Science and Human Spaceflight

Astronaut John Young on the Moon in 1972.

Astronaut John Young on the Moon in 1972.

A perennial debate among the community of space policy “experts” (whose number apparently consists of about 4/5 of the Earth’s population) is about the value of human spaceflight.  As is the wont in such debates, science and its relation to human missions often emerges as a theme.  One might think that nothing new could possibly be said about this issue – and they’d be largely correct.  Nonetheless, the most recent kerfuffle caught my eye, in part because of the large degree of ignorance associated with the arguments advanced.

This flare-up was generated by a piece at Slate from science journalist Charles Seife.  Although written ostensibly about the “purpose of NASA,” Seife uses that rhetorical question to springboard his advocacy for the termination of human spaceflight.  His piece has most of the usual canards in common with other literature in this regard – the science is poor, it’s too expensive, it’s too dangerous.  Seife cites the Hubble servicing missions as an example of human spaceflight’s “alleged” benefits and claims that for what those five Shuttle missions cost, we could have built two new Hubble telescopes.  He might want to look at the funding history of the James Webb Space Telescope before he trots out that argument.  But the more culpable point that Seife doesn’t mention is that without the Shuttle missions, we would never have had a Hubble Space Telescope at all – the telescope as initially launched had a flaw in its optics that required a human mission and on-orbit servicing to correct.  A human spaceflight: the difference between the creation of the premier scientific instrument of our time and an orbiting paperweight.

Seife believes NASA is dishonestly trying to justify its existence on the basis of a search for extraterrestrial life.  Although I partly agree with this complaint, in fact, this “justification” is not NASA’s doing – if he wants to indict someone for advocacy of this crusade, he should begin with Carl Sagan and thirty years of Star Trek re-runs.  NASA latched onto the Quest for Life Elsewhere meme because they thought it would justify funding for human missions to Mars – and it has remained their fantasy destination for well over 50 years.  And this brings us to Seife’s real beef – those damnable, worthless human space missions.  Seife is enamored of the agency’s many robotic missions, claiming they do more science for less money, but nowhere in his piece does he back up his assumption that science is the only (or even the principal) objective for a national civil space program.

I have discussed the scientific value of human spaceflight previously.  The claim that robotic spaceflight is superior to the human variety usually relies on an alleged cost-benefit argument.  This equation assumes that “science return” can be measured, usually by some quasi-quantitative assessment, such as the number of papers published or Nobel prizes awarded.  Unfortunately, science return is difficult to quantify.  Typically, there’s a lag time before we recognize the true significance of some results and understand exactly how and where they fit into a broader pattern of knowledge and utility.  A human’s ability to contextualize and adapt to their surroundings gives them superior abilities and unprecedented flexibility that enriches scientific return.

Let us recall the scientific buzz about the Apollo missions in the decade after the program ended.  Quite aside from the dismissal of the entire effort by many in the chattering classes (“All we got from the Moon was a box full of rocks!”), many scientists claimed that the Apollo explorations had been all but worthless.  The carping began even before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface; with limited time and mobility, the crew had to hurry through a sample collection routine that was strictly choreographed, thus limiting the documentation and study of the environment of the samples.  Physicist Ralph Lapp wrote before the lunar landing that after Apollo had achieved its goal of landing a man on the Moon, the human program should be terminated and Apollo hardware “reserved for future unmanned missions to the planets” (exactly how one would use an Apollo Command Module to explore Jupiter was left as an exercise for the student).  Famous-for-being-an-ex-astronaut Brian O’Leary whined that science was being given short shrift in the planning for the Apollo missions.  Even Eugene Shoemaker, one of my personal heroes and the founder of modern planetary science, complained about the poor mission planning that resulted in a less-than-optimum system for the exploration of the lunar surface.

But then came a decade of detailed study of the returned data and samples.  The science from that effort revolutionized not only planetary science, but influenced other branches of science as well, most notably, the connection between extinctions in the fossil record of Earth and asteroid impact.  We now think that impact may be one of the principal drivers in the evolution of life –massive ecological voids are created by impact catastrophes.  These voids are then filled by rapid speciation and the emergence of new life groups.  Impacts appear to serve the same function for evolution that wildfires serve for forest growth – a periodic “wiping of the slate” to permit new growth.  This view of the evolutionary process was barely imagined prior to the advent of evidence for impact-induced extinctions.  Such recognition came as a result of the study of Apollo lunar samples and the need to understand the physical and chemical effects of hypervelocity impact.

Needless to say, such a scientific advance was not anticipated, either before or even in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo program.  On a very basic level, the value of scientific exploration is not quantifiable.  When a scientist or a journalist presumes to speak for the scientific community as whole and declares that some science is “worthless” or “second-rate,” they are actually expressing the limitations of their own imaginations and expertise, not necessarily the true value of an experiment or program.  In Seife’s article, he claims that the science performed on the International Space Station is published only in “third or fourth tier journals.”  The fact is, we don’t know what (if any) science done on ISS will ultimately be of lasting or revealing value.  That’s the beauty of scientific research – sometimes, disfavored ideas turn out to have the most profound implications.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of the ISS science will turn out to be significant.  But that is actually beside my main point:  those who critique human spaceflight by claiming it is not scientifically worthwhile on a cost-effectiveness basis do not know (quite literally) what they are talking about.  With no leadership and direction, these “controversies” have produced community in-fighting and contributed to the deconstruction the U.S. space program.  Whether crafted this way by design or not, it has had the same effect.

The current National Academy Committee on Human Spaceflight is reportedly studying the rationale and benefits of humans in space.  I hear on good authority that this panel is struggling with their task.   I find it particularly distressing that they are having difficulty comprehending the idea that human missions contribute significantly to scientific advancement – in some cases in totally unexpected directions.  It makes me wonder who they are listening to – Seife perhaps?  If such is the case, they need to solicit and include more diverse – and expert – opinions.

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10 Responses to Science and Human Spaceflight

  1. Michael Wright says:

    It seems to me there was a time when you didn’t have to ask what does NASA do. Everyone knew what NASA does even those that didn’t. So nowadays many ask the question what does NASA do? Oh, requirement is answer must be compelling and to the point answered in 15 seconds or less. It also seems trying to force the answer how it would be done for a commercial company. Example is nobody needs to ask what does Google or Facebook do, everyone knows what they do even if they don’t. Of course 10 years from now that may not be the case.

    Getting back to HSF and science, I think these are suffering because these are not this country’s priorities. Back in the days they were so even though people like James Webb still had to battle budgets with politicos, but at least there was incentive to spend money on HSF and science.

  2. billgamesh says:

    “The current National Academy Committee on Human Spaceflight is reportedly studying the rationale and benefits of humans in space. I hear on good authority that this panel is struggling with their task.”

    The rationale is simple enough; survival of the species.
    From the external threat of a comet or asteroid impact we face the real possibility of extinction.
    From the internal threat of an engineered pathogen we face the real possibility of extinction.

    The benefit was explained in 1976 by Gerard K. O’Neill in the High Frontier; cheap energy and Lebensraum.

    The technology to effect impact deflection, survival colonies, and space solar energy is available now and refinements are on the way from rapidly accelerating fields of research in meta-materials and energy transmission.

    The place to assemble, test, and launch nuclear space systems and to build survival colonies and the industrial infrastructure to support space solar energy was found with the discovery of millions of tons of ice on the Moon.

    If the National Academy Committee is “struggling” then the problem is their own inability to think outside the box of this rapidly deteriorating world economy we are all trapped in.

    • Michael Wright says:

      Bill, you probably quite aware of this, maybe others not. Dennis Wingo wrote in his book Moon Rush about 1970s “Limits of Growth” studies (Club of Rome) suggested that in order for civilization to survive, dramatic sacrifices would have to be made (i.e. pass laws that deliberately limit growth of families). “However correct they may be about the ultimate limits of the Earth, nowhere in the entire book did they consider the resources off the Earth and the ability of humanity to access and utilize these resources.”

      I also find myself grabbing many of Dennis’ quotes for my rants on the forums:

      “Space advocates many times are their own worst enemies in that they see the vision of what is possible in space without considering the objections of other competiting interests.” [the one-legged stool for example]

      Book concludes with,
      “Deals of this size are done all the time, and think what having access to and rights over a billion kilos of platinum would do for our corporate portfolio.”

  3. Howard Fink says:

    The Luna Programme cost $4.5 billion and returned .326 kilogram of samples, according to the Wikipedia article. The Apollo program cost $25.4 billion and returned 380 kilograms of samples, over 1000 times more material for less than six times the cost.

  4. The reason that most humans are fascinated by human space travel, IMO, is because most people view space travel as a pioneering effort that will eventually lead to humanity’s expansion into the solar system and eventually into the rest of the galaxy. So people tend to view astronauts as pioneers and symbols of humanity’s future.

    The problem with NASA’s manned space program, however, is that its not focused on pioneering the solar system at all! Humans have been traveling into space for more than 50 years now. Yet we still don’t know if people can live permanently off the Earth.

    We’ve known since Skylab in the 1970s that a microgravity environment is inherently deleterious to human health. But we really don’t know if that’s true at all on the surface of the Moon or Mars. Even the most rudimentary of outpost on the Lunar and Martian surface would finally reveal if living in a low gravity environment is harmful or harmless to human health and reproduction. Yet no such outpost are currently planned by NASA.

    And no rotating space stations have ever been deployed to see if humans can adjust to artificial gravity. Again, no permanent rotating space stations are currently being planned by NASA.

    Instead of pioneering the solar system, NASA has tried to justify human space travel as essential to microgravity experimentation aboard the ISS at LEO. The ISS is estimated to have cost the US and its partners over $150 billion and it still cost the US $3 billion a year– and rising. An extension of the ISS until 2028 would add another $42 billion in cost to the US.

    That titanic amount of money (almost $200 billion) would have been much better spent establishing a simple artificial gravity space station at EML4 or EML5 and rudimentary water and fuel producing outpost on the Moon and Mars. And we probably would have gotten a large and much cheaper microgravity space station– anyway– from some of the basic hardware developed for the other programs– just as we did with Skylab after Apollo!


  5. billgamesh says:

    I do not wish to replay the same tired back-and-forth about space radiation shielding, but this needs to be said; Radiation is square one.

    One of the main instruments on Skylab was a telescope to study and try and predict solar events. If these events could be predicted in advance they could be avoided much as hurricanes are avoided by ships at sea. This would have allowed for continuing the human missions with unshielded spacecraft. It did not work out and there is no way to predict solar events or mitigate the effects of the heavy nuclei component of cosmic radiation. This is the showstopper; the reason why we have not traveled beyond the Moon.

    Radiation is deleterious to a far greater degree than microgravity though both combine to make Human Space Flight-Beyond Earth or Lunar Obit (HSF-BELO) impractical.

    This makes the Moon the only place to go. Once there is an infrastructure on the Moon to allow humans to work and exploit lunar resources then the situation changes; but not until then.

    Nuclear propulsion to push massive shields and artificial gravity systems around the solar system are only going to happen after a human presence and infrastructure are established on the Moon.

    The rationale and benefits resulting from human space flight are to be found in cislunar space. The Moon is the only sanctuary available. Any discussions about space stations or interplanetary missions are at this point in time not only counterproductive but should be shouted down as fantasy or obfuscation.

  6. Unless NASA shifts its human space program back towards a pioneering space program, it won’t matter whether NASA spends $1 billion a year or $10 billion a year putting humans in space. NASA needs a clear and progressive direction for its human space program that will, at minimum, establish a permanent human presence on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars in the near future.


  7. Pingback: Space-for-All at HobbySpace » Space policy roundup – March.2.14

  8. Gary Miles says:

    Casey Dreier wrote a pretty decent response to that nonsensical piece in the Slate: Slate’s Misleading Hit Piece on the Future of NASA.

  9. gbaikie says:

    I have been thinking about this general topic, lately, I was wondering about Neptune and exploration of it, I think Neptune would fascinating planet to to explore, but very simply, not something to focus on right now. Some might think it would be hard to explore Neptune, I don’t necessarily think that is true. But in comparison to Neptune, I think Ceres is much better target.
    But I don’t think we need to focus a major program regarding Ceres, but it “deserve” a spacecraft or maybe 2. Exploring Ceres is basically exploring asteroids- or it’s good choice destination if you generally want to explore asteroids, and asteroids of Main belt.

    So excited about Dawn, and I also like Mercury Messenger. These are good NASA investments.
    But that doesn’t mean we need a lot more spacecraft going to these destinations.
    Also think Google Lunar Xprize is good, but it’s sort of “ahead of it’s time”- some people think being ahead of it’s time is really good thing, but I would say that is problem of space exploration.

    Or I would say we need to recognize where we are. And where we are is in the early phase of
    space exploration. And people seem to assume we instead in some kind of operational phase
    or something or we finished exploring. And this tied to general idea of NASA should equal excitement and doing new things. That NASA should doing stunts. Being first land humans on Mars, sort of thing. I would say NASA long past the stage of doing stunts. The private sector
    might do some stunts. Stunts are a PR thing, and the private sector can “use” stunts.

    What NASA needs to do is make space important. So space is important in regards to the satellite
    industry- the satellite market and governmental/military related activities. There no doubt about
    how important the satellite market is. And as asserted before, we wouldn’t have the NASA we have
    without this satellite market.
    And also we would not have the robotic exploration that we have, without the human spaceflight which has been supported. So without NASA human flight, the US might doing around as much space exploration as the UK. It’s reasonable that that UK or some other country like Sweden could doing more space exploration than US. And without the satellite market, no country would be doing much related to space. Whereas because of satellite market every country interested and engaged to space.
    So NASA task is to make space beyond GEO, important. And the path to this is by proper exploration, exploration focused on doing. Or exploration focused on opening the space frontier.
    Or once there is markets beyond GEO, NASA would finished in the stage of space exploration.
    At the point, NASA could perhaps explore Neptune. Send couple spacecraft. NASA could do other things like exploring the galaxy and universe with large telescopes. And developing craft
    with get some fraction of speed of light. Though NASA can continue to be involve all space related
    markets, just NASA is involved in airliner market.

    So since the Moon probably has minable water, doing this should be a NASA priority- and of course it has not been nor is it a priority. Because NASA is lost, and imagines the moon has already been explored- “we have been there”. Or we already did a stunt related to the Moon.

    So NASA doesn’t need to do any stunts related to the Moon. Maybe the private sector should
    do some stunts related to the Moon, but NASA should not do stunts.

    Now, I said endlessly that NASA should focus on developing a rocket fuel market. Maybe this
    is wrong. Instead perhaps a better way to start a rocket fuel market in space, is to privatize
    launch sites. If KSC were smart, they would want a rocket depot at their inclination.
    A spaceport would want a depot at their inclination because customers could see that as a benefit of using that spaceport. Or it would attracts customers. So if KSC were private, and had some need of attracting customers they could imagine this would be something considered important. Whereas monopolies and governmental controlled interests are focused on themselves, rather than driven by increasing their market share.
    This main reason why monopolies are evil. Monopolies kill innovation and economic growth.

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