Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 3: Science

Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.
–Edwin Hubble


In Parts 1 and 2, I covered Nationalism and Commerce as value propositions for human spaceflight, and pointed out the challenges for each that must be addressed to make each an enduring VP.  Today I continue the examination on value propositions for human spaceflight in Part 3: Science.


Reason 3: Science.  Western civilization is replete with examples of undertaking grand efforts in the name of science.  Unlike commerce, science is driven by the need to explore and understand the universe around us and how it works, regardless if it can be exploited immediately for economic reasons.  Great individual natural philosophers of the past have given way to today’s world of research teams supported by grants and Government funding.  Whether it is huge ground-based telescopes exploring the heavens, gigantic particle accelerators probing the fundamental laws of nature, or research laboratories seeking to expand human knowledge, modern science is a large endeavor, yet it is one of tremendous value.  Here’s why.

The history of human spaceflight indicates a relationship with science.  The Apollo J missions (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) took on a greater scientific theme than the earlier missions, especially in the field of geology.  Skylab logged about 2,000 hours of scientific and medical experiments in the 1970s, expanding our understanding of the sun, and providing thousands of pictures of the Earth through its earth observation program.  The space shuttle flew numerous missions dedicated to science, exploring material properties, biomedical and biological processes, and medicine manufacturing to name a few.

Today, we have the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, a dedicated and full-time orbiting outpost for scientific research tended by six astronauts from member nations.  Congress designated the US segment of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory in 2005, and today, with construction complete, NASA has selected a non-profit organization with maximizing the utilization of the orbiting outpost for scientific and technological research and development, and the advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.  The potential upside of using the International Space Station as a scientific research platform is tremendous.

What could tomorrow bring?  A logical extension of the Science value proposition for human spaceflight is the development of other human-tended laboratories beyond Earth.  Some possible destinations are the surface of the moon, or at one of the Lagrangian points in space.  Drawing from parallels with Antarctica’s McMurdo Station and South Pole Station, such laboratories would be research facilities in extreme environments, taking advantage of the unique scientific opportunities afforded at the chosen location.  Some of these opportunities can be imagined today, such as observational platforms.  Others have yet to be imagined.

Yet invariably, human spaceflight justified around a Science value proposition faces a difficult challenge: addressing the “robots can do the same for far cheaper” argument.  Looking at the value equation, where value equals benefit minus cost, two camps emerge.  Consider the pro-robotic camp and the “equivalent benefit” assumption: no matter whether humans are doing the exploring, or robots, the benefits are the same.  Since robotic mission cost less than human missions in general, the value is greater in the robotic case.  On the other hand, consider the other camp and assumptions about projected benefits of scientific endeavors: the interesting science comes from the unexpected result rather than confirming the expected.  In a benefits perspective, a robotic probe is limited by its programmed and intended capabilities, whereas a human explorer will be able to adapt and react to unexpected results. One in the latter camp would say the benefits of a human in the loop are “priceless”, to steal from the MasterCard advertizing campaign.  NASA’s official stance on the matter is that the two – humans and robots – are complementary.  With all that, I leave it to you, gentle reader: how do you trade the benefits and costs in these two cases?

The second challenge in grappling with the Science value proposition revolves around one of identity and change.  Although I pointed out NASA’s historical ties between human spaceflight and science, much of the operational elements of the Agency would need to shift into different roles in a Science-driven value proposition.  As was in the case in the Commerce value proposition I covered in Part 2, elements of NASA would need to transition into different roles from those of today.  To repeat, this would require a greater level of investment from the leadership team than needed to perpetuate the status quo roles.  To pursue a Science value proposition, would we have the intestinal fortitude to let go of the past, and to alter and deconflict Agency roles in the transition from operations to Science support?

I end this part with the following question: if we can resolve adequately the robotics-versus-human debate, and grapple with the challenges of transitioning the human spaceflight operations elements into Science-support functions, would establishing additional human-tended scientific outposts be a compelling and enduring value proposition?

Next time: Part 4.

Text © 2011, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/STILLFX

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 3: Science