A budget-cut fantasy of many bureaucrats and other “deep thinkers” on space – the complete, final and utter termination of the human spaceflight program – is mooted in a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Buried in the bowels of this 316-page tome, “Discretionary spending Option 11” occupies page 74 (in total). With such brevity, one can’t expect sophisticated, in-depth analysis and in this case, those expectations are completely met.
The CBO proposal makes the following case. Supposedly, increased capability in information technology has rendered humans irrelevant to the gathering of data. As robotic capabilities have increased, so lessened is the need for people. Moreover, by not flying people, we avoid risking human lives and “decrease the cost of space exploration” by reducing the “weight and complexity” of vehicles needed for missions. The CBO estimates that the elimination of human spaceflight would decrease the budget deficit by about $30 billion over the next four years and more than $73 billion over the next decade.
It’s important to keep these budget “savings” numbers in perspective. At the moment, the federal government spends about $3.7 trillion ($3700 billion) per year. Over the next ten years (if no significant changes to spending are made), we will spend almost $40 trillion ($40,000 billion) dollars. As a fraction of the total federal budget, the $73 billion saved from eliminating human spaceflight amounts to almost (but not quite) two tenths of one percent (0.001825) of total spending. If one considers only “discretionary spending” (i.e., the non-mandatory money over which we allegedly have a say on how it is to be spent), the savings add up to a whopping one-half of one percent (0.0053) of discretionary spending. In federal budgeting, rounding errors are more than this amount.
Let’s try to fathom the CBO’s rationale by posing three questions. First, is human spaceflight an outmoded idea, a remnant of the old days before high-tech and the information revolution made people obsolete? Second, even if we did terminate this effort, would it solve our fiscal problems? Third, what would the termination of human spaceflight mean for both the civil space program and for possible future national and international efforts and needs?
The “machines will replace people” argument was around even before I started in this business over 35 years ago. While it’s certainly true that robotic capabilities have greatly improved over that time period, it’s largely because they started from such a low level. The endless debate between advocates and opponents of human spaceflight often takes the garb of theological disputation. The biggest fallacy put forth by opponents of human spaceflight, in my opinion, is equating data with knowledge.
Because robotic systems return enormous amounts of information, they are sometimes judged to be “better” at space exploration than humans. But data is not knowledge. Data are numbers, quantities and measurable pieces of information that can be streamed down to Earth in increasingly larger amounts at increasingly faster rates. We certainly need that information to help unravel the complex stories of the exotic places to which we journey, but we seek to achieve knowledge and understanding, which bears the same relation to data as a Chippendale table does to a pile of wood. You cannot have the former without the latter. The latter alone is simply a stack of timber; the former is a piece of art designed by a human’s imagination and skill set.
Often we do not know ahead of time what the most important parameters to measure might be. Faced with unforeseen circumstances, humans adapt. A trained observer knows what features or aspects of an environment are most pertinent to whatever problem is being addressed. In any situation, our senses are constantly flooded with billions of bits of information. Picking out the relevant information from the mass of extraneous or irrelevant data requires the guiding hand of human insight, expert knowledge, experience and vision. To date, such qualities have proven to be elusive in machines. Robotic systems have limitations – they can only measure what they are designed to measure.
Although this aspect of human superiority may seem restricted to the intellectual task of scientific exploration, it also comes into play during the construction, maintenance and repair of complex systems. Over the last 30 years, the value and necessity of human intervention during in-space assembly and repair has been documented on numerous occasions. Existing space systems cannot be serviced solely by machines and attempts to develop such automated “repairbots” have yet to be fully successful. In-space repair work and construction requires not only the dexterity and flexibility of people but also their expert knowledge and adaptive intelligence. Such qualities are essential during normal operations and absolutely imperative when things go wrong. The history of human spaceflight is filled with instances of people fixing balky equipment and turning useless pieces of junk into working space hardware.
In passing, the CBO report notes that the possible termination of human spaceflight might “end technical progress” towards the goal of sending humans to Mars. What is the relevance of this observation if they are already set on terminating human spaceflight? The viability of the U.S. space program has suffered from keeping Mars as the over arching objective of the human spaceflight program – in that everything (including a report about it’s pending demise) has been tethered to and restrained by it. People have demonstrated the value of their presence in all regions of space, in both intellectual and practical terms.
The real tragedy of eliminating the human spaceflight program would be the destruction of a capability that may be difficult or impossible to reacquire at a later date – essential and irreplaceable expertise and practical knowledge dissipated and lost. Having no experienced people to run a human spaceflight program would cause innumerable problems, many of which could lead to loss of life and property.
Should we wreak such havoc to save two tenths of one percent of the budget? Of course, large things are made up of small pieces and one could argue that if the federal budget is ever to be brought under control, we need to start somewhere. But this “savings” seems to have more downside than benefit. What would it cost to begin again? Or has our government seriously decided to pass the baton of our long-held leadership in space exploration (and with it, the utilization of space resources) off to another? What cost, that?
Look elsewhere, CBO.