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
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
Here we provide introductory overviews and links to
further resources on these and other space controversies.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Astronomical observatories such as the Hubble Telescope
that primarily examine phenomena outside of our Solar
Solar physics, solar wind, Aurora and other magnetospheric
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:
On page 178, Squyres tells about a comparson
he made of robots vs human researchers in the
field. He ends with the following:
"... And I started timing them. You
know, how long does it take for Andy Knoll
to walk over to that rock? How long does it
take Ray Albertson to pick that thing up and
break it open with his rock hammer and look
at it with a hand lens? And they were doing
a lot of things that our rovers couldn’t do,
but I focused on the things they were doing
that our rovers could do. And, you know, I
did it as quantitatively as I could—this was
hardly a controlled experiment. And when I
looked at the numbers afterwards, what I found
was that what our magnifi cent robotic vehicles
can do in an entire day on Mars, these guys
could do in about 30–45 seconds.
We are very far away from being able to build
robots—I’m not going to see it in my lifetime—that
have anything like the capabilities that humans
will have to explore, let alone to inspire.
And when I hear people point to Spirit and
Opportunity and say that these are examples
of why we don’t need to send humans to Mars,
I get very upset. Because that’s not even
the right discussion to be having. We must
send humans to Mars. We can’t do it soon enough
for me. You know, I’m a robot guy. I mean,
I love Spirit and Opportunity—and I use a
word like “love” very advisedly when talking
about a hunk of metal.
But I love those machines. I miss them. I
do. But they will never, ever have the capabilities
that humans will have and I sure hope you
send people soon."
Joan Vernikos, former NASA Director of Life
Sciences (1993-2002), gave this vigorous defense of
"'Hubble would not have produced all of the great
science it has without the astronaut’s ability to
service it…it’s that simple,' Beckwith said. 'While
the scientists may not have liked the manned space
program at first, it’s the manned space program that
has given us the ability to do things with Hubble
that we now take for granted,' he said.....
"'Let me make a prediction,' Beckwith said at
the National Space Symposium here. 'In 20 or 30 years,
all astronomy will be done from space, maybe sooner.
Space is definitely the place you want to be for an
observatory. The only reason we don’t do it all the
time is because it’s expensive. But as it becomes
more routine to go to space in another few decades,
all astronomy will be done from space. It’s the best
place to be.'
Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts
(commission link) by Andrew Chaikin,
1994. This famous book, on which Tom Hanks mini-series
From the Earth to the Moon was based, gives
a marvelous and detailed account of the geology training
of the astronauts and how they successfully used that
training for exploration of the lunar surface. Also,
he describes Apollo 17, which included the professional
geologist Harrison Schmidt who took great advantage
of his skills during his days on the Moon.
bloggers and the big question - Fraser Cain
Today posted a collection of answers from space
bloggers to the question - "Why should we be spending
money exploring space when there are so many problems
here on Earth that we need to solve first?" -
Science from Human Spaceflight - you can
find lists of publications in these databases (found
Watch) dealing with research done on the space
station and with regard to humans living in space:
Manned vs Unmanned Submersibles - oceanographic
researchers still use both types of systems for deep
sea exploration. Here are some resources related to
the use of manned vs unmanned vehicles for such reseach:
NASA 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Auto racing by auto companies is said to
be difficult to justify to the "bean counters"
in management who don't see how it benefits the bottom
line. Yet most any auto engineer can cite many "spin-offs"
from racing, such as disk brakes and turbochargers,
that benefit conventional autos. The excitement and
challenge of racing inspires great creativity and
effort in the designers and engineers. The same effect
should apply for those involved in space development.
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