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Mars astronaut illustration
While human explorers can do far more science than their robotic counterparts, and more efficiently, the real impetus for human setllement of space may be closer to Van Allen’s “ideology of adventure.” (credit: NASA)

Human spaceflight is inevitable

James Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts around Earth which have since been named after him, has thrown down the gauntlet with his article, “Is Human Spaceflight Obsolete” in Issues in Science and Technology. He states:

My position is that it is high time for a calm debate on more fundamental questions [than President Bush’s Moon-Mars proposal]. Does human spaceflight continue to serve a compelling cultural purpose and/or our national interest? Or does human spaceflight simply have a life of its own, without a realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its costs? Or, indeed, is human spaceflight now obsolete?

Human spaceflight does indeed serve a compelling cultural purpose and our national interest. Is it science?

Van Allen states, “Almost all of the space program’s important advances in scientific knowledge have been accomplished by hundreds of robotic spacecraft in orbit about Earth and on missions to the distant planets…” which I agree with. However, if you did a side-by-side comparison between a robot and a human geologist on Earth, you would find that the human was more versatile, more independent, and quicker. If we stick to robotic exploration, we simply won’t learn very much about the Moon, Mars, and the other planets. Robots may be less expensive for any single experiment, but you cannot beat the just-in-time flexibility of a geologist with a microscope, a hammer, and six months to nose around. Trying to compare the science that a person and a rover can do in six months is unfair to the robot.

If we stick to robotic exploration we simply won’t learn very much about the Moon, Mars and the other planets.

Hefting a geologist to Mars is, of course, very expensive and very dangerous. If science is indeed the main reason that the geologist is going, then Van Allen may be right that society today simply cannot afford that much science and cannot stomach that much risk. The science probably would not sell too well at market prices. How much could the Mars rover web site charge for a view? Do we really have a multi-billion dollar demand for answers to questions of Martian geology and biology? Do “advocates of human spaceflight defy reality and struggle to recapture the level of public support that was induced temporarily by the Cold War”?

Probably so if the context is science. The science likely to be discovered is probably not going to change our lives very much. One additional data point about how frequently life occurs in the universe is not going to settle any debates about extraterrestrial intelligence. There are unlikely to be any pharmaceutical uses for Martian life if we find it. The spinoffs from Martian science will probably be modest and in any case can be subsidized directly for a fraction of the cost.

If science is not the compelling cultural purpose and national interest, then is it true that “the only surviving motivation for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure”? Adventure is certainly an exciting ideology. Space tourism will inevitably take us to the planets if personal income continues to grow geometrically over the centuries (see sidebar). Even if “adventure is vicarious and akin to that of watching a science fiction movie,” then that may be enough for a private human spaceflight industry to thrive in space as movie budgets balloon (see “Space as Entertainment”, The Space Review, May 17, 2004).

There is more to space than adventure and entertainment. The Moon and Mars are waiting to be colonized to open a new chapter in the story of the human species. Having a colony will provide the species an insurance policy against the hazards that killed the dinosaurs. If six billion die every thirty million years or so, that’s a flux of 200 dead a year from asteroid impacts. That may prove to be more deadly than terrorism. But don’t colonize Mars and the Moon out of fear. Tackle flu shots if your goal is to save lives.

The struggle against nature on the frontier where the value of human labor will be so high will force Mars colonists to innovate in extraordinary ways. They will invent labor saving technology, tele-operation, and robotics that will sell well on Earth and improve our lives. But the technology spin-offs alone will not justify the cost of colonization. They may defray the costs, but it will take decades before the colony can produce enough to pay for the enormous cost of colonization. But do parents ask their children to repay them for rearing them?

Life on Mars or the Moon may some day not be all that different than Minneapolis in the winter.

The Moon and Mars will attract the gamblers, entrepreneurs and visionaries just as settling the New World and the American West did. California and Oklahoma are still benefiting from the influx of hope that came when they were settled and it is those two places that the first private spaceports are rising. The whole solar system will benefit from that concentration of hope, imagination and talent the way the world is benefiting now from Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. In due course, it may be from the Moon or Mars that the settlement of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are launched or maybe even the first generation ship to Alpha Centauri.

Life on Mars or the Moon may some day not be all that different than Minneapolis in the winter. People would stay indoors or bundle up to go outside. A thriving colony might look a lot like the inside of a mall or an office building. You cannot open the windows, but the view outside is wonderful. There would be a lot of glass and climate control inside. The risks of living on Mars may someday become as well understood as children dying left in hot cars, or seniors dying on hot days with no air conditioning.

The costs of settling the Moon and Mars will be high indeed. The dangers faced by early colonists and explorers will be fierce and frequent. Americans are ready to die in wars for freedom. A death on Mars may be more controversial than a death in Iraq, but recognize the freedom that could be achieved. Imagine the divergence of the human story that could be achieved with a new embryonic culture growing up across the ocean of space. They will inspire billions to be hopeful. They will unite humanity in the cause of a grand challenge. They will do more for the security of the species than the United Nations.

Perhaps some day the Moon and Mars will have a higher economic output than that of the United States. Perhaps some day they will declare independence and become the new guarantor of security in the solar system. Perhaps some day they will have a life of their own.

Private industry deserves a clean slate and should not be prejudged on the basis of decades of failed government programs and promises.

But Van Allen’s proposition that human spaceflight may “simply have a life of its own, without a realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its costs” may also be true. The space shuttle program has indeed “fallen far short of the Apollo program in its appeal to human aspirations.” And further, “the shuttle’s contribution to science has been modest, and its contribution to utilitarian applications of space technology has been insignificant.” This, however, is grounds to privatize or cancel the space shuttle, not to give up on manned spaceflight altogether.

Van Allen’s litany of NASA’s overpromising and underdelivering with the space shuttle, the International Space Station and various presidents’ failed visions also do not tell us that manned space flight is a bust. They tell us that government management of manned spaceflight has been a bust since Apollo.

With the advent of SpaceShipOne, costs may be falling. At a program cost of $30 million, SpaceShipOne will be completely paid for out of the Ansari X Prize money and proceeds from the Vulcan Video television production. That compares favorably with the $1.5 billion in current dollars spent on the X-15. Private industry deserves a clean slate and should not be prejudged on the basis of decades of failed government programs and promises.

I hope Van Allen will be the last person to question the obsolescence of manned spaceflight. I hope his question joins John von Neumann’s 1949 statement:

“It would appear we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements; they tend to sound pretty silly after 5 years.”

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