Space, Policy, and Society Research Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "The Future of Human Spaceflight," December 2008. Copyright © 2008 by TopTenReviews. Reproduced by permission.
The Space, Policy, and Society Research Group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an interdisciplinary collective of engineers, historians, and policy scholars working on subjects of national interest.
Despite common arguments that manned spaceflight brings advances of technology and the sciences, the true justification for the risk of human life and the spending of billions of dollars lies in the will of nations. Countries use their space programs as a means of proving technological capabilities and establishing or retaining their reputations as world powers. It is this purpose that will always drive space exploration and the innovations humanity dreams up to reach for the stars.
For such a highly technical endeavor, the rationales for human spaceflight have been surprisingly imprecise. What is the rationale for a large, government funded program of human space exploration? With the rapid growth in robotic and autonomous systems, does the equation for human versus remote exploration require rebalancing?
Nations have sent people into space for a variety of reasons in the past fifty years; some of them have become obsolete in the face of changing technology, others remain salient for the future. The recent [President George W.] Bush vision gives a representative set: search for habitable worlds away from Earth, possibly leading to the discovery of present or past life on other planets; develop new technology; inspire children to study and seek careers in science, technology, engineering, and math; and symbolize American democracy to the world. Other rationales for humans in space include national security, scientific discovery, and establishing human colonies on other worlds.
Of course, each of these do partially justify human spaceflight. Human space flight has inspired, for example, many of today's scientists and engineers who witnessed the Apollo [lunar] program as children.
Why Fly People into Space?
But which rationales apply uniquely to human spaceflight? What objectives might be achievable with remote spaceflight programs, or with other types of technology projects on the ground? For example, if the government wishes to support technology development, there are other, more direct ways to do so, such as R&D [research and development] contracts. Similarly, might the billions spent on space exploration be spent in other ways to support math and science education on the ground? (By comparison, the National Science Foundation's entire budget for education in math, science, and engineering was around $700 million in 2008, equivalent to just a few percent of NASA's [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] budget).
To structure the rationales for human spaceflight, we introduce the ideas of primary and secondary objectives. Primary objectives are those that can only be accomplished through the physical presence of human beings, those whose benefits exceed the opportunity costs, and those worthy of significant risk to, and possibly the loss of, human life. Primary objectives are exploration, national pride, and international prestige and leadership.
But science alone does not justify human missions to Mars.
By contrast, secondary objectives have benefits that accrue from human presence in space but do not by themselves justify the cost or the risk. Secondary objectives include science, economic development and jobs, technology development, education, and inspiration.
Consider science in this frame-work. None doubt there are situations where people can accomplish things that machines cannot, or things that machines can only do more slowly than people and with greater difficulty. The flexible, dexterous manipulations of the human hand, for example, are still difficult to replicate with mechanisms. But few argue that the ability to drill into a planetary surface is sufficient justification for missions costing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. Were human beings to walk on Mars they could of course accomplish significant science, potentially revolutionary discoveries, while there. But science alone does not justify human missions to Mars—the estimated cost would be many times the total budget of the National Science Foundation. Therefore science is a secondary objective of human spaceflight.
Similarly, if humans are to travel in space for long distances and durations, then it is ethically imperative to understand the biomedical implications of prolonged exposure to space and planetary environments. This entails understanding the biomedical impact of the microgravity environment of the ISS [International Space Station], the reduced gravity environments on the Moon (1/6g, or one-sixth the gravity of Earth), and on Mars (3/8g).
Understanding the influence of gravity on biological systems also has implications for health on Earth. But life science research does not stand by itself; it is necessary if we choose to send humans into space for other, primary reasons. Here on Earth, medical experimentation with humans is given serious ethical scrutiny and practical limitations, no matter how great the potential benefit. Human spaceflight purely for health research would likely be subject to similar ethical constraints. Thus human life science research is also a secondary objective of human spaceflight.
Economic and technology development have a similar status. First, there is the opportunity cost—if the U.S. government wishes to invest in technology, there are other more direct ways to fund it. Developing space-based life support technologies or moon-dust scrubber systems, for example, are not as likely to generate returns for earth-based applications as would direct investment in solar cell manufacturing or new biomaterials.
Another argument frames human spaceflight as a jobs program, employing tens of thousands of people on the ground. The Shuttle program, for example, employs over 2,000 civil servants and 15,000 work year equivalents for contractors. But again, few argue that human spaceflight is the only, or even the optimal way to invest in a technically talented workforce.
There are presently no known natural resources in space that can be profitably exploited. Even were such resources and an efficient extraction scheme to be discovered, it is unlikely that human presence would be required. Human presence will always be more expensive than remote operations, so any genuine space-based extractive business is likely to be heavily based on remote presence. Therefore technology and economic development are secondary objectives of human spaceflight.
None of this is to say that secondary objectives are unimportant; all have contributing roles to play in justifying government expenditures on space exploration. Secondary objectives may or may not justify their own costs, but in general they do not justify the risk to human life.
National Motives for Space Exploration
Human spaceflight is risky; seventeen people have died aboard U.S. spacecraft, and four aboard Russian craft. One in sixty Space Shuttle flights have ended in disaster. What objectives have sufficient value for nations and cultures that they justify these risks to life?
A primary objective of human spaceflight has been, and should be, exploration. Exploration, of course, is a keyword in the [George W.] Bush vision and in NASA's own terminology. Yet while the word is often used, it is rarely specified beyond lofty rhetoric and allusions to curiosity and frontiers. What is exploration, and why explore?
First, it is worth considering what exploration is not. Some argue that "exploration is in our DNA," that some fundamental, even genetic, human trait compels us as individuals and as nations to seek out new territory. The civilization that fails to expand geographically, the argument goes, will enter a state of permanent decline, always to be exceeded by other nations with more compelling wanderlust.
We reject these arguments about essential qualities of human nature. No historical evidence, no social science evidence, and no genetic evidence prove that human beings have an innate, universal compulsion to explore. In fact, space exploration is radically different from the kinds of geographical expansion that have marked human history because of its high degree of technical difficulty, the environments' extreme hostility to human life, and the total lack of encounters with other human cultures. Furthermore, if there were some grand universal compulsion to explore, we would find no compelling reason for the United States or any other nation to act now, as we would eventually migrate to the stars, regardless of our potentially fallible political decision making.
If exploration were simply a matter of finding out what lies beyond our immediate vicinity, then satisfying that curiosity would not require direct human presence.
The exploration of space will continue if and only if governments or other large entities consider it within their interests and means to do so. Only a fraction of nations have ever found exploration valuable, and only a smaller fraction are now space faring.
Moreover, if exploration were simply a matter of finding out what lies beyond our immediate vicinity, then satisfying that curiosity would not require direct human presence. If we are primarily concerned with finding what's out there, then robotic spacecraft and other technologies can help us find out at a fraction of the cost and risk. In fact, many such machines are returning wondrous data every day. If an innate human curiosity is used as a justification for space exploration in general, it fails as a justification for human space exploration.
Exploration is a human activity, undertaken by certain cultures at certain times for particular reasons. It has components of national interest, scientific research, and technical innovation, but is defined by none of them. We define exploration as an expansion of the realm of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations, and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human. What is the role of Earth in human life? Is human life fundamentally tied to the earth, or could it survive without the planet?
Human presence, and its attendant risk, turns a spaceflight into a story that is compelling to large numbers of people. Exploration also has a moral dimension because it is in effect a cultural conversation on the nature and meaning of human life. Exploration by this definition can only be accomplished by direct human presence and may be deemed worthy of the risk of human life.
As an example, the lasting impact of the Apollo program is not defined by specific technologies of interest to engineers nor even by scientific results known within a particular community. What made an impression on the people across the globe were images of human beings walking on another world. The feat stands as one of the notable moments in the twentieth century, the photograph of an Apollo 11 astronaut on the moon a global icon of modernity and peaceful technological achievement. Even today, interest in Apollo centers on the human experience. The twelve men who walked on the moon did something, experienced something, that no other people have done before or since. They expanded the realm of human experience.
The expansion of human experience might seem too universal to satisfy national interests, too general to appeal to practical policy considerations. Indeed the Apollo missions were undertaken "in peace for all mankind." Nevertheless, they were unmistakably branded as American, and that branding provided the major political impetus for the program. Apollo expanded what it meant to be human in uniquely American ways. Observers hailed American astronauts as paragons of self-reliance, individualism and other American virtues.
The twelve men who walked on the moon ... expanded the realm of human experience.
Pride and Prestige on Display
Closely related to the exploration objective, then, are those of national pride and international prestige. Rockets and spacecraft are powerful symbols, and since its origins human spaceflight has been promoted and received as an indicator of national strength and purpose. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States upheld human spaceflight as the badge of national leadership, technological strength, and political resolve. Lyndon Johnson perhaps put it best when he said "In the eyes of the world first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything." By this argument, any nation advanced and focused enough to send people into space must be set to define the future. Any nation that could muster the resources, master the technologies, and exhibit the long-term focus to mount human missions into space must be capable of other great feats, be they military, economic, or cultural.
Though the Cold War rivalry has faded, its presumption that leadership in space correlated with economic, political, and cultural leadership had wide impact. As many observers have noted, human spaceflight is an instrument of soft power—it serves as an example for members of other nations and cultures to emulate and follow. Incorporating this logic as their own, other nations have accepted the notion that human spaceflight is a marker of modernity and first-class status. In China and Japan, not to mention numerous other nations who have flown people on American or Russian flights, astronauts remain public figures of iconic "rock star" status. When Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote to President Hu Jintao after the first Chinese human spaceflight, he congratulated him on the "successful advancement of your country along the path of comprehensive development, of its becoming a modern world power."
Nonetheless, all nations do not share the same rationales for human spaceflight. Each defines its own human space accomplishments according to its own cultural values. The Soviet Union, for example, hailed its cosmonauts as ideological icons of the communist regime, paragons of the "new Soviet man." As historian Slava Gerovitch writes, "the Soviet cosmonauts publicly represented a communist ideal, an active human agency of sociopolitical and economic change."
By sending people into places and situations unprecedented in human history, nations aim to expand a global definition of humanity in their own image.
The Chinese similarly acclaim their taikonauts as embodiments of a Chinese history, culture, and technological prowess. As historian James Hansen has written, the cultural iconography surrounding China's first space traveler, Shenzhou V's Yang Liwei, evoked reactions mixing "pragmatic nationalism, communist ideology, traditional Confucian values, and [the] drive for economic and high-tech industrial competitiveness." In India, too, accomplishments in space represent national aspirations to become a global power.
By sending people into places and situations unprecedented in human history, nations aim to expand a global definition of humanity in their own image. The benefits to a country being represented in this way have generally justified the risk and cost of human life, much as military service to a nation is deemed worthy of such sacrifices.
Public perceptions of spaceflight vary unevenly among nations. For rising countries such as China and India, accomplishments in human spaceflight serve to announce their emergence into an elite club of global powers. Americans, more secure in recent decades of their nation's leadership in science and technology, seem to be less interested—few Americans can name a single active astronaut. American public perception could change quickly, however, in the face of foreign accomplishments (a Chinese landing on the moon, for example), or in light of a continued decline (real and perceived) in U.S. fortunes and status.
National pride and international prestige remain primary objectives of human spaceflight—achievable only with physical human presence and deemed by nations to be worth the financial cost and risk to human life.
Nevertheless, we recommend against reviving the Cold War model of the "space race," which will only serve to put U.S. space policy in a reactive mode. Rather, the United States should take advantage of pride and prestige in human spaceflight to enhance its leadership and further cooperation rather than encourage competition.