“Where there is no vision, the people perish”—Proverbs 29:18, displayed on the wall of the Hearing Room, Space Subcommittee, U.S. House of Representatives.
In this ongoing programmatic uncertainty, various space advocacy groups are attempting to convince policymakers and the public of the superiority of their preferred strategic direction—of how inspiring it will be. Despite the clear evidence of near-zero progress in human spaceflight beyond LEO this past decade, some continue to claim we must “maintain the current course” (i.e., continue the Mission to Nowhere). Others see that reachable goals must be set to measure progress and to demonstrate that progress is indeed being made.
Several rationales have been advanced for the “Why?” of human spaceflight, but so far none have been irresistibly compelling. And despite the endless PR and marketing of “inspiration,” our current (lack of) effort in space is not inspiring anyone who might want a career in the space sector to go into science or engineering—to invest in years of education, hoping that a rewarding career path will appear. It’s long past time we stopped talking and started doing. Students (and the nation) find inspiration when we are actively doing something, but drift away to other interests when that “something” is seen as untrue—or is earnestly discussed and incessantly promised, but with no follow through. Robotic missions can take decades from inception to approval, development and execution. They contribute to our knowledge but they do not engage the public for longer than the 24-hour news cycle (a bit longer for buffs).
Forty-five years have passed since the last astronaut landed on the Moon. Given this span of time, it’s not surprising that the inspirational power of an ambitious and accomplished space effort is neither appreciated nor understood. Not every child of the Sixties who avidly followed the Apollo missions went on to make careers in technical fields, but there was a clear increase in the number of advanced technical degrees awarded with increasing programmatic activity in space. Few would claim that this correlation was strictly coincidental, as design and architecture, advertising and culture took on a decidedly optimistic, futuristic “space” outlook. Everyone believed that they could have a part in this exciting great effort and promising future—that there would be a place for them in this new space age if they prepared themselves.
NASA has lost sight of that, and despite the agency’s continued marketing, they cannot inspire people if they are not doing inspiring things. In practical terms, this means striving for achievable goals—incremental objectives that are reachable with reasonable amounts of money and on politically feasible timescales. The so-called “Journey to Mars” is not a serious flight project but rather a public relations scheme designed to convince the public that NASA is making continued progress towards human missions to Mars. The more cynical might suggest this Mars public relations program is the mission—it is certainly less expensive and less challenging than conducting a real flight program.
Noting the huge difference in funding levels between today’s NASA and the agency’s apogee during the Apollo program, it is inferred that the current limited budget is the culprit holding us back from human missions to the Moon or to Mars. In fact, the real problem is that NASA no longer knows why we should go beyond low Earth orbit. The rationales advanced for future human spaceflight tend to center around the issue of life off the Earth, either extant life on other worlds or our placement of terrestrial life there.
I have written previously that using “the quest for life elsewhere” or “exploration” as the principal objective for the civil space program is not only a tactical mistake but one that has held us back for over 40 years. The possible existence of alien life is certainly a valid scientific question, but one with unknown probabilities for achieving a positive result. Given the negative results to date, we might infer that such life, if it exists, is difficult or impossible to identify with any certainty. With such a wide variety of other scientific, engineering and national security interests to be addressed throughout our Solar System, is it wise to allow the fate of future human space exploration to hang on answering a question with such a low probability of being answered—one so elastic in its scope (wait, we just need to look over here) that it can be endlessly redirected and never set aside as the first order of business?
As for the projection and migration of the human species to other planets (particularly Mars), such an outcome, while likely in the distant future, is an objective totally beyond today’s technical and social capabilities. Numerous problems must be solved before planetary colonization can even be imagined. We must first develop key skills by learning how to produce what we need in space from what we find there—in other words, extracting the material and energy resources of objects in space that will support and enhance human life there. It simply is not possible to launch from Earth all of the supplies and materials needed to support a sustained human community on any deep space object. And we have not a whit of experience in the challenging field of space resource extraction and processing. Fantasies about colonizing Mars with hundreds of people or even “terraforming” it into a second Earth, while great science-fiction reading, are light years beyond our current levels of understanding and ability.
Rather than continuing the multi-decadal pretense of NASA’s “Journey to Mars,” a realistic approach would be to focus on achievable goals, at reachable destinations, doing constructive activities that permit real progress in acquiring the technology and skill sets needed to conduct interplanetary missions. The Moon can be reached on timescales of a few years and for affordable amounts of spending; Mars cannot. To reach distant islands in the ocean of space, we need to become spacefaring. That means turning the corner and transitioning from the current “launch-use-discard” paradigm to a sustainable template of using space-based assets, reused and re-provisioned by sources in space.
This space infrastructure—a spacefaring cislunar “railroad” (they built it, they came) will encourage investment of human capital in this future, one recognized and blessed by our government, thereby assuring and encouraging those who seek to have a place in this new endeavor to acquire the education and skills it requires. Such a vision creates an explosion of new businesses, attracts risk-taking speculators as well as long-term investors—entrepreneurs of all shape and manner, and the labor force that will follow and support it. Building an affordable spacefaring infrastructure, through the use of space resources, creates a mature, sustainable national space program beyond LEO—one where multiple goals will be realized, dreams inspired and a vibrant society rekindled.
The power of inspiration is real but can only be ignited and sustained through real and continued accomplishment. Rather than fixating on a goal too distant (e.g., Mars in the 2030s), we need to focus our efforts on near-term achievements beyond low Earth orbit and the creation of a useable infrastructure in space. Taking real steps forward by moving humans into deep space will truly inspire the nation, sparking innovation and imaginations. In the end, reality always outdoes fiction, no matter how compelling that fantasy might be or how long the story’s been told.
Or as that perceptive philosopher Eliza Doolittle put it to her “betters” (academics, policy makers and politicians please take note):
Please don’t “expline,” show me, show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow, show me now!
Or even more succinctly (as she put it to her pick at the races): Move your bloomin’ arse!