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Noguchi on ISS
The ISS is the best example of the intersection between science and human spaceflight, one that has created opportunities but also concerns. (credit: NASA)

The future of science and human spaceflight


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The relationship between the scientific community and the human spaceflight community might be best described by the title of a recent movie: “It’s Complicated”. Supporters of human spaceflight have often used science as a key justification for their programs, be it research on the International Space Station or exploration of the Moon and Mars. While some scientists share that interest, others have been less enthusiastic, seeing it as irrelevant and a waste of resources or, worse, a threat to their own programs when funding becomes tight. It’s little surprise that when NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke at the American Astronomical Society’s conference in Washington earlier this month, the line that elicited the biggest round of applause was this one: “The future of human spaceflight will not be paid for out of the hide of the science program.”

The relationship between the scientific community and the human spaceflight community might be best described by the title of a recent movie: “It’s Complicated”.

That relationship may become even more complicated as the White House prepares to release a revised space exploration policy in the next few weeks. That policy could extend the life of the ISS, allowing for more research opportunities, but also delay or defer human missions to the Moon, to the dismay of scientists planning to study the Moon or use it as a platform for other research. Whatever that policy contains, though, NASA and its various constituencies will still have to deal with a pair of intertwined questions: what role should science play in justifying human spaceflight, and what role should humans play in space science?

ISS as national laboratory

The biggest current interface between the scientific and human spaceflight communities is the ISS. The station was sold—oversold, some might argue—in large part on its potential to perform a wide range of scientific experiments. Performing significant science on the station has been difficult so far as the station was being assembled, although about 200 publications based on ISS experiments were published through the end of 2008. Proponents are hopeful that with the station’s assembly nearly complete and six-person crew operations ramping up, even more science can be done (see “Using the space station: where does the US go from here?”, The Space Review, October 19, 2009).

One factor that may affect the station’s utilization is a provision in a NASA authorization bill in 2005 that designated the US elements of the ISS as a national laboratory. That designation opened the door for NASA to cooperate with other government agencies and private entities regarding use of the station. NASA has signed several memoranda of understanding since then, including with the Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to cooperate on ISS research applications.

The agreement between NASA and NIH has since led to an ongoing funding opportunity announcement by the NIH to support biomedical research on the ISS. “The breadth of the research goes very, very far,” said NIH’s Stephen Katz during a half-day symposium January 14th titled “Human Spaceflight and the Future of Space Science” in Washington, organized by the Universities Space Research Association and George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

The research program is open for three years, with annual deadlines for submitting applications; the first round of proposals has been received and will be evaluated later this month, Katz said. “The reason we make that commitment for three years is because sometimes it takes a little while for the community to get used to it,” he said. There’s no quota on applications or funding set aside for this, he added. “It depends on how meritorious the applications are, and whether they’re feasible.”

“There is only one answer” to the question of how to access and utilize the ISS, Bingham said. “It will not surprise you to know that we believe that answer is to keep flying the shuttle.”

If NASA is serious about attracting scientists to performing research on the station, though, it may need to perform what one person termed “missionary” work to lure them back after previous cuts in station research plans turned them away. “The very best and the brightest have a lot of other things that they can do,” said Len Fisk, a professor at the University of Michigan and a former NASA associate administrator for space science. “Now that the agency may want them back because an opportunity exists with the space station, that’s when they may discover there are not as many as they thought there were.”

A related challenge is getting scientists interested in using the ISS when access to the station, and even how long it will continue to operate, are uncertain. There’s a emerging consensus that the White House will likely decide to extend ISS operations to at least 2020, but how difficult it will be to get equipment to and from the station once the shuttle is retired poses a challenge to utilization.

Proposed legislation that may soon be introduced in the Senate is designed to address those issues. At last week’s symposium Jeff Bingham, a member of the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee, held up a draft of a bill called the “Human Spaceflight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act”. Because the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, he couldn’t discuss its contents, but did say what he thought the bill should contain—a big hint as to its likely contents.

The legislation, he said, should require NASA to study what’s needed in terms of new and replacement equipment to keep the ISS in operation to at least 2020, as well as the requirements for transporting cargo to and from it. Bingham, though, already has in mind what’s required to meet those requirements. “There is only one answer,” he said. “It will not surprise you to know that we believe that answer is to keep flying the shuttle.” Any legislation, he said, should authorize funding to continue shuttle operations until a US-built replacement vehicle, government or commercial, can enter service.

The bill should not stop at extending the shuttle, though. “We believe very strongly that commercial industry, the space launch industry, is vitally important, and it’s time, we’re at the point, where we should be moving in that direction,” he said. Such legislation should authorize additional funding to accelerate development of commercial crew vehicles. It would also endorse use of Ares 1/Orion to support the station, although he didn’t provide specifics about any language on that system the bill should contain. Other aspects of the bill should focus on ensuring utilization of the US components of the station as a national laboratory and getting more users of the facility from outside of NASA.

He admitted it’s going to be a challenge to secure funding for extending the shuttle, above and beyond any technical and programmatic obstacles to keeping the shuttle flying this close to the planned end of the program. He said he looks to the White House to provide leadership on this by requesting funding in line with authorized levels, something that has not happened in the past. “The reason appropriators have not been able to increase funding levels to the kind of levels we had in our authorization bills is because they were never requested by the White House,” he said.

However, Bingham said he’s not necessarily optimistic that will happen, since the same people “at the mid-level of the bureaucracy” within the Office of Management and Budget who put lower funding levels in past budget requests are still there even after a change in administrations. “I’m not optimistic that what we’re going to see with the budget is going to be very inspiring,” he said.

Beyond ISS

The role science will play in human spaceflight beyond ISS is less certain, in large part because those plans are still in flux. The specifics will depend in part about the direction space exploration takes beyond LEO, the schedules for those efforts, and the technical capabilities of such missions.

“The key point, I think, is that we shouldn’t pretend that human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit is somehow primarily about advancing science,” Chyba concluded.

The Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee, better known as the Augustine Committee, did take science into account in their analysis, committee member Chris Chyba of Princeton University noted at the symposium. “The committee did identify 12 metrics by which any architecture should be addressed,” he said. “Science is one of those metrics; an important one, but obviously by no means the sole one.” In addition, he said, there was no effort by the committee to prioritize those metrics.

Chyba also praised the committee for its “scientific integrity” by soliciting input from a broad range of scientific disciplines, from earth sciences to planetary science and astronomy, with widely differing opinions on the role of human spaceflight on their fields. “In our report we conclude that there are particular areas of science where human spaceflight can bring benefits,” he said, particularly in field geology on planetary surfaces like Mars as well as the servicing of scientific spacecraft.

“The key point, I think, is that we shouldn’t pretend that human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit is somehow primarily about advancing science,” Chyba concluded. “Advancing science is one of a much larger set of objectives that you should try to maximize so long as you’re sending humans into space. But let’s not pretend that science is the driver or the primary justification.”

Chyba said another important lesson of the committee’s report was the need to protect NASA’s science budget from the costs of human spaceflight programs. “Human spaceflight needs to be aligned with national priorities, and if you cut space-based research—for example, Earth climate observations—that puts human spaceflight in a position where it’s in opposition to national priorities, and that is not a sustainable position or an acceptable position.”

“In large measure, the opportunities for productive interaction between science and human spaceflight will depend on the extent to which there is an equality of essential goals between the two programs,” Fisk said. That doesn’t mean equal funding for the two, he said, noting that different cost structures made that impossible, “but there needs to be an equality to the extent to which each program seeks to be transformative.”

Science programs, he argued, have a proven track record of being transformative, citing examples like the Hubble Space Telescope and other astronomy missions that have transformed our understanding of the universe. “You can’t make the same statements about our human spaceflight programs,” he countered. “Apollo was certainly transformational, but the human spaceflight program that followed has largely not been transformational.”

“We need to recognize that the current human spaceflight program is a drag on the reputation of the agency, and therefore on us, and offers little advantage to us. We should thus be advocates for a more aggressive human spaceflight program,” Fisk said.

The merits of human spaceflight, though, shouldn’t be judged on their science, he said, because science isn’t the sole or necessarily even primary goal for it. Instead, he said human spaceflight should be judged on its efforts in geopolitical, economic, and inspirational areas. Such a program that tries to be transformational in those areas still has opportunities for “constructive synergism” with science, he said. “If human spaceflight opens up new capabilities in space for living and working in the near-space environment and being able to maneuver in this environment, surely this capability will afford opportunities to deploy, construct, and if necessary repair scientific satellites,” he said.

Fisk offered this advice to the scientific community: “We need to recognize that the current human spaceflight program is a drag on the reputation of the agency, and therefore on us, and offers little advantage to us. We should thus be advocates for a more aggressive human spaceflight program, which is in fact capable of transforming our society, our economy, and our future: a human spaceflight program that is an essential component of our foreign policy, our economic future, and the inspiration of our people. If such a program develops, there will be opportunities for synergism and mutually supportive capabilities, and all this will be advantageous to us.”


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