Is Human Spaceflight Worth It?
Space shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS on May 23, 2011. NASA
If you ever wanted a quote that summarized virtually everything wrong with science and research funding today, a recent musing on how Congress would've viewed building a particle accelerator to match CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in light of physicists' inability to find the Higgs boson comes very close.
"Congress may feel that its 1993 decision to cancel the American alternative to CERN… may have been the right move one after all: to spend billions of taxpayer dollars in search of a particle that likely does not exist would have been wasteful."
In other words, turning the world of physics upside down and making scientists question the firmly established Standard Model, forcing us to rethink much of what we know about the universe, would be a bad investment because the scientists wouldn't have succeeded in doing what they originally set out to do. Never mind that in science, failures can be just as valuable as successes, and sometimes even more so. Never mind that to find out if something is or isn't possible, or to gauge whether something does or doesn't exist, we have to first try it and see for ourselves.
Today's common thought about science and exploration demands positive results and it demands them now.
With that attitude, it's little wonder that many areas of science are finding themselves either mocked by politicians woefully ignorant of their work and out to score cheap political points, or de-funded to the point of nearly shutting down.
Human spaceflight, particularly in the U.S., is unfortunately one of the scientific programs that face a very grim immediate future.
With the shuttles retired, Soyuz malfunctioning, and the International Space Station (ISS) facing the very real risk of being abandoned in just a few months, we could be witnessing a brutal and completely undeserved self-inflicted blow to a program that put humans on the surface of another world.
As lawmakers and bean counters decry sending humans to space as a waste of time and money, slashing budget after budget for the task, they're in effect denying us the benefits that come from exploring the vast unknown realms beyond our planet for the sake of short term gain and childish partisan bickering.
The Spin-off Argument
From a medical standpoint, living in space is harsh on a body that evolved to walk upright and relies on a certain gravitational pull. Travel to other worlds for an extended period of time will require technology that can repair bone damage, strengthen and reinforce muscles, properly distribute necessary bodily fluids, replace irreparably damaged organs, and defend the astronauts from radiation.
Not only that, but it must be capable of doing it all as non-invasively as possible since surgery in space would be too much of a risk for all but the most critical cases. All this is technology that can be applied to real world medicine and used at a hospital near you to help more patients recover from debilitating injuries, disease, or organ failure. The makers of such medical devices stand to make tens of billions annually and save tens of thousands of lives.
We can take a look at infrastructure through the same prism.
Living on another world means having to come with your own power generator, your own habitat, and your own food, water, and air supply. If astronauts could use highly portable, modular, and scalable power grids and self-sustaining habitats, why couldn't we apply the same technology to build smarter, more efficient cities with smaller footprints and fewer energy demands?
If this technology can survive the rigors of space, surely it can survive being used on Earth. Were a solar storm to hit, we wouldn't need to worry about a global crisis as the world's grids go offline and epidemics could be countered with near-instant quarantines by using modified versions of these self-sustaining habitats.
And I could go on. New fabrication and construction techniques. New materials. New science which can lead to even more improvements and spin-offs. The technology developed during the Space Age has fueled a good part of the modern world and allowed us to communicate in real-time with people on the other side of the globe as well connect to the internet in the middle of nowhere.
Why would we want to throttle the flow of innovations? To balance vast, gaping deficits with pittances from already woefully underfunded science programs? For the sake of getting airtime with empty speeches about fiscal responsibility? To pretend that today's monetary woes of First World countries can be cured by subjecting the very engines of their economic and military growth to a death by a thousand cuts?
Why Fund Space?
OK, funding science and research is all fine and dandy, you might say, but why can't we just do all the things you mentioned on Earth without having to go through the expense of funding space exploration?
One simple reason why we'd be better off trying to develop revolutionary technologies for space and then sending back to Earth instead of the other way around is because missions beyond our world offer a rare chance to assemble many new technologies and try out many new ideas in concert all at once, getting all the experts and labs involved working together at the same time.
Projects with the potential to revolutionize infrastructure, communication, and medicine can be tried faster, on a smaller and much more affordable scale than in massive case studies taking many years. Instead of approaching those in charge of hospitals, cities, and national affairs with proposals to try out something brand new, you could approach them with already proven, tested, and rugged technology that's far more likely to be adopted and tested for much larger application.
Another important reason to keep human spaceflight going is more esoteric but it's certainly profound and very important to take into account for the future: We need to give people something to inspire them.
How will we raise new generations of scientists, explorers, engineers, and inventors when we're taking away their ability to turn humanity's wildest dreams into reality?
Imagine a college student trying to apply herself so she can one day walk on another world in a spacesuit she built. How much can all her work and its spin-offs benefit us and how much do we risk losing if we stubbornly refuse to have a vision that goes beyond the tips of our noses? What is the legacy we want to leave behind? A suite of tools for our progeny to explore the universe beyond humanity's cradle? Or row after row of gray cubicles where we expect them to spend the majority of their lives?
The modern world was built through centuries of adversity and hard work, but also through centuries of imagination, risks, and deciding to invest in the kinds of things that would only yield benefits years down the road because it was the right thing to do, not because a politician didn't think it would hurt his chances for reelection.
This is not the time to abandon human spaceflight and space exploration. This is the time to use our ingenuity to invent, to build, and to change the way we do business.
And don't tell me that there's no money to build a future aimed towards space.
When a single bailout package to banks, that begged for government handouts after their elaborate financial schemes failed, can fund another Apollo project ten times over or fully pay for every NASA program for decades, it's pretty obvious that we're not dealing with a shortage of cash.
We're dealing with an inadequate vision and skewed priorities.
Greg Fish works with technology and digital media. He is a regular guest writer for Discovery News. He also contributes essays to BusinessWeek.com on the Internet, business practices, and current events. In addition to this, he researches and covers a wide variety of popular science topics on his blog, worldofweirdthings.com.