Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fly me to the moon?

Last Monday I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution on human spaceflight: is it humanity’s boldest endeavour or one of our greatest follies? My opponent was Kevin Fong of UCL, who confirmed all my initial impressions: he is immensely personable, eloquent and charming, and presents the sanest and least hyperbolic case for human spaceflight you’re ever likely to hear. All of which was bad news for my own position, of course, but in truth this was a debate I was never going to win: a show of hands revealed an overwhelming majority in favour of sending humans into space at the outset, and that didn’t change significantly (I was gratified that I seemed to pick up a few of the swing voters). And perhaps rightly so: if Kevin was put in charge of prioritizing and publicizing human spaceflight in the west, I suspect I’d find it pretty unobjectionable too. Sadly, we have instead the likes of the NASA PR machine and the bloomin’ Mars Society. (The only bit of hype I detected from Kevin all evening was about the importance to planetary geology of the moon rocks returned by Apollo – he seemed to accept (understandably, as an anaesthetist) the absurdly overblown claims of Ian Crawford.) In any event, it was very valuable to hear the ‘best case’ argument for human spaceflight, so that I could sharpen my own views on the matter. As I said then, I’m not against it in principle (I’m more of an agnostic) – but my goodness, there’s a lot of nonsense said and done in practice, and it seems even the Royal Astronomical Society bought some of it. Here, for what it is worth, is a slightly augmented version of the talk I gave.


Two weeks ago I watched the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, and was reminded of how exciting the Apollo missions were. Like most boys growing up in the late 60s, I wanted to be an astronaut. I retain immense respect for the integrity, dedication and courage of those who pioneered human spaceflight.

So it’s not idly that I’ve come to regard human spaceflight today as a monumental waste of money. I’ve been forced to this conclusion by the stark facts of how little it has achieved and might plausibly achieve in the near future, in comparison to what can be done without it.

Having watched those grainy, monochrome pictures in 1969, and having duly built my Airfix lunar modules and moon buggies, as a teenager I then watched Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos at the start of the 1980s. Now, Sagan did say ‘The sky calls to us; if we do not destroy ourselves we will one day venture to the stars.’ And I suspect he is right. But he, like me, didn’t seem to be in any great hurry about that. Or rather, I think he felt that we were essentially going there already, because Sagan drew on the results then just arriving from the Voyager spacecraft, launched only a year or so before the series was made and at that time investigating Jupiter and Saturn. He also reaped the bounty of the earlier Mariner missions to Venus and Mars, which offered images that remain stunning even now. The moon landings were a fantastic human achievement, but it was the unmanned missions that I encountered through Cosmos that really opened my eyes to the richness and the strangeness of the universe. Even in Technicolor, the moon is a drab place; but here, thanks to the Mariners and Voyagers, were worlds of swirling colour, of ice sheets and volcanoes and dust storms and molten sulphur. Did I feel short-changed that we weren’t sending humans to these places? On the contrary, I think I sensed even then that humans don’t belong here; they would simply be absurd, insignificant, even unwelcome intruders.

There had been Skylab in the 1970s, of course, in Earth orbit for six years, and that seemed kind of fun but now I recall a nagging sense that I wasn’t sure quite what they were doing up there, beyond a bit of microgravitational goofing around. And then came the space shuttle, and the Challenger disaster of 1986, and I began to wonder, what exactly is the aim of all this tentative astronautics at the edge of space?

And all the while that human spaceflight was losing its way, unmanned missions were offering us jaw-dropping sights. The Magellan mission wowed us on Venus, the Galileo mission gave thrilling views of Jupiter and its moons, and the rovers Opportunity and Spirit continue to wander on Mars sending back breathtaking postcards. And most recently, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan has shown us images of the strangest world we’ve ever seen, with methane lakes oozing up against shores encrusted with organic material under the drizzle of a methane rain.

This has all made me look again at the arguments put forward for why humans should go into space. And I’ve yet to find one that convinces me of its value, at this stage in our technological evolution.

One of the first arguments we hear is that there are technological spinoffs. We need to be cautious about this from the outset, because if you put a huge amount of money into developing any new technology, you’re bound to get some useful things from it. Of course, it is probably impossible to quantify, and perhaps rather meaningless to ask, what we would have found if we had directed even a small fraction of the money spent on human spaceflight directly into research on the sort of products it has spun off; but the fact remains that if you want a new kind of miniature heart pump or a better alloy for making golf clubs or better thermal insulation – if you really decide that you need these things badly – then sending people into space is a peculiar way of going about it. Whatever you want to say about the ragbag of products that have had some input from human spaceflight technology, I don’t think you can call them cost-effective. We’ve also got to take care that we distinguish between the spinoffs that have come from unmanned spaceflight.

What’s more, the spinoff argument has been routinely distorted. You ask many people what are the major spinoffs from spaceflight and they will say ‘Teflon’. So let me tell you: DuPont’s major Teflon plant in Virginia was producing a million pounds of it a year in 1950, and Teflon cookware was in the stores when Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth. Then people might say ‘Velcro’ – no, invented in Switzerland in 1941. Or if they’re American, they might cite the instant fruit drink Tang, which NASA simply bought off the supermarket shelf for their astronauts. When the head of NASA, Mike Griffin, referred to spinoffs in a recent speech defending human spaceflight, the first examples he reached for were these three – even though he then admitted that these didn’t come from the space program at all! You have to wonder why these spinoff myths have been allowed to persist for so long – was there really nothing better to replace them?

Then there’s the argument that you can do great science in space. Here again it is not too strong to say that some advocates routinely peddle false claims. Yes, you can do some neat experiments in space. For example, you can look at the fine details of how crystals grow, undisturbed by the convection currents that stir things up under gravity. And that also means you can grow more perfect crystals. Fine – but have we truly benefited from it, beyond clearing up a few small questions about the basic science of crystal growth? One common claim is that these improved crystals, when made from biomolecules, can offer up a more accurate picture of where all the atoms sit, so that we can design better drugs to interact with them. But I am not aware of any truly significant advance in drug development that has relied in any vital way on crystals grown in space. If I’ve overlooked something, I’d be happy to know of it, although you can’t always rely on what you read to make that judgement. In 1999, for example, it was claimed that research on an anti-flu drug had made vital use of protein crystals grown in a NASA project on board a space shuttle. NASA issued a press release with the headline ‘NASA develops flu drugs in space’. To which one of the people involved in the study replied by saying the following: ‘the crystals used in this project were grown here on Earth. One grown on Mir [the Russian space station, and nothing to do with NASA] was used in the initial stages, but it was not significantly better than the Earth-grown crystals.’

I’m confident of this much: if you ask protein crystallographers which technology has transformed their ability to determine crystal structures with great precision, it won’t cross their minds to mention microgravity. They will almost certainly cite the advent of high-intensity synchrotron X-ray sources here on Earth. Crystals grown in space are different, we’re told. Yes, American physicist Robert Park has replied, they are: ‘They cost more. Three orders of magnitude more.’

What we do learn in space that we can’t easily learn on Earth is the effect of low or zero gravity on human physiology. That’s often cited as a key scientific motivation for space stations. But wait a minute. Isn’t there a bit of circularity in the argument that the reason to put people in space is to find out what happens to them when you put them there?

One of the favourite arguments for human space exploration, particularly of the moon and Mars, is that only humans can truly go exploring. Only we can make expert judgements in an instant based on the blend of logic and intuition that one can’t program into robots. Well, there’s probably some truth in that, but it doesn’t mean that the humans have to physically be there to do it. Remote surgery has demonstrated countless times now that humans can use their skill and judgement in real time to guide robotics. NASA researchers have been calling the shots all along with way with the Mars rovers. This pairing of human intelligence with remote, robust robotics is now becoming recognized as the obvious way to explore extreme environments on Earth, and it surely applies in space too. It’s been estimated that, compared with unmanned missions, the safety requirements for human exploration push up launch costs by at least a factor of ten. We still lose a fair number of unmanned missions, but we can afford to, both in financial and in human terms. Besides, it’s easy to imagine ways in which robots can in fact be far more versatile explorers than humans, for example by deploying swarms of miniature robots to survey large areas. And in view of the current rate of advance in robotics and computer intelligence, who knows what will become feasible within the kind of timescale inevitably needed to even contemplate a human mission to Mars. I accept that even in 50 years time there may well be things humans could do on Mars that robots cannot; but I don’t think it is at all clear that those differences will in themselves be so profound as to merit the immense extra cost, effort and risk involved in putting humans there.

And now let’s come to what might soon be called the Hawking justification for human space exploration: we ‘need’ another world if we’re going to survive as a species. At a recent discussion on human exploration, NASA astronaut and former chief scientist John Grunsfeld put it this way: ‘single-planet species don’t survive.’ He admitted that he couldn’t prove it, but this is one of the most unscientific things I’ve heard said about human space exploration. How do you even begin to formulate that opinion? I have an equally unscientific, but to my mind slightly more plausible suggestion: ‘species incapable of living on a single, supremely habitable planet don’t survive.’

Quite aside from these wild speculations, one wonders how some scientists can be quite so blind to what our local planetary environment is like. They seem ready to project visions of Earth onto any other nearby world, just as Edgar Rice Burroughs did in his Mars novels. If you’ve ever flown across Siberia en route to the Far East, you know what it is like down there: there’s not a sign of human habitation for miles upon miles. Humans are incredibly adaptable to harsh environments, but there are places on Earth where we just can’t survive unaided. Well, let me tell you: compared with the Moon and Mars, Siberia is like Bognor Regis. Humans will not live autonomously here while any of us is alive, nor our children. It may be that one day we can run a moonbase, much as we have run space stations. But if the Earth goes belly up, the Moon and Mars will not save us, and to suggest otherwise is fantasy that borders on the irresponsible.

I was once offered an interesting justification for human space exploration by American planetary scientist Brian Enke. In response to a critique of mine, he said this:
‘I can’t think of a better way to devastate the space science budget in future years than to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, the manned space program. We would destroy our greatest justification and base of support in the beltway. Why should Uncle Sam fund space science at its current levels if it gives up on manned space exploration? Our funding depends upon a tenuous mindset - a vision of a progressive future that leads somewhere.’

In other words, we scientists may not be terribly interested in human spaceflight, but it’s what the public loves, and we can’t expect their support if we take that away.

Now, I have some sympathy with this; I can see what Brian means. But I can’t see how a human space program could be honestly justified on these grounds. Scientists surely have a responsibility to explain clearly to the public what they think they can achieve, and why they regard it as worth achieving. The moment we begin to offer false promises or create cosmetic goals, we are in deep trouble. Is there any other area of science in which we divert huge resources to placating public opinion, and even if there was, should we let that happen? In any event, human spaceflight is so hideously expensive that it’s not clear, once we have indulged this act of subterfuge, that we will have much money left to do the real science anyway. That is becoming very evidently an issue for NASA now, with the diversion of funds to fulfil George Bush’s grandiose promise of a human return to the moon by 2020, not to mention the persistent vision of a manned mission to Mars. If we give the ‘beltway’ what they want (or what we think they want), will there be anything left in the pot?

In fact, the more I think, in the light of history, about this notion of assuaging the public demand for ‘vision’, the more unsettling it becomes. Let’s put it this way. In the early 1960s, your lover says ‘Why are you a good-for-nothing layabout? Just look at what the guy next door is building – why can’t you do that?’ And so you say, ‘All right my dear, I’ll build you a rocket to take us to the moon.’ Your lover brightens up instantly, saying ‘Hey, that’s fantastic. I love you after all.’ And so you get to work, and before long your lover is saying ‘Why are you spending all this damned time and money on a space rocket?’ But you say, ‘Trust me, you’ll love it.’ The grumbling doesn’t stop, but you do it, and you go to the moon, and your lover says ‘Honey, you really are fabulous. I’ll love you forever.’ Two years later, the complaining has started again: ‘So you went to the moon. Big deal. Well, you can stop now, I’m not impressed any more.’ So you stop and go back to tinkering in your garage.

The years go by, and suddenly it’s the 1990s, and your lover is discontented again. ‘What have you ever achieved?’ and so on. ‘Oh, but I took us to the moon’, you say. ‘Big deal.’ ‘Well, you could go there again.’ ‘Hmm…’ ‘All right’, you say, exasperated, ‘look, we’ll go the moon again and then to Mars.’ ‘Oh honey, that’s so wonderful, if you do that I’ll love you forever.’ And what’s this? You believe it! You really believe that two years after you’ve been to Mars, they won’t be saying ‘Oh, Mars! Get a life. What else can you do?’ What a sucker. And indeed, what else will you do? Where will you go after that, to keep them happy for a few years longer?

We’re told that space science inspires young people to become scientists. I think this is true. But how do we know that they might not be equally motivated by scientific and technological achievements on Earth? Has anyone ever tried to answer that question? Likewise, how do we compare the motivation that comes from putting people into space with that from the Mars rovers or the Huygens mission to Titan? How would young people feel about being one of the scientists who made these things possible and who were the first to see the images they obtained? Is the allure of astronautics really so much more persuasive than anything else science has to offer young people? Do we know that it is really so uniquely motivating? I don’t believe that has ever been truly put to the test.

I mentioned earlier some remarks by NASA’s head Mike Griffin about human spaceflight. These were made in the context of a speech last year about the so-called ‘real’ reasons we send people into space. Sure, he said, we can justify doing this in hard-nosed cost-benefit terms, by talking about spinoffs, importance for national security, scientific discovery and so on. Now, as I’ve said, I think all those justifications can in fact be questioned, but in any case Griffin argued that they were merely the ‘acceptable’ reasons for space exploration, the kind of arguments used in public policy making. But who, outside of those circles, talks and thinks like that, he asked. The ‘real’ reasons why humans try to fly the Atlantic and climb Everest, he said, have nothing to do with such issues; they are, in Griffin’s words, ‘intuitive and compelling but not immediately logical’, and are summed up in George Mallory’s famous phrase about why we go up mountains: ‘Because it is there’. We want to excel, we want to leave something for future generations. The real reasons, Griffin said, are old-fashioned, they are all about the American pioneer spirit.

This is what the beltway wants to hear! That’s the Columbus ideal! Yes, the real reason many people, in the US at least, will confess to an enthusiasm for human spaceflight is that it speaks of the boldness and vision that has allowed humanity to achieve wonderful things. Part of this is mere hubris – the idea that we’ll have not ‘really’ been to Mars until we’ve stamped our big, dirty feet on the place (and planted our national flag). But part is understandable and valid: science does need vision and ambition. But in terms of space travel, this trades on the illusion that space is just the next frontier, like Antarctica but a bit further away. Well, it’s not. Earth is an oasis in a desert vaster than we can imagine. I can accept the Moon as a valid and clearly viable target, and we’ve been there. I do think that one day humans will go to Mars, and I’m not unhappy about that ultimate prospect, though I see no purpose in trying to do it with our current, fumbling technologies. But what then? Space does not scale like Earth: it has dimensions in time and space that do not fit with our own. Space is not the Wild West; it is far, far stranger and harder than that.

Actually, invoking the Columbus spirit is apt, because of course Columbus’s voyage was essentially a commercial one. And this, it seems, is the direction in which space travel is now going. In 2004 a privately financed spaceplane called SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize, an award of US$10 million offered for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. SpaceShipOne was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Rutan is now developing the space vehicle that Richard Branson plans to use for his Virgin Galactic business, which will offer the first commercial space travel. The plan is that Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo will take space tourists 100 kilometres up into suborbital space at a cost of around $200,000 each. Several other companies are planning similar schemes, and space tourism looks set to happen in one way or another. Part of me deplores this notion of space as a playground for the rich. But part of me thinks that perhaps this is how human spaceflight really ought to be done, if we must do it at all: let’s admit its frivolity, marvel at the inventiveness that private enterprise can engender, and let the wasted money come from the pockets of those who want it.

I must confess that I couldn’t quite believe the pathos in one particular phrase from Mike Griffin’s speech: ‘Who can watch people assembling the greatest engineering project in the history of mankind – the International Space Station – and not wonder at the ability of people to conceive and to execute that project?’ I’m hoping Griffin doesn’t truly believe this, but I fear he does. I think most scientists would put it a little differently, something like this: ‘Who can watch people assembling the most misconceived and pointless engineering project in the history of mankind – the International Space Station – and not wonder at the ability of people to burn dollars?’ Scientists disagree about a lot of things, but there’s one hypothesis that will bring near-unanimity: the International Space Station is a waste of space.

Ronald Reagan told the United States in 1984 that the space station would take six years to build and would cost $8 billion. Sixteen years and tens of billions of dollars later, NASA enlisted the help of 15 other nations and promised that the station would be complete by 2005. The latest NASA plans say it will be finished by the end of this decade. And it had better be, because in 2010 the shuttles will be decommissioned.

It is easy to mock the ISS, with its golf-playing astronauts, its Pizza Hut deliveries, its drunken astronauts and countless malfunctions. But you have to ask yourself: why is it so easy to mock it? Perhaps because it really is risible?

Robert Park, the physicist at the University of Maryland who I mentioned earlier and who has consistently been one of the sanest voices on space exploration, summed this up very recently in a remark with which I want to leave you. He said: ‘There is a bold, adventurous NASA that explores the universe. That NASA had a magnificent week. Having traveled 423 million miles since leaving Earth, the Phoenix Mars Lander soft-landed in the Martian arctic. Its eight-foot backhoe will dig into the permafrost subsoil to see if liquid water exists. There is another NASA that goes in circles on the edge of space. That NASA is having a problem with the toilet on the ISS. I need not go into detail to explain what happens when a toilet backs up in zero gravity - it defines ugly.’

Which vision of space exploration would you rather have?


JimmyGiro said...

If only they asked the opinion of the local Landlord:

... tides, Werwolves, and periods.

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