Space Flights, Manned
Should governments be sending people into space?
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Humankind has always pushed boundaries and tried to go further, higher and faster. While the privat...
Humankind has always pushed boundaries and tried to go further, higher and faster. While the private market may be able to cater for the rich few who want to see sub-orbital space (and some 11,000 have signed up to fly there with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactica from 2007), ultimately the boundaries of science involve keeping humans in space for long periods (the current record is 439 days), travelling further, discovering what the rest of our solar system holds and, eventually, trying to live on the moon or Mars. While it might be possible to use robots to carry out experiments on other planets, humans will always want to explore them for themselves and it is only through state subsidies that such exploration is financially possible.
Even if humans want to explore that is not necessarily a reason to look to space. Rather than probing Mars for life, we should be looking to the 95% of the world’s oceans that have yet to be explored and where we are constantly finding new forms of life and new scientific discoveries. For example, bacteria have been found which survive not by using sunlight as an energy source, but volcanic vents on the ocean floor – a discovery which made scientists looking for life on Mars totally change their approach. And with individuals constantly in the news for attempts to traverse the globe in rowing boats, hot air balloons and tied to gliders, there are clearly enough ‘boundaries’ on this planet to keep even our keenest explorers happy. Furthermore, even with a budget of $16.5bn for 2006, NASA expects it will take more than a decade to return to the moon and has no date for Mars. The cost of really pushing the boundaries of human exploration is too high even for the big-spending Bush administration, so surely we need to examine the scientific and technological returns of the space programme as it really is rather than how it appears in Star Trek.
Some scientific experiments and exploration can be done exclusively or more effectively by a manned ...
Some scientific experiments and exploration can be done exclusively or more effectively by a manned mission. Firstly, there is a distinction between collection of data and interpretation of data. Robots are very good at collecting data but not good at responding to that data and acting flexibly on it – consider that probably the most flexible robots yet to leave Earth, the Mars Rovers, could only travel a few metres and test some nearby rocks. Humans on the Moon were able to travel significant distances, selectively choose rock types from a variety of locations and prioritise experiments based on the results they received as they were on the Moon’s surface. Ideally scientists would like to understand other planets and bodies as well as they do Earth. This would require huge numbers of experiments and surveys which would be much better done by long manned missions or permanent scientific missions (as have been posted to Antarctica for decades) rather than a series of unmanned missions over a decade.
This also applies to experiments carried out in zero gravity onboard the ISS or Space Shuttle, such as attempts to grow protein crystals or look at the impact of zero-gravity on the behaviour of organisms. This latter issue is also important in relation to humans; it is only by having humans in space that we are able to find out what the impact of space does to their physiological and psychological well being. This makes future manned exploration more possible as well as teaching us about humans. Discoveries on bone and muscle depletion during space travel have helped in the care of bedridden patients and on how to speed up the rate of muscle growth.
The scientific benefits of manned space programmes are severely overstated; NASA spends over a third of its budget simply keeping the ISS manned and the Space Shuttle working. The vast majority of its spending on scientific research comes through ground based research, telescopes and unmanned missions. China has made no claims that there is a scientific benefit to its manned mission and nor has Russia in recent years. It is clear that there are few experiments that are so important that they can justify the huge cost needed to allow them to be carried out by humans in zero gravity. NASA made a lot of noise about growing zero-gravity protein crystals as a potential cure for cancer when it was trying to justify building the ISS but has since dropped the claims as experiments have shown the claims were overstated.
Similarly the argument that humans need to be in space in order to find out the effects of being in space should be treated with caution; it is essentially a circular argument as with no manned missions, there would be no need to find out the impact of space on humans.
As for the idea that humans are simply better than robots, the fact that unmanned missions are relatively inexpensive means that several missions, each equipped to respond to information gathered by previous missions can be sent for the cost of a single manned mission. This is exactly the policy with Mars – orbiting missions like the Mars Observer collect data and photograph the planet, helping to inform missions to the surface like the Mars Exploration Rovers. With increasingly advanced robotics, it is reasonable to expect that the flexibility of future missions will only increase.
A second reason why manned experiments and exploration would be more effective is that any manned mi...
A second reason why manned experiments and exploration would be more effective is that any manned mission will necessarily be heavier. This is because it has to carry the weight of humans and their life support equipment. For this reason the cost of returning samples or carrying extra scientific equipment will be more possible because of the negligible weight they add to the payload. This means that even if the mission is primarily about political grandstanding, science will still benefit. Compare the USSR’s ability to bring back 321g of lunar rock using robots with the 382kg brought back by the US Apollo missions. The latter proved the ‘giant impact’ theory, told us a lot about the evolution and geological change of the Moon and our own Earth, and are still being studied today.
If there is really a lack of political will to fund unmanned missions of a sufficient size, complexity and cost for a scientific goal (such as collecting 382kg of lunar rock) then it is likely that other scientific missions are also being vetoed. Even a manned programme on the scale of Apollo would not be able to carry the payload or spare the time on the lunar surface for all these missions to be carried out. Furthermore, even if NASA is unwilling to fund a particular project does not mean it cannot take place – the Beagle 2 project to search for life on Mars was organised by British scientist Professor Colin Pillinger and raised a significant amount of its £50m cost from private sources and sponsorship. The Beagle 2 never responded from the surface of the Red Planet but the principle of scientific communities being able to raise sufficient capital for small unmanned missions has been proven.
Manned space programmes have resulted in huge funding of the scientific community which has produced...
Manned space programmes have resulted in huge funding of the scientific community which has produced a vast range of spin-offs. These include the Teflon found on non-stick frying pans, new ways of testing aerodynamics which have improved planes, huge improvements in computing power and software, etc. The need to make this equipment ‘fail-safe’ because of its role in keeping humans alive in space means that the level of funding and testing is necessarily higher than for non-manned missions. Robotic missions have also benefited from the manned programme through more reliable rockets for example. In future they may well become more and more reliant on manned programmes; as scientists want to send their unmanned probes further, they want to send more equipment on each probe because of the years it takes to reach the edges of the solar system and future interstellar probes are likely to be larger again because of the propulsion systems that they need to travel billions of miles. The extra weight and size of such craft will make it all but impossible to construct them at a reasonable cost on the Earth; instead they will need to be constructed in sub-orbital space just as the ISS has been. The engineering skills and techniques used to build manned space stations are exactly what will be used to build unmanned missions in the future.
Some spin-off technology will come from unmanned space travel as easily as from manned space travel (e.g. rocket technology, robotics, computing power etc.), and one should bear in mind that most manned space programmes are centred on under-funded programmes using old technology due to budgetary constraints (Russia), low technological development (China) or focused on repetitive operations (USA) which do not involve significant funding into new technologies. As a result of space programmes often being closely linked to the military (in China it is a division of the military), the spin-offs that are sought are usually for military rather than consumer products, and more likely to be kept secret for exactly that reason.
However, the problem with the spin-off argument in principle is that investing in developing a non-stick frying pan would surely be cheaper than investing in a manned space programme which produces Teflon as a side-effect. Where there are truly significant problems and areas in need of technological advances either the state should fund research (as it does in many ways through research grants, support for universities etc.) or the free market will step in and exploit a market for a new technological solution to a problem.
While space travel pushed for primarily political reasons is not necessarily a bad thing (as shown a...
While space travel pushed for primarily political reasons is not necessarily a bad thing (as shown above), the nature of multinational manned space programmes actually makes it a force for good in international relations. Since the “historic handshake in space” when a US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in 1975, the two countries have grown increasingly close. This relationship involves sharing technology (which is almost all ‘dual use’ i.e. it could be used for military purposes as well as civilian, thus requiring a high degree of trust), scientific knowledge and working side-by-side to build and support the ISS. With the involvement of the 11 member states of the European Space Agency as well as Canada, Japan and Brazil in the project, space is one of the few spheres where governments have been able to put aside their differences in pursuit of something more fundamentally important to humanity – surely something that we should continue.
Sending humans into space or to other planets so that they can erect the flag of a particular nation is a distinctly nationalistic act and one that is likely to create aggressive 'races' in the future just as it has before. China’s manned programme is openly intended to challenge the US dominance of space for the Communist regime’s huge propaganda benefit. George W. Bush’s pledge to boost spending on NASA and to restart the manned mission to Mars programme was a direct response. This is damaging not only because of the potential for space race conflicts to escalate into greater international hostility, but also because of the way such races could result in the militarization of space (as several Chinese hawks have called on the leadership to do), thereby turning something which should be preserved for the common good of humankind into a neo-colonial battlefield.
There is a significant long-term risk to the human race of only being able to live on Earth. The po...
There is a significant long-term risk to the human race of only being able to live on Earth. The potential damage done by an asteroid or comet that collides with the Earth could range from the impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the complete destruction of all life on the planet. A manned mission might be necessary to destroy or divert such an object before it reaches our planet. There is also the potential for other terrible damage to be done to the Earth (whether through climate change, warfare or overcrowding), which could mean that as a race we would have no choice but to leave the planet. In that situation, high levels of knowledge about human space travel and the ability to colonise Mars or other planets would be essential.
The risk of us being wiped out by an asteroid like the dinosaurs is very very small. In any case unmanned missions (missiles, satellite mounted lasers etc.) would probably be as effective as any manned attempt to divert an asteroid despite what films like Armageddon and Deep Impact might suggest.
As for the potential for us to mess up the Earth sufficiently to require us to leave the planet, perhaps we should work harder at looking after this planet rather than looking for another one to damage.
In any case, what better way to colonise space than to leave it to the private market to develop the space tourism market to include space hotels and moon bases? The success of the $10m X Prize at attracting interest and private investment in private space programmes has shown that there is no need for the state to be involved in space travel on the non-science side. Given suitable international safety standards (as were agreed on air travel in the inter-war period) it would transfer the investment and risk away from the taxpayer as well as producing the sort of space travel that would really inspire the human race – the sort that tens of thousands of people would actually get a chance to take part in.
What do you think?