Is Human Spaceflight Running Out of Time?

Now the rocket booster smoke is clearing, it's becoming clear that NASA's direction for manned space exploration has been re-routed.

The much feared "5-year gap" between the Shuttle getting retired and the Constellation Program taking flight could soon be re-named the "10-year plus chasm." In short, forget US astronauts on the Moon and put your dreams on hold for any NASA manned exploration beyond Earth orbit.

For better or worse, the Ares I-X text vehicle launch in October 2009 looks like it was the only Constellation launch. Bummer.

Although this certainly isn't the end of the road for human spaceflight - the private sector will see fresh investment and space tourism could mature beyond low-Earth orbit - it does pose an interesting question.

When is a good time to push the human race into space?

The Risk of Not Risking It

Having just read a thought-provoking article by British CERN physicist Professor Jon Butterworth entitled "Safety First?" I started to wonder how the various scenarios outlined in Jon's text apply to our reluctance to commit to space investment.

In Jon's article, he confronts the recent flak the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has attracted concerning the perceived "risk" of colliding protons in the worlds largest particle accelerator.

Sure, it sounds scary when physicists discuss (with glee) that this monstrous experiment could turn into a micro-black hole birthing machine, but that doesn't mean those physicists have transformed from lab coat-wearing geeks into reckless megalomaniacs hell-bent on destroying the world.

The planet-killing potential of the LHC is minuscule (and even if tiny black holes could be generated, they would be harmless), but there is a misconception about the word "risk". It is far riskier for mankind not to be carrying out experiments like the LHC.

Science has a hard time proving a negative, so you might conclude that there is an infinitesimally small chance of the bad thing happening and be inclined not to go ahead. But before deciding you have a duty to consider also the risk of

In Jon's example, he concludes that it is better to take small, calculated risks in advancing our technological ability than not investing in experiments like the LHC. Stifling technological growth because of ignorant fear could put us at greater risk in the future.

So, returning to the current financial turmoil facing NASA. Although the knee-jerk "The End of Human Spaceflight is Nigh!" headlines are completely over the top, it does make me wonder whether the underfunding of NASA is indicative of a misunderstanding of what the development of space technology can do for the future of mankind.

No Man In Space? No Point

The majority of the misunderstanding comes from the politics of funding NASA. All government funded agencies feel the bite of budget shortfalls, unfulfilled promises and economic crises, but space exploration usually feels the bite first in favor of "more pressing" issues (like bank bailouts and military spending).

I'm going to get a little philosophical, but consider the scenario that the world's governments saw little or no value in sending man to the moon, Mars or the asteroids.

When the International Space Station (ISS) is retired (probably in 2020), say if there is no incentive to send manned missions into space at all? All our space exploration (and strategic) needs are met by lightweight and cheap robotic missions. Minimal funds are invested in a space infrastructure as the scope of human influence is confined to the surface of this single planet.

Why plough billions of dollars into space tech when we have bigger problems down here on Earth "more worthy" of the cash?

Then consider the discovery of an Earth-killing asteroid careening in our direction (the same scenario explored by Jon in his article). With no space infrastructure and poor space faring technology, our future powerless selves cannot deflect the asteroid as they have no time to assemble the resources needed to carry out such an impossible task. If only we'd invested those billions in a space infrastructure decades ago...

Granted, rampant killer asteroids are an overused example in space advocacy circles, but it is a very good example of how space exploration would prove useful. Space is full of rocks; they hit us frequently in geological timescales, it's only a matter of time before one of these nuggets of cosmic badness rips a chunk out of civilization.

You could swap the killer asteroids with any number of potential cosmic disasters, many of which could be mitigated by an in-space infrastructure.

I could hark on for hours as to why space exploration is important (from technological spin-offs to "simply because" it's a noble cause), but if we are going to become a true space faring civilization, perhaps we should do it soon, while we still have the chance.

A Human Spaceflight Window?

Space travel is hard and if we assume that exponential growth is unsustainable, we quickly realize that the key limit to space exploration is resources.

As excellently written by my earthy counterpart in a recent Discovery News article, Michael Reilly asks the awkward question: What happens when the economy eats the planet?

For a civilization addicted to growth and an economy that tends to screw up if it doesn't perpetually expand, what happens once all the Earth's resources are used up? For one, we can expect the mother of all depressions, but fundamentally it will prevent the human race from doing anything.

Exhaust our planet's natural resources and things like building spaceships become problematic; kill the economy and politicians can't justify spending the smallest percentage of GDP on getting man back into space. (That's assuming there's any kind of governing body resembling what we have now once the world's riches have been plundered.)

As mankind munches through the rainforests, sucks up oil reserves, devours mountains of ore, only to choke the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, one has to wonder when we will use up our planets resources to such an extent that it becomes impossible to support a space exploration industry of any scale.

We are seeing how a simple recession has kicked NASA where it hurts, what happens when dwindling resources are being stripped by a booming population, all being driven by a starved economy? Will there a point in human history when we realize that we had the resources to build a viable space infrastructure (which in-turn would be pretty useful for us to exploit the resources of other planetary bodies in our solar system), only to falter when we had to invest some money into it? Are we at that point now?

Hopefully history will define Feb. 1, 2010, as a crossroads in space exploration, a time when the Obama administration pushed the focus from expensive government-run spaceships to profitable private space vehicles. Conversely, will history teach us that we stagnated for too long, tentatively dipping our toes into the 'final frontier' only to squander our best hope for routine human spaceflight on arguing over balance sheets?

More worryingly, perhaps the launch window for the human race is passing us by and we've already reached our peak space exploration potential, forever dabbling with space, but never really taking to the stars.