What is a manned space programme actually for?

A post by Chris RowanToday President Obama announced that in his next budget he was going to cut funding for NASA’s Constellation Program, and with it the plan to send people back to the Moon. This is no doubt going to lead to a lot of noisy protest; but I can’t help wondering if it isn’t the correct decision, because I was never entirely clear on what, exactly, they were going to do when they got back to the Moon beyond a “well, gee, we’re on the Moon!” and we managed that 40 years ago. In fact, the story of the Apollo program contains a salutary lesson about the consequences of gearing your space programme totally around the simple goal of reaching somewhere: once you’ve got there, that’s it.
It’s normally around this stage of an argument about manned space flight that someone plays the “inspiration” card. But I can’t remember when I was last inspired – really, truly, left awestruck – by something an astronaut did. The most exciting thing that I can recall any of them doing in the last couple of decades is fixing up the Hubble Space Telescope three times, and the inspirational bit came from what Hubble did after it had been made even better than before. Most of the time the astronauts just head up to the International Space Station, stay in orbit for a few months, and then come back home again. They take the odd pretty picture, it’s true, but what’s their primary function? Yes, we get more data on the effects of long-term zero gravity on human physiology, but are they really doing anything that wasn’t being done on Mir 15 years ago? I can’t help feeling that – much as it pains me to admit it – they’re there just so the ISS seems like a bit less of an orbiting albino pachyderm. Either way I would bet a fair sum that more people currently know the name of a valiant little Mars rover than know the names of the current astronauts on the ISS. Because Spirit has done things.
From this, you might reasonably conclude that I’m completely against the idea of sending people into space. I’m not: I’m just against the idea of doing it on the cheap. If we’re going to revisit the Moon, and go on to Mars or near-Earth asteroids, it shouldn’t be just to commit the worst form of checklist tourism – to go just so that we can say we’ve been. It should be with a purpose – with the aim of actually doing something new and interesting whilst we’re there, or at least as part of a wider strategy of establishing a useful human presence in space beyond the tiny and impotent foothold we maintain at the moment. That would be inspirational. But I suspect that it would also be much more expensive than I think we’re willing to countenance right now – and, more importantly, probably beyond our current space technology.
But perhaps I’m wrong about all this. What do you see as the point of manned space flight right now? What point do you think it could have?

Categories: general science, planets, ranting

Comments (29)

  1. Jason says:

    Given a false dichotomy of funding manned flight or funding the unmanned satellites and probes that generate real scientific breakthroughs, I’ll take the unmanned. However, I would choose both of them over pretty much any other item in the entire government budget.

  2. Roger Hill says:

    We’re running out of resources. The only place to get more is off-planet.
    Unless we learn how to do this, and soon, we won’t have the infrastructure we need to do it when it needs to be done.
    Or we can lose a significant portion of the population.

  3. Jose says:

    It’s a false dichotomy to think either/or. However you can speculate about more concrete questions. I’m a big fan of space robots but don’t begrudge the ocassional human either. The robots are clearly stealing the show however.

  4. Lekhni says:

    I can see some rationale for cutting manned space flights and funding more unmanned ones. But then what’s the logic behind the $6 billion funding for commercial space taxis?

  5. dave says:

    not knowing the names of the people working on the ISS is a good thing.it means it’s reached the same stage as the South Pole station in the 50′s and 60′s.no longer big names risking all for a goal but working scientists at a remote location.

  6. BrianR says:

    You make a good point … sometimes I ponder if it’s better to have humans constantly in space doing arguably non-dramatic (non-inspirational?) things vs. having no humans in space at all for some time (say, a few decades). The former might not be the most exciting but we are establishing ourselves as a space-bound species, continuing to live/work in that environment. If we stop doing that for a generation, wouldn’t a future generation simply try to get back to space, do even less, and then call it success?
    Similar to dave’s comment above … having people stationed at a research outpost, which happens to be in space, is really cool. In a way, it’s awesome that it’s “ordinary”.
    Now, whether or not that’s worth the $$$ and our return with respect to science … the arguments against it are compelling. At the very least, this budgeting stuff gets people talking about it.

  7. quantum_flux says:

    Well, I certainly agree that humankind should go back to the Moon and go to Mars and beyond, and I think we definantly will do so someday. It’s all just a matter of why, though, but I’m pretty sure there will be an extremely lucrative reason that scientists and engineers will stumble upon sometime in the future. As for now, I think the next great multi-trillion dollar step in human achievement will be in quantum computing, in energy, biology, etc. I think we need a great technology revolution here on Earth before we, as a species, decide to travel outwards.
    That being said, who knows what will be discovered by way of fusion energy? What will the supercollider teach us about the basic units of matter? Will nanotechnology merge with biology to help us become superhumans, to help plants and animals become superplants and super animals, perhaps capable of the harsh extremes of space weather? Will weather/climate modelling someday be accurate enough to predict the weather for a region on Google Earth 2 months in the future? Will we be able to control the weather, prevent hurricanes, cause rain in drought stricken regions, regrow the rainforests, etc? What about exploring the depths of the world oceans, and filling in the gaps of geology? etc, etc, etc…anyhow, just a little optimism for what the future of science and technology may bring.

  8. CM says:

    I agree with some of this post, but the point of going back to the Moon was made clear in countless press releases and on websites. We were going back to learn how to live there, including how to extract water and oxygen for life support and fuel, as a stepping stone to Mars. While on the Moon and Mars, the the main point was to do science. Among other things, it was to include extensive geologic fieldwork and sample return. Apollo samples changed the way we view solar system and planetary evolution, and Apollo was nothing compared to the scope of the work planned. You may disagree with the intent or the means, but it certainly wasn’t pointless.

  9. addicted says:

    Well, all the pro-going-to-the-moon arguments ignore the simple fact that this was a mission doomed to failure from the onset.
    None of the reasons that are being mentioned in the comments (resources, learning about living there, new technology) would have been achieved, since this program was
    1) intended to send a man to the moon in 2020 (yes, longer than the first time it took to go to the moon once the decision was made)
    2) intended to do it with current technology (yup, hardly any new knowledge there. Just building bigger space rockets with tech from the 60′s)
    3) massively underfunded (even if we did get there, which was a big IF, the budget overruns would have meant that a US flag would have been planted, and then funding cut off, before anything useful could be done).
    At least the space taxi money is going towards developing new technology, which, if nothing else, might lead to the next revolution in my kitchen!
    This was a good move. An even better move would have been to pour a lot more money, and make it a useful endeavor, as Chris suggests, but that was not going to happen in the current US political climate…

  10. Chris Rowan says:

    Dave, BrianR: does the ISS qualify as a research outpost? Do the actually do much research? Developing techniques required to build larger structures in space? Testing new life support technologies that reduce their need for resupply from Earth? They might be, I suppose, but from the outside the mission profile of a trip to the ISS seems to be little changed since the days of Mir. I can’t see the path from having 5 people in low earth orbit to 10, 50, 100..
    CM: Forgive my cynicism, but science has always been something that has been tacked on to manned space exploration; it’s never been the centrepiece. People could potentially do more, and more varied, science on the Moon and Mars than robots, but as it stands any visitors would probably be too busy staying alive and preparing to return to spend much time on research.

  11. Lab Lemming says:

    And yet, if you compare the mass of samples returned to Earth from the Apollo program to the combined sample return from every unmanned mission combined, you start to realize that even the auxiliary science from such an endeavor can dwarf targeted robotic yields.
    And that doesn’t even cover the back-on-earth effects relating to instrumental and laboratory development in preparation for studying the moon rocks. Ever used an electron probe? An SEM? A SIMS instrument? All those technologies received major developmental assistance from the Apollo program.
    In 1977, The seismometers placed on the moon by the Apollo team were switched off in order to put money into new technology. 33 years later, they still haven’t been replaced. As a result, we still don’t know for sure whether or not the moon actually has a core, and what its composition is if it is there.
    Sometime in the next few years, astronomers will discover a Earth-sized planet around another star with orbital characteristics not too different from that of Earth. But they will not be able to say if that far-off world is earth-like or venus-like, because we will not have the samples and geophysical data required to understand the intricacies of how terrestrial planets form.

  12. kevin R says:

    I was 10 at the time of the original moon landing and it was an inspirational event. It wasn’t, however, an event we could build on. Until we have a technological breakthrough that significantly drops launch costs there is no justification for manned space flight.
    Robotic explorers are becoming smaller, cheaper and more sophisticated. I would much rather see a major effort to explore Titan and Europa than another grandstanding flight to the moon.

  13. BAllanJ says:

    I think the only way “we” are going to have a meaningful future in space (ie colonizing, interstellar travel etc) is in machines, leaving these bodies behind… which may be how we go forward on this planet eventually too. Quantum computing may add enough complexity for machine intelligence to become self aware etc and become the sentient beings that are vastly more suitable for travel off-planet. I’m not thinking this century, but eventually, sure. It’ll take a while for “us” to decide that “us” can include machine intelligence AND wetware based intelligence. But still… interstellar travel… even interplanetary travel, can be a real pain in the ass when you can’t turn yourself off during the trip.(or just drop the clock cycle)

  14. BrianR says:

    Chris, I honestly don’t know much about ISS and what they do there. Perhaps it reached the point of diminishing scientific returns a long time ago. Maybe a shake-up like this is just what we need to focus what it is, specifically, we want to do in space.
    Lab Lemming makes a great point about importance of sampling!
    As commenter ‘addicted’ above mentions, it seems that the more I read about what the Bush admin planned the better it is to have scrapped it. I’m certainly no expert, but seems like it had a lot of issues to overcome.

  15. quantum_flux says:

    I read a book on the NASA mission files, so, anyhow….
    The ISS, originally Space Station Freedom, was originally meant as a docking and spacecraft assembly station for trips to the Moon and to Mars. The SSF and the space shuttle, was first conceptualized by Werhner Von Braun in 1960′s as a proposed extension of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo programs, but the budget got chopped after Apollo 13 so that NASA would only carry on with the program for four more Apollo missions after that, as well as the budget for the Mariner Missions which were originally intended as a means of establishing a manned trip to Mars. Then the goals sort of turned toward improving international diplomatic relations with Russia after Apollo 17, so most the programs that NASA has now are just leftover from the conceptual drawing board of the 1960′s.
    Anyhow, with significant advances in computer technology, as well as global business growth, perhaps NASA’s beaurocratic manned space flight budget should just be killed off altogether. What we really should do is start the manned space program from scratch, or perhaps have private enterprize take it over completely.

  16. doug l says:

    I recall that the first space station concepts were going to be massive, nuclear powered, axially rotating wheel-like plaforms which could generate artificial gravity for longer-termed projects. To build robust structures like that would take a lot mass, and a lot of fuel, which is prohbitively expensive unless we had a cheaper way to send heavy payloads. That would be unlikely as long as we were sending both human payloads and massive stuff like fuel and shielding up there by perching them atop man-rated balistic missiles.
    What else could we do once we abandonned the idea of using nuclear bombs to propell gigantic heavy lifting structure into orbit? Well we could have developed a parallel launch system for fuel and other heavy stuff like the ‘sea dragon rocket’ but with the singular objective of going to the moon being the thing, the use of dual purposed balistic missiles was the only viable bet at the time.
    Then we forgot about the Sea Dragon which could have gotten fuel up there for a lot less and now NASA feels overwhelmed and underfunded and its budget has become a congressional pork barrel for their districts.
    I think Obama might be thinking out of the box and is looking at alternates and a greater involvement by industry with incentives of service contracts for the space taxi to get astronauts up there and something like the ocean launched SeaDragon or Quicklaunch such as the sytem described in last December’s Google tech talk which is now making the rounds. It’s on youtube, of course, and popping up on a lot of tech forums. It’s worth looking at for sure. When fuel costs only a couple of hundred dollars a pound instead of $20K we’ll see a lot more demand from indusry and a greater likelihood of the larger rotating, well stocked, well fuelled and well shielded stations beyond LEO as originally imagined and from there we can launch both the research programs and resource and energy extraction industries that will make it pay.I just wish we’d done it 20 years ago.

  17. Craig Heinke says:

    I don’t think we’re ready, as a species, to go to Mars. We are facing a major energy shortage and climate crisis in the next ~30-50 years, which will require a huge amount of resources to address. I can’t disagree more with Roger Hill’s comment above; we need to learn how to live on our planet sustainably and peacefully before we can afford major exploration projects. A Mars voyage would probably cost a trillion dollars over 15-20 years. The US needs to spend those trillion dollars in developing new energy sources and rebuilding our infrastructure for the 21st century. I think a trip to Mars will eventually happen–but it’ll be a global initiative, after the world has made the transition off fossil fuels.

  18. Lab Lemming says:

    Fuel is a minuscule percentage of the cost of launching a rocket. By far the biggest expense is the design, development, and testing of the launch vehicle. That is why the cheapest kg to orbit today is on the Proton- even though it uses expensive and difficult-to-handle hypergolic fuels. It first flew in 1965 and has been gradually upgrading ever since, so the development cost as been amortized over more missions.
    This is why axing a program every few decades and starting from scratch with the newest shiniest technology is so incredibly stupid. Just look at what happened with the space shuttle.

  19. Joseph says:

    Using the far side of the moon (heh) for its radio shadow is an attractive idea, so you’d set up a radio telescope over on that side.
    Low-g manufacture is going to be much cheaper on the moon than in orbit, as is a lab. With water on the moon, it becomes much cheaper and sustainable to operate there instead of in orbit, save for the extra oomph needed to get out there (which tmk makes it a non-trivial operation :)
    Getting goods from the moon back to Earth is relatively straightforward, though (the main issue is getting them back to Earth in one piece).
    Basically, with an outpost on the moon, you can do much of what you’re doing in orbit, but much more and for longer-term and perhaps cheaper or the same (depends on fuel and complexity costs of getting to/from there).

  20. Joseph says:

    “Forgive my cynicism, but science has always been something that has been tacked on to manned space exploration; it’s never been the centrepiece. People could potentially do more, and more varied, science on the Moon and Mars than robots, but as it stands any visitors would probably be too busy staying alive and preparing to return to spend much time on research.”
    It’s not what gets headlines, either. Unless it’s some major health breakthrough/result or health trivia (“New studies show that regular donut consumption reduces by 0.73% your chance of developing cancer of the left little toe!”) you don’t know about it. Look at the blog posting on “Reading the Tea Leaves in Washington” for what’s going on in the DoE. Did you know about any of that? Probably not; it doesn’t get talked about it.
    IIRC, a significant portion of an astronaut’s day is taken by attending to the experiments. They don’t design or run them iirc; they’re designed on earth to have as little human interaction as necessary (astronaut time is extremely expensive), but stuff *does* have to get done to keep them running. The ISS experiments: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science/experiments/Expedition.html Of course, they do have to attend to the station, but that’s *also* automated. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I know this from; I think I got a glimpse from some colloquia at Iowa perhaps.

  21. Joseph says:

    (The part overshadowing the experiments is the science-fiction like people in space theme. Generally, people don’t care about science unless it impacts their day-to-day operations directly.)

  22. Ed says:

    If humans leave earth orbit they need to leave with the intention of long term exploration and colonization. Otherwise, there is little point. If we’re not interested in staying put in space then let robots do the job. They are cheaper, more efficient and expendable. Could humans have lasted 4 years on Mars? Obama is right to make this hard but necessary decision. And while we’re at it, the ISS needs to start producing something more than pretty pictures. Sell it to the Chinese and use the money to send robots to Titan.

  23. qbsmd says:

    I’ve had conversations with people where I was defending the space program in general before. I use the following points, in order from most near-term practical, to most long term- ideological.
    1. Technology development (solving any hard problem leads to solutions you wouldn’t get otherwise)
    2. resource development (mining moon and asteroids, building solar power satellites, etc.)
    3. understanding and defending from threats (deflecting asteroids, better understanding Earth’s geology to predict what will happen here, predicting the sun’s behavior, etc.)
    4. colonization, preventing human extinction
    5. Science for its own sake
    “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”- Robert Wilson on the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
    Human spaceflight can be tied to most of those, but is absolutely critical to colonization. If we ever want to establish a permanent off-planet presence (which we have to try if we value our existence as a species), we have to solve all of the problems associated with keeping people alive in space long term, and all of the problems associated with building permanent structures in space.

  24. G.Fieendish says:

    Re: Comment 22
    Does said sale happen before, or after, the Russian, Japanese & European Space Agencies remove their various modules (Zarya, Kibo & Colombus respectively) from the International Space Station, Ed…?
    By the way, all the above 3 space agencies have issued invitations to the Chinese Space Agency, about sending a taikonaut to the ISS, but the U.S has repeatedly vetoed this idea…

  25. Ed says:

    Re: 24
    Who said they had to leave. Since they’ve done the inviting, I’m sure they’ll work well together. Provided, of course, there is any real work to be done. Other than proving that long term structures can be built in space and giving us some really great pictures, what have we accomplished at the ISS? The point is, the U.S. government is NOT committed to space science (any science for that matter). We will not spend the money until our lives literally depend on it. And even then the naysayers will dispute it. Look at climate change. Who’s winning that debate? Get used to robots in space. Put aside your dream (and mine) of standing on Mars, it’s not going to happen.

  26. GK says:

    For all the proponents of manned missions to mars, please state clearly and briefly one scientific experiment that will teach us about mars, that can only be done by a person. That should be the question.
    No vague platitudes allowed. (Name specific experiments.) So none of these:
    * The lesser countries are sending people into space, so we need to! (Fill in your favorite, slightly racist, lesser country, of course.)
    * People can fix things.
    * We’ll need to colonize sometime, so we need to start sending people now. (The first MIGHT be true, but the second doesn’t flow from it in any way.)
    * I want to stand on Mars.
    * Star Trek / Star Wars / Traveller is sooooo cool. :-)
    You get the idea.
    To be really vicious: what experiment done by the crew of the Apollo missions, could not be done by robots or automated science labs?
    Just tell me one piece of science that requires a person. (Or that will require a person in 10, 20 or 30 years when we actually get there.)
    To me the desire for manned space missions is the exact opposite of science. It is emotions over data.

  27. Jorge says:

    To be really vicious: what experiment done by the crew of the Apollo missions, could not be done by robots or automated science labs?
    To take back a few hundreds of kilos of samples. The Soviet missions could take back just a few kilos because they were not manned.
    How we are going to be able to extend the limits of exploration if we don’t try? Who is going to invest in a Saturn V type rocket if we don’t go further away than ISS?
    In a more philosophical plane, why we should stop exploring what we have so close to us? IS that really the nature of human being? To sit down and wait until we need to urgently move?
    About emotions over data, I think we can be sure that Gauss, Euler, Einstein, Wegener and the lot had a lot of emotions on their research. It is easier to be a baker.
    You don’t allow vague platitudes, but your “ban” is quite vague in itself, isn’t it? :D
    I basically agree with Chris. I also think that the exploration, as it is done by ESA is far more efficient: Let’s establish first a technical lead, and let’s send people later on. That is how we have most of the bulk of our knowledge about Mars (not trying to force a mission landing on the red planet on a 4th of July, for example).
    Opening the space to private enterprises is actually good. Columbus was not a public worker, he was a private person looking for his own interests. Magellan too. Marco Polo had also his commercial interests opening the Silk Rout. How many routes were opened in Canada and Alaska by commercial explorers?
    Let’s leave the traders walk in the vanguard. It cannot be worse, anyway, than do nothing.
    I will be now really vicious: If we don’t care about spatial exploration, we don’t care neither about terrestrial exploration (i.e. deep oceanic regions), and then we deserve what we have: A society caring more about plasma tv rather than actual progress of technique and science
    (BTW, space programs make countries wealthier, as it is a direct input of public/private money in state of the art research, which eventually will be applied to other fields of society).

  28. GK says:

    I wrote:
    To be really vicious: what experiment done by the crew of the Apollo missions, could not be done by robots or automated science labs?
    Jorge replied:
    To take back a few hundreds of kilos of samples. The Soviet missions could take back just a few kilos because they were not manned.

    Jorge, you are proving my point. Humans can bring back rocks, and robots can bring back rocks. The exact amount is an engineering/economics/design question. But the important fact is that we do not need to send people just to pick up rocks.
    So I’m still waiting for your example of an experiment which teaches us something about mars that requires a person to do.
    Jorge also wrote:
    How we are going to be able to extend the limits of exploration if we don’t try?
    If we don’t care about spatial exploration, we don’t care neither about terrestrial exploration (i.e. deep oceanic regions), and then we deserve what we have.
    why we should stop exploring what we have so close to us?

    These are total red herrings: I want to extend exploration. I’m happy to spend even $600 billion to go to mars (enought to send people). I just want the money to do as much science as possible, and not waste it on emotional gestures.
    So the question still stands please name one scientific experiment that will teach us about mars, that can only be done by a person.

  29. Jorge says:

    GK, I am not proving your point…
    To have designed in the 60-70′s a machine which would be able to take back this amount of samples (samples that, by the way, are widely used in education and research) would have been much more expensive than “just” sending people as they did at the time. It is cheaper to send people. As it is cheaper to put a person to drive a car rather than making a computer to do the same.
    I guess the point is also how some people are unaware of the vast majority of small research projects done in space, and how they think that space exploration is sending fortunate citizens out there just for showing off.
    Examples of experiments?
    - Any type of drilling further down that a few meters. A person is needed for that. We have the experience with the probes of the last 15 years that anything can go wrong, and it is really frustrating when, what can be wrong, is just a wheel stuck with a rock. Besides, there is no way an automated system replaces a geologist on the ground, and the drilling work. Developing such a system would be plainly much more expensive than sending a person!
    Can you name an automated system which would do the job of a geologist for 3-6 months in Mars? A machine that can improvise, go up the hill just to take a look if the polarity is positive or negative, if the sand size coarsens upwards or downwards, and then go to another place to check if that contact is unconformable, or if there are abrasion marks on the clasts of that conglomerate?
    Further more: Can a machine drink beer like a geologist???
    - Experiments on human behavior, and space medicine. Can we do that on a machine?
    I don’t actually see the point of this discussion, as this is clearly a false dilemma, because sooner or later we will do it, and before machines will make the way easier. Maybe not in our life, but surely in the life of our sons. It has to be done effectively, of course, but who said that “emotional gestures”, manned missions and efficiency where mutually discriminating? Why exactly delaying the progress needed for going up there?
    One day we will watch in our 3D TV’s how a person steps on Mars and we will feel joy. And not only for the fact that we are ahead once again of ourselves, but for the huuuuge amount of scientific work to come. And it will be a Chinese, by the way, a taikonaut. Perhaps inspiration doesn’t count for you, but in real life, it does. ASk the millions of Americans working somehow for the Apollo project. A waste? Ask their payrolls. Surely no more of a waste than supporting private banks of financing guerrillas in half of the world.
    It is clear we disagree in basic and fundamental points, so that is all, and I won’t reply again. I just think my thoughts are not necessarily right, and I won’t try to persuade anyone of having my attitude. Please, don’t take my comments as if I tried to convince of of anything; things are not just black or white.
    See you soon in some other entries of this great blog :)