“Embrace the end of human spaceflight!”

“let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings” – Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

"let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings” – Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

The nearly simultaneous 50th anniversary of the beginning of human spaceflight and the forthcoming end of the Space Shuttle program has philosophical members of the chattering classes making the rounds to thumb their noses or hawk their wares, waxing poetic over historical ironies, wasted opportunities and dollars, and damn near exhausting Roget’s Thesaurus searching for words to express their innermost profound thoughts about space exploration.

Case in point:  in a vacuous piece at Salon.com, Michael Lind invites us to “embrace” the end of human spaceflight.  It was all just a ghastly mistake, don’t you see?  Anyway, robots can do all the science and there’s no need to extend humanity into space because if a global disaster occurs, we can take refuge in underground bunkers.  Mr. President!  We must not allow … a mine shaft gap!

As long as we’re marking this melancholy milestone, why do we (or rather, did we) have a human spaceflight program?  Many have attempted to answer this question from a variety of viewpoints, including the geopolitical, public excitement, inspirational, or the “because it’s there” rationales.  The recent Augustine committee report tackled this question and after paying homage to the usual obligatory rationales (e.g., international cooperation), came up with this answer: the ultimate rationale is to move humanity into the Solar System.  In fact, they assert that all other rationales are mere subsets of this dominant, overriding one.

The argument for this motivation is simple – some day, some how, a global-scale catastrophe will make the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, possibly for hundreds of years (stock those bunkers well).  Moreover, such a disaster could well strike with little or no warning.  We’re warned about the dangers of near-Earth objects, though a killer impact could come from the outermost part of the Solar System.  Such objects move in at such amazing speeds that there is little time to react even once one is recognized.  We might not be able to intercept it; comets can pass through the inner Solar System at speeds exceeding 70 km per second.  Finally, there is the problem of interdiction and deflection.  We have only a vague notion of how to do this and by vague, I mean none.

The idea that people can live off Earth, either in space or on some other planetary surface, seems incredible, but no more so than living underwater or in some hostile, remote wasteland seemed to people in the past.  If it is physically possible, someone will do it – some time and somewhere.  People move where there is empty space; they always have and always will.

So an obituary for human spaceflight may be premature.  The reaction to the idea of humans living somewhere other than on Earth is interesting and reflects a basic division within humanity.  For any new frontier, there are always those who go and those who stay.  Those who stay cannot imagine the motivations of those who go, often attributing irrationality – if not insanity – to their actions.

Space is a frontier not yet fully opened.  Although we understand how to do it in principle, we do not yet have the practical knowledge to make it feasible.  I have argued that if space is to become a future home for humanity, we must learn how to extract what we need in space from what we find there.  Unless we desire future human space missions to be forever consigned to the current template of bringing everything with us, learning to live off the land is a requirement regardless of where we go or what we do.

Given this long-term requirement, what should be the role of our national civil space program?  I believe that a small-scale demonstration of the viability of extracting useful products from space resources is a critical first step.  This was to be our mission on the Moon and it still can be.  Like any new skill, we should start with the easy stuff.  Extracting water from lunar polar ice should be our first task for resource processing, albeit this relatively simple task is still difficult and fraught with unknowns.  But if not to address and solve such seemingly intractable problems, what’s a space program for?  With such goals we reap the bounty of new technology and economic wealth.  Commercial will find a market for demonstrated potential.

Yet another recent article advances as “myth” the idea that robotic spaceflight prospers when human spaceflight prospers.  I contend that in fact, this is no myth.  However, advocates of purely robotic space programs disagree, believing that once our expensive human program melts away, all of their robotic space missions (queued up and waiting to fly) will be showered with copious funding – after all, science is the main reason for space exploration and science is done best by machines.

Well, we’re about to test this particular storyline because human spaceflight is going to be suspended at NASA – "officially" only for several years, but in reality, possibly permanently.  The retirement of Shuttle leaves the United States with no national capability for human access to orbit and no real plans for a replacement.  There are hopes for a burgeoning commercial market but their long-term viability remains uncertain.  As of now, despite some unsettled issues with the language of the Congressional authorization for NASA, this is what remains of our once great U.S. human space program.

So how does robotic planetary exploration fare in this new organizational shake-up?   At the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, the long-awaited planetary exploration “Decade Study” was rolled out.  Missions to Mars, Jupiter’s satellite Europa, Venus and the Moon were all described.  However, just before this plan was made public, the “out year budget” proposed by the administration was released; funding for planetary exploration declines by almost a quarter over the next five years, making many of these potential missions questionable at best and non-starters at most.  The new Decadal Study – almost two years of deliberation, analysis and debate by the planetary science community – may be D.O.A.

Welcome to the new Nirvana.

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