The Obama administration has scrapped NASA’s plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020, which was behind schedule because of technical and budgetary problems. Instead, the administration will focus on developing new technologies to make long-distance space travel cheaper and faster, with astronaut trips to the Moon, asteroids and Mars possible in the future.
In the Opinion section
Is this shift of priorities the right path to take? Why go to the expense, effort and risk of using astronauts when unmanned machines can do so much? Or are there benefits to human space exploration that can’t be achieved with robots?
- John Derbyshire, author, “We Are Doomed”
- John M. Logsdon, George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute
- Seth Shostak, astronomer, SETI Institute
The Vacuity of the ‘Vision Thing’
John Derbyshire is a writer on math, science and politics. His most recent book is “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.”
Private entrepreneurs who want to venture into space should, of course, be left alone to do as they please, so long as they don’t endanger the rest of us.
Anything a human being does in space could be done by unmanned machinery for a tiny fraction of the cost.
But manned space exploration as a national goal — to be financed from public funds, organized by state or federal employees to promote some general good like stronger defenses, economic dynamism, social stability or public health — is another question altogether.
There is no case for publicly funded human spaceflight in any of those areas. Even in the matter of defense, none of the most useful off-planet projects — G.P.S., earth imaging, antimissile technology — has any requirement for human beings in space.
It is in fact a universal principle of space science — a “prime directive,” as it were — that anything a human being does up there could be done by unmanned machinery for one-thousandth the cost. With the ever-increasing intelligence of our machines, the cost gap will only get wider.
There are two non-utilitarian arguments that can be made for publicly funded manned space flight: national support for pure science, and “the vision thing.”
The first argument says that pure-science inquiries are part of a nation’s high culture, and that public funds can properly be allocated to supporting high culture.
There is a strong traditional foundation here. From the beginnings of modern science in the late 17th century, all the major European nations offered state support to societies and academies of pure research. Such support must submit to public audit, however. In a time of cratering public finances, the stupendous costs of manned spaceflight — half a billion dollars per shuttle launch — cannot be justified.
Similarly with “the vision thing.” Since the building of the pyramids, governments have carried out non-utilitarian projects, bonding citizens together by appeals to the collective imagination. Here too, though, there is a cost-benefit calculation to be made.
The U.S. is a commercial republic under elected officials, not a despotic empire ruled by infallible God-kings. An occasional presidential speech in the diction of “ceremonial deism,” briefly raising our eyes from our everyday chores to things of the spirit, is certainly appropriate. But that costs very little, and that is what publicly funded “vision things” ought to cost.
John M. Logsdon is professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and author of “The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest.”
Asking about what benefits there are to human spaceflight that can’t be achieved with robots tilts the argument. Not all benefits from space activity, as is the case in many other areas of human endeavor, are tangible. In fact, I believe the principal benefits from human spaceflight are intangible, but nevertheless substantial.
The United States must not give up exploration that has symbolized America’s global leadership.
Think of John F. Kennedy’s words in support of Project Apollo: “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space”; and “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
These motivations — international prestige and national pride — sustained Apollo and I believe remain relevant even today.
A report on human spaceflight from M.I.T. in December 2008 put it well in its discussion of exploration as the principal rationale for human space flight, defining exploration as “an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.”
The paper also noted that “human spaceflight is an instrument of soft power — it serves as an example for members of other nations and cultures to follow and emulate. … Human spaceflight is a marker of modernity and first-class status.”
It is inconceivable to me that the United States would willingly give up an activity that has for the past half-century symbolized its leading role in global affairs. Human spaceflight is part of the American patrimony.
Why Hominids and Space Go Together
Send the hardware, not the hominids.
That’s the between-the-lines message that many have discerned in President Obama’s newly enunciated vision for NASA.
The president wants the space agency to dial back its development of rockets that could sling astronauts into orbit or take them to the cratered landscapes of the Moon. As consequence, you can expect a greater emphasis on robotic exploration of the solar system.
Sounds like a good deal. After all, heaving orbiters, rovers and other mechanical missionaries to nearby worlds is cheaper than sending humans, and the robots don’t insist on a round-trip ticket.
So has “man in space” become an anachronism, a short-lived side effect of superpower rivalry?