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Active Space
Part 5A: Controversies
Let's argue about it ...
Innumerable controversies and debates have always surrounded space exploration and development.
In the early years, merely promoting the possibility of entering outer space aroused heated arguments and often scornful ridicule of its proponents.

After rockets finally broke the bounds of earth and placed payloads into orbit, that argument gave way to a debate, that continues to this day, over whether human or robotic space exploration is the most sensible approach.

Many other battles in the space arena have since ensued, such as the debates over the role of the military in space and whether spin-offs from the space program (i.e. NASA) justify its high costs.

Here we provide introductory overviews and links to further resources on these and other space controversies.

Note: Space enthusiasts love to argue about these and many other issues. See the list of discussion groups and chat forums in the news links section where you can let your opinion be known.

Space controversies:

Humans Vs Robots
Arguments over whether unmanned robotic spacecraft exploration is more cost effective than putting humans into space have been going on since the launch of Sputnik. Before then there was little distinction made between the two since the possibility of either was generally considered far-fetched.

Science and scientists have high prestige in our society and probably a majority of scientists support unmanned science missions over human spaceflight. But scientists are also as human as anyone else and display biases and shortsightedness like everyone else. See Science and Space - Feb.3.03 for a discussion of this.

Note that both types of exploration would greatly benefit if the cost of space transportation came down significantly. Unfortunately, the science community has focused mostly on shutting down human spaceflight rather than following the more productive route of pushing for new, low cost vehicles.

What Kind of Science is Done in Space?

There should be a distinction made between the different kinds of science done in space:

  • Remote sensing of planets, moons, and asteroids by orbiting spacecraft. Examples include Galileo at Jupiter and the Mars Surveyor.
  • Remote sensing of the earth.
  • On-site analysis that involves chemical, biological, geological and other types of analyzes carried out directly on a planet, moon or asteroid as was done on Mars by the two Viking landers and Pathfinder
  • Microgravity studies are mostly done in space (drop towers, suborbital spaceflights and planes flying parabolic trajectories offer low-cost alternatives but offer only brief periods of microgravity). These range from studying the effects of weightlessness on humans to using microgravity to produce interesting materials such as large protein crystals.
  • Astronomical observatories such as the Hubble Telescope that primarily examine phenomena outside of our Solar System.
  • Solar physics, solar wind, Aurora and other magnetospheric studies

Remote sensing of the earth or other celestial bodies is certainly best done by satellites, though astronauts on the ISS are showing some interesting results from their own observations.

On-site analysis, however, obviously can be done far better by humans. To claim otherwise is to say that scientists don't need to go to their labs each day or to remote field locations to carry out experiments as they obviously do. Facilities in Antarctic, for example, are heavily used today by scientists in many fields despite the high costs and tough conditions.

Chemical analysis type experiments, for example, require lots of handling of materials, close monitoring and adjusting of equipment during tests, and flexible response to the results. Those results usually lead to a new round of experiments that a human can easily adapt to while a robotic/remotely controlled system often cannot.

Decades after the Viking biology experiments, for example, there are still arguments as to whether or not they detected bacterial life. A scientist on the surface with a minimal set of lab gear could have found the truth in a few hours.

For similar reasons, microgravity experiments are also done far better by scientists in space.

It is, of course, possible to expand greatly on the capabilities of robotic/remotely controlled landers and rovers but then the price goes up significantly (and the chance of failures and breakdowns goes up as well) and the supposedly huge cost advantage over manned exploration is no longer huge.


If you believe that the only goal of spaceflight is simply to do science then unmanned missions will do the job, albeit far more slowly.

However, if you believe that the long term goal is for humans to settle this new domain, then the emphasis should be on

  • Microgravity studies to understand its effects on our bodies and to counter-act its bad effects (or to develop systems to remove the effects such as rotating a spacecraft to produce artificial gravity.)

  • Continued study of Mars and the asteroids to find locations for human habitats and for resources for use by people in space and for shipment back to earth; i.e. scouting missions.


Here are some sites and articles that discuss the issue of human spaceflight:


During the Moon Race days, NASA became synonymous with Space. The magnificent success of Apollo gave it an image of solid can-do competence.

Subsequently, however, its reputation suffered. No new programs as exciting as Apollo came along and big funding cutbacks made the agency gun-shy about even mentioning such daring missions as manned landings on Mars.

It hunkered down and concentrated solely on the Shuttle program. The shuttle development program suffered many problems that resulted in big overruns and delays and ultimately a vehicle far more expensive to run than advertised.

The cutbacks also prevented a new generation of rocketeers from moving into the agency and it became increasingly bureaucratic and stodgy. The Challenger tragedy, the Hubble Telescope mirror fiasco, and the continuing delays and overruns in construction of the Space Station severely hurt its reputation for technical excellence and competent management.

While most space advocacy groups in the US occasionally criticize NASA, they still strongly support it, especially at funding time in Congress. Despite its shortcomings, they consider NASA crucial to laying the foundation for a spacefaring nation.

A few space advocacy groups, however, especially those of Libertarian leanings, see NASA as a major impediment to space development and commercialization. Whether its new launchers or even deep space probes, they believe that instead of doing everything in-house, NASA should carry out only basic research on new technologies and contract out to the lowest bidder the final development and implementation.

The space newsgroups and chat lines, especially sci.space.policy, almost always have at least one ongoing argument between those who see NASA as the problem and those who see it as the solution.

NASA budget relative to total US Fed. Gov. budget and to GDP
Item Year 2004 % Budget % GDP
US GDP** $11,814,900,000,000 n.a. 100%
US Gov. Budget* $2,319,000,000,000 100% 20%
  NASA^ $15,378,000,000 0.66% 0.13%
Human Spaceflight $7,500,000,000 0.32% 0.06%
Space Station $1,495,000,000 0.06% 0.01%
+ Space Shuttle $3,928,000,000 0.17% 0.03%
+ Support, etc $468,000,000 0.02% 0.004%

Crosscutting Tech
(X-37, OSP, etc)

$1,608,000,000 0.07% 0.014%
Science, Aeronautics
& Technology
$7,853,000,000 0.34% 0.07%
Space Science 3,994,000,000 0.17% 0.03%
Earth Science 1,606,000,000 0.07% 0.014%
Bio/Phys Science 986,000,000 0.04% 0.008%
Aeronautics 1,037,000,000 0.05% 0.009%
Education 230,000,000 0.01% 0.002%
  National Science
  Foundation (NSF)#
$5,481,000,000 0.23% 0.05%
  National Institutes
  of Health (NIH)##
$27,878,000,000 1.2% 0.24%
* Office of Management & Budget, 2005 Data (pdf)
^ NASA Budget Info (pdf) + NASA FY 2004
** Bureau of Economic Analysis
# GPO 2005 Budget for NSF
## GPO 2005 Budget for HHS

More about the NASA budget:

Here is a list of sites and reference materials about NASA:

International Space Station
As discussed in the section on US Space advocacy, the ISS has been controversial not only with budget-cutters but also among space activists.

Is it really the best use of limited space funding? Perhaps it would be better to use the funds to develop new space transportation technologies so as later to build a station at a much lower cost. But if the station project were canceled, is it not more likely that the funding would disappear altogether from Space R&D?

Meanwhile, many in the science community, who typically have no affection for manned spaceflight activities of any sort, campaign to cancel it and use the funds for what they believe are more cost effective unmanned missions or for other, non-space research activities.

Here are some sites that explore these questions:

Space Spinoffs & Direct Benefits
The high cost of space exploration, especially of human spaceflight, has brought tremendous criticism of government space programs from those who believe that the money could best be spent elsewhere, especially on social programs.

Unmanned space technology is now, however, generally seen to have proven its worth to humanity.

Telecommunications satellites, in particular, have produced enormous positive social benefits and also generated tremendous financial returns. (See the Space Investing section.) Almost all investments in space based telecommunications now come from the private sector. The major part of the civilian space industry, which involves about $90 billion worldwide, involves telecommunications. The applications range from telephony, distribution of TV programming, direct-to-home TV, satellite radio, Internet connections, and many others.

Also, spysats have had a very positive impact on the world. The very first spy satellites prevented the funding of a hugely expensive missile program. They showed that the "missile gap"with the Soviets did not exist. John Kennedy had charged during the 1960 campaign that the Eisenhower administration had allowed such a gap to occur. Eisenhower did not want to reveal the capabilities of the US spysats, however, and so did not allow the release of the images to refute the charges.

After becoming president, Kennedy saw the spysat imagery and decided for himself that the gap was a chimera and dropped the whole issue. Thus, spysats prevented the start of a new US missile program, the cost of which would easily have been of the same magnitude, if not larger, than the entire civilian space program of the 1960s.

This and other examples of the benefits of spysats brought Lyndon Johnson, and later Jimmy Carter, in off the record speeches during the Cold War to state categorically that spysats alone had paid for the entire space program. (Remember that until the 1990s, no President admitted officially that spysats even existed.)

Human spaceflight, on the other hand, has had the unfortunate problem of not producing an overwhelmingly clear, unambiguous, direct benefit like communication satellites or spysats that its advocates can point to.

Advocates of human spaceflight instead have often pointed to indirect benefits, i.e. spinoffs, from the program. There are many such spinoffs, see the links below, though none are as visible and high impact as comsats. The spinoffs generally fall in the areas of technology components, processes, and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, some of the most commonly cited spinoffs did not in fact come from the human spaceflight program. For example, Teflon was first discovered in the 1930's and then futher developed by the US defense missile program. Microelectronics funding also poured far more generously from missile programs where miniaturization of warheads was a key priority.

Generally, it can be said that the Moon Race era programs in the 1960's accelerated many technologies that already had been invented but languished from low investment. For example, solar cells and fuel cells existed before the 1960's space program, but their development greatly benefited from NASA funding. Micro-electronics research got even more funding that it would have received from military programs alone.

(I think space spinoff have some similarities to what has happened in the auto industry. Most auto enthusiasts take it for granted that many automotive advancements came as spinoffs from racing and from building high performance sports cars. However, the "bean counters" at car companies never see a direct cost-benefit connection in their accounting tables and so push to drop such programs. The positive effects are extremely difficult to measure directly but that does not mean they don't exist or are insignificant.)

A less cited spinoff involves the huge number of young people in the 1960s who chose scientific and engineering careers from the inspiration provided by the manned space program and the dream of going into space themselves. (Average scores on college entrance exams, i.e. SAT, reached their highest levels before or since in 1963.) Few of them actually ended up in aerospace jobs, much less in space. Instead they became the essential components of the US scientific and technological infrastructure.

Homer Hickam's book Rocket Boys, later made into the Movie October Sky, told about the huge impact that Sputnik and the resulting space race had on young people in a small remote mountain town. He and his friends began to build their own rockets and actually begged their high school prinicpal to offer advanced science and math courses. Homer eventually became an engineer at NASA.

In the 1980's there was great hope that experiments in micro-gravity aboard the shuttle and space stations would lead to profitable space based industries. While there have been many promising results, it will require years of work on the Space Station to develop them beyond the laboratory. Even then, much cheaper access to space will be needed to make space industry practical and profitable.

Today, most space activists no longer try to use spinoffs as a justification of space exploration. Rather, the expansion of humanity into a new and larger environment is the overwhelming justification.

Space Settlement
Large scale, long term settlement of space has become the long term goal of many space advocates. Humans will build colonies on the Moon, Mars, and in large free-flying space habitats.


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey
NewSpace Watch at NSG




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