Of those who’ve paid attention to developments in the nation’s civil space program in recent years, few would argue that we have a stable program with regular accomplishment. There are many reasons for this, some of which I have discussed in previous columns, but in this post, I want to address a factor that’s flown below the radar of most people.
Some see space as a laboratory, an exotic, hostile environment in which we send transient, short-lived probes that gather data and then are discarded. Others see space as a frontier, a place not only to be explored and studied, but one to be used and inhabited – a place that generates wealth, drives new technology and spawns new industry. Forty years ago, physicist Gerald O’Neill was a strong advocate of space settlement for just these purposes.
The last two occupants of the office of Presidential Science Advisor (who also holds the position of Head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) embody diametrically opposing viewpoints on the nature of society and progress and on the relevance of human spaceflight. Dr. John H. Marburger held this office during the presidency of George W. Bush. Dr. John P. Holdren currently occupies this position under the presidency of Barack Obama. Their published works on society and space reveal a fundamental dichotomy in their underlying philosophies. I submit it is this difference in worldviews that is responsible for the current malaise in space policy and the apparent lack of direction of our civil space program.
John H. Marburger (1941-2011) was a nuclear physicist from Brookhaven National Laboratory. A Democrat, in 2001 he was appointed to the position of Science Advisor to Republican President Bush. Marburger was respected by politicians from both parties and could readily defend the administration’s science policies on the basis of fact. After Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, the civil space program underwent a major White House review, a process in which Marburger became intimately involved. He was a key ally of then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe in developing a new strategic vision for the U.S. space program, the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Although this new strategic direction was patently clear in both intent and direction, some within the agency subverted its purpose, leading to years of waste, confusion and stasis.
When it was clear that the Vision was not unfolding as intended, Marburger stepped forward. The most compelling statement of his interpretation of the meaning of the VSE was his speech to the 44th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium in 2006. Marburger first outlined some of the considerations that went into the formulation of the Vision. Then, going to the heart of the rationale for our space program, he posed a simple question: Should we make the Solar System part of our economic sphere or not?
Marburger outlined the limitless possibilities of harvesting the material and energy wealth of the universe. In space, he knew that if we are always limited to what we can bring with us from Earth, we will always be mass- and power-limited and hence, capability-limited. In his mind, that was what the VSE was all about – not to go to the Moon to re-create the glory of Apollo, but through human innovation and discovery, to assess and use what the Moon has to offer to create new capabilities, new knowledge and new wealth.
Marburger’s successor as Presidential Science Advisor is John P. Holdren (1944 – present), also a physicist and the former Director of the policy think-tank Wood’s Hole Research Center (not to be confused with the scientific research organization Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution). Holdren’s bureaucratic resume is a testament to a variety of fashionable causes, including nuclear weapons control, human-caused climate change, overpopulation and “green energy” development. Most relevant to this discussion is his apparent adherence to Malthusian theories of population and resources. In brief, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) postulated that human population would grow to levels that could not be supported by the available resources of the world. Hence, as a species, we are doomed to death by disease and starvation. In the view of Malthus, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.”
Holdren describes himself as a “neo-Malthusian” in his 1977 textbook Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment, a book co-written with Population Bomb author, Paul Ehrlich. Certainly his adherence to the various dogmas of scarcity and ecological catastrophe are congruent with such a categorization. Holdren supports a variety of policy initiatives designed to make future human life less consumptive, less impacting on the environment, and more “equitable” in wealth distribution. This worldview sees life as a zero-sum game where in order for some to win, others must lose. A key aspect of any zero-sum game is that like entropy, the system is closed; nothing is either added to or subtracted from the balance of resources within the game.
And so we come to the nexus of the philosophical division in visions of the future: one based on unlimited resources and opportunities and the other based on scarcity and the need for professional “management.”
Holdren’s role in the development of the current state of our civil space program is not completely clear, but his hand was clearly at work in the elimination of the Vision for Space Exploration through executive fiat in 2010 by President Obama. The new space policy of the United States (2010) emphasizes environmental monitoring. It has shifted our national capability toward supposedly “commercial” spaceflight (with the meaning of the word “commercial” being subtly re-defined in the text (p. 10) to classify contractors largely subsidized with federal grants as “commercial” entities), and most notably, the elimination of the lunar surface as a destination. While the rest of the world’s space faring countries are enthusiastically pushing to exploit the Moon, why was this specific destination removed from the critical path of America’s future human spaceflight?
Unlike flights to distant asteroids or human Mars missions, the Moon is achievable on time-scales congruent with the current administration. In other words, no one will remember the non-achievement of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid in ten years, but if we had been striving to return to the Moon and had not achieved it, someone might be held accountable. But as John Holdren, a strong proponent of American de-development, advised graduate students during a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “We can’t expect to be number one in everything forever.”
The Moon contains resources that are both useable and accessible. Those two qualities are important – asteroids also contain usable materials, but those objects are much less accessible than the Moon and they present numerous operational difficulties and unknowns. A trip to orbit around Mars offers nothing in the way of usable resources. In short, the alternate “destinations” articulated in our official space policy have the virtue of appearing to be reachable and reasonable but in truth, offer nothing in the way of expanding human capabilities and opportunities in space. This fits in well with the neo-Malthusian philosophy of the current Science and Technology Advisor.
Two visions – an O’Neillian one based on accessing and learning to use the limitless resources of space and a neo-Malthusian one based on scarcity and the need for control. One should be careful when betting on scarcity, as the current Presidential Science Advisor should know well.