There isn’t much that’s more enthralling than space. Some of the oldest questions of the human experience have been oriented around the cosmos and our place within it. To answer some of these questions we have sent robots to outer worlds in our solar system, telescopes into earth orbit to peer backwards in time, and even people to the moon. For fifteen years we have had a continuous human presence in space on the International Space Station, a wonder of the modern world. Space is inspirational, but human spaceflight is the catalyst that encourages us to dream and it is from the dreamers that come the inventors of revolutionary technologies and the architects of change. We have built our modern society on centuries of challenges that needed to be overcome – problems that someone dreamed of solving, and great risks without immediate results, that were deemed worthwhile.
There are many arguments to support robotic exploration of space – cost and risk being two of the most prevalent. Robots have their utility, but they are also programmed for a specific mission. Robots can’t be programmed to necessarily recognize the value in that unexpected object over there, because they lack an innate curiosity. There is great value in serendipitous discovery, and human spaceflight is the only mechanism to achieve that. Humans are also still more capable than robotic explorers, fragile though we may be. The astronauts on Apollo 17 traveled the same distance over the lunar surface in three days that the Mars Exploration Rover traveled in ten years. The body of scientific literature produced from the data and samples collected from the Apollo missions still vastly exceeds any other mission to space, even though we must recognize that the value of those missions lies not only in the human element, but also the sample return yield. We need to develop a space infrastructure that can support human missions which inspire us, that return to Earth, that can return with samples, and are cost effective.
I believe there are a few critical steps we must take to build out that infrastructure: open space to the private sector, develop reusable launch vehicles, and muster the political and social will to support these endeavors. People often think back to the heady days of the Apollo program and believe that we did it because we could, because we’re explorers and dreamers and it was the logical thing to do. That tends to be how I feel space exploration should be run, but in reality, the impetus for that program was the Cold War and the strategic and geopolitical need to develop a presence in space. That reality is still present today, except we’re mostly at war with our own social unwillingness to accept the risks and rewards of space travel. We need to prove to ourselves that space travel can be economical, that it can be the stepping stone we need to sustain life, and we need to iterate faster against the challenges we face. Significant, if incremental, progress must happen at a regular cadence to sustain humanity’s willingness to dedicate the necessary resources to space travel. When we acknowledge the impact that manned spaceflight has had on geopolitical and economic factors, social awareness, science and industry, and accept that all of these factors are critical to a successful spaceflight program, then we can make efficient progress.
NASA and other government agencies are realizing that they have resources best spent on pushing new frontiers, and that the costly foundation upon which this depends can be shared with the private sector. This is a model that makes sense. Development of new technology is costly and without guaranteed return or success; there will always be a need for research and development, for which government agencies are primed. Once technology has been proven, there exists an opportunity for these agencies to include the private sector in accelerating the implementation of that technology, so they may re-dedicate their own efforts to riskier and uncertain endeavors. There has been a positive shift over the last ten years, during which NASA has begun to move out of the launch business – an area with a long history of proven technology – and opened that space to commercial ventures.
In my recent work, my wife pointed me to a quote from Jaime Casap that I think applies to this ultimate question of human spaceflight and its value. Jaime is the chief educational evangelist at Google, and a powerful presence at the intersection of education and technology. He recommends we “don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems they want to solve. This changes the conversation from, ‘Who do I want to work for’, to, ’What do I need to learn to be able to do that.’” As a student looking for the problems I wanted to work on, rocket propulsion and space travel were amongst the most complex and interesting to which I was exposed. I consider myself a better engineer for having been enticed and excited by the need for more efficient spacecraft than had I been informed of, for instance, a need for smaller telecommunications satellites. At some point in our generation, there indeed seems to have been this shift to the identification of problems worthy of the ambitions of children, which we are seeing regularly materialize in incredible feats of space engineering that triumph again and again.
We have built our modern society on the willingness to take on critical challenges that needed to be overcome. Now we find ourselves again at a point in history where new challenges have been identified and upon which generations to come will look and judge us for our efforts. Is the cost and risk of manned spaceflight worth it? Was it worth it to dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in a pressure sphere barely the size of its occupants? Was it worth it to climb Mount Everest just “because it’s there,” as George Mallory put it?
Of course it was.