although the space program (or the national parks system) is such a relatively small expense that I’d support money being diverted away from other things first.

    Conservatives love to complain about money begin “wasted” on social programs, but that money is almost invariably a small fraction of what is spent on far more wasteful and harmful things. For example: all the foreign aid from Western countries from the 1950s to the present amounts to less money than was spent over less than ten years, by just the United Staes, on Bush’s Iraq War. The former, for all its flaws, has seen vast expansion of education, near-eradication of polio and major reductions in many other diseases, and millions of lives saved every year. The latter killed hundreds of thousands of people and plunged the Middle East into a level of chaos from which it is still suffering.

    I’m all for improving the social programs that exist. But I don’t believe for a second that their problem is that too much money has been invested in seeking to save and improve people’s lives.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to KatherineMW says:

      Of course, it all depends on how you define “social programs” and which among them are “wasteful.” Typically the politically popular programs are not wasteful (except when they are) and ones that create whipping boys are inherently wasteful (except when they aren’t).

      If, like me, you define “social programs” as things that give money or other things of value to people so as to improve their quality of life, then roughly two-thirds of all Federal government spending is on one “social program” or another. Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Treu, true.
        However, defined that way, we would need to acknowledge that virtually every senior citizen in America is on welfare.

        Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    Is this the wrong place to say that “Poor Countries in Space” wasn’t nearly as good a Muppets skit as the original?Report