Human space flight: still problematic




I’ve been puzzling over what to say about the National Research Council’s latest report on NASA’s human space flight program – Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, released June 4. It’s a good report, very meaty – so meaty that I’m guessing only a few dozen policy wonks like me will actually read much beyond the summary.

NASA can’t get people to Mars unless it gets a considerably bigger budget, the study group that produced the report concluded.

It’s not the first time a blue-ribbon study group came to this conclusion (see, for example, Augustine 1990, below).

For NASA to continue on its present course of human space flight “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” the group asserts in its report.

We’re already well on the way to this place.

At a June 25 House hearing on the new report, study co-chairs Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine called for “realism” in space policy and planning – about public opinion, risks, costs, technical challenges, and historical rationales. And they urged NASA to adopt “principles and decision rules” that will help it map a pathway to landing humans on Mars, eventually.

Political realism is necessary, too.

House Science Committee Democrats said in a statement following the hearing that Daniels and Lunine “emphasized the need for sustained investments in the U.S. human space exploration program over multiple Congresses and Administrations in order to commit to a pathway approach and successfully achieve a human mission to Mars. Specifically, both Governor Daniels and Dr. Lunine emphasized that if budgets continue to only increase at the rate of inflation, the goal of landing humans on Mars will never be attained. The co-chairs also made it clear that regardless of the pathway that is adopted, there needs to be consistency over a long period of time that survives the changing U.S. political landscape.”

They’re right, of course. However, the reality is that without changing our system of government, it does not seem possible to protect human space flight plans and goals from changes in the political environment.

The study group examined all the various rationales offered for investments in human space flight and found each one of them flimsy at best. For example, “the level of public interest in space exploration is modest,” the report notes, “relative to other public policy issues” (see Chapter 3 for details). And “any defensible calculation of tangible quantifiable benefits” of human space flight “is unlikely to ever demonstrate a positive economic return on the massive investments required” to sustain it. “Arguments for Apollo program spending – national defense and prestige – seem to have especially limited public salience” today.

Will the space community stop claiming that everybody loves NASA? Will the space community stop trying to project the cash return on every dollar invested in human space flight? Will human space flight advocates stop trying to invoke “the spirit of Apollo” 50 years after the fact?

Not likely.

As noted in the new report (p. 1-11), “all the blue-ribbon and advisory panels formed to recommend a course of action for human spaceflight…have focused on a set of key goals that are surprisingly uniform across the decades, especially since 1969” – that is, back to the Moon and on to Mars….

…At least until the Obama administration’s baffling embrace of the idea of sending humans to asteroids and helping to incubate an asteroid mining industry. Study co-chair Daniels said at the hearing this week that his study group “had testimony from leaders of every major space program and they lack enthusiasm for [the] Asteroid Redirect Mission” (thanks to Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online for her Twitter stream from the hearing, out of which I lifted this quote).

What will come of this latest NRC report?

I’d guess not much – same as with the NRC’s 2009 report, America’s Future in Space:Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs,and the NRC’s 2012 report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus (a report on a study of rationales and goals of the U.S. civil space program).

For that matter, what has come of the last 30 years worth of reports on long-term goals for space exploration, which this latest NRC study group considered in some way or form (see p. 2-18)? The Paine commission report (Pioneering the Space Frontier), 1986; the Ride report (NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space, 1987; NASA’s 90-Day Study (the Space Exploration Initiative), 1989; the U.S. Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (a.k.a. the Augustine report), 1990; the Synthesis Group report (America at the Threshold), 1991; the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation), 2009? What was wrong with them?

The new NRC report identifies two “enduring questions…that serve as motivators of aspiration, scientific endeavors, debate, and critical thinking in the realm of human space flight”: “How far from Earth can humans go? What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?”

What this study group was NOT asked to do is consider whether human space flight is necessary, whether human space flight serves the public good.

Too bad….

As Daniels testified at the hearing, his study group came down in favor of continuing the U.S. human space flight program saying, “because we became convinced through lengthy discussion and analysis that a combination of what we call the pragmatic and aspirational rationales, including the human impulse to explore and search for new knowledge in places we have never been, justifies the cost, risk and opportunities associated with sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

I’m not convinced.

The estimable Rep. Johnson has put the burden on Congress to effect change. “As Members of Congress, the ball is now in our court…. We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t…. Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”



Disruptive innovation: progress in sheep’s clothing



Over the past few years I’ve been hearing quite a bit from certain corners of the space community, including certain corners of NASA, about the need for disruptive innovation in the U.S. space program.

I’ll offer just a few examples.

On a Web site where he peddles himself as a speaker-for-hire, Peter Diamandis – would-be asteroid miner, co-founder of Singularity University and head of the X Prize Foundation — offers talks on the topic of “exponential technologies causing disruptive innovation…. He provides key insights on how human society has transformed from “Local & Linear” to one that is now “Global & Exponential,” and how this change is accelerating disruptive stress or disruptive opportunity depending on the company’s point of view.”

NASA Tech Briefs offers a link to a webinar on “designing disruptive technology for a sustainable future.”

Testifying at a December 2012 hearing on the future of NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, Professor for Space Science and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs at the University of Michigan, made the case for disruptive innovation at NASA. “Disruptive programs overturn old paradigms, create new markets and engender new value systems.”

Now Harvard history professor Jill Lepore offers an excellent critique of the ideology of disruptive innovation, revealing how it is the centuries-old dogma of progress dressed up in 21st century clothes. In The June 23 issue of The New Yorker – “The disruption machine: what the gospel of innovation gets wrong” – Lepore dissects the idea of disruptive innovation, as propagated by Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, 1997), Josh Linkner (The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation, 2011], and others. She writes: “The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.”

Well said.

I’ve been studying the history of the idea of progress since the 1990s. In a paper published in 2007, I wrote about the idea of progress as it’s embedded in the ideology of space flight:

“Christopher Lasch [The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, 1991] contrasted the pre-modern, Christian idea of progress – ‘the promise of a secular utopia that would bring history to a happy ending’ – with the modern idea – ‘the promise of steady improvement with no foreseeable ending.’ While J.B. Bury [The Idea of Progress, 1920] identified progress as an idea originating in the modern era, Robert Nisbet [History of the Idea of Progress, 1980, 1994] traced its roots to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and he documented how it evolved to take on the qualities of destiny and ‘historical necessity.’ This modern idea of necessary and inevitable forward movement is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative of U.S. space flight.

The idea of progress became the dominant idea in Western thinking in the period 1850-1900, according to Nisbet, serving as ‘the developmental context for other [key] ideas’ such as freedom. Nisbet credited 19th century natural philosopher Herbert Spencer with melding the ideas of progress and freedom, in declarations of ‘the rights of life and personal liberty,’ ‘the right to use the Earth,’ ‘the right of property,’ and ‘the right to ignore the state.’ Spencer’s classical liberal thinking is noticeable in the rhetoric of space advocacy.

From the 17th through the 20th century, as Walter McDougall wrote […the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 1985, 1997], the Western scientific worldview…’elevated technological progress…to the level of moral imperative.’ Science and technology became the means of American progress, and conquest and exploitation became the morally imperative method.”

Back to Lepore’s critique…. Citing Linkner, she sums up the ideology of disruptive innovation this way: “Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business ands it succeeds…sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.”

How depressing.

As always, I’m not asking my colleagues in the space community not to have beliefs or embrace ideologies. All I’m asking is that we all acknowledge and understand the belief systems we do have and the ways in which our beliefs motivate our actions.

If you don’t like my take on Lepore’s critique, you can read another one in Inc. magazine.

Astrobiology in the news



Astrobiology remains a popular subject for mainstream and “new” media, as evidenced by several recent features, ranging from lovely to puzzling.

In the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, Harry Stevens writes about “Where life is: the search for a planet like ours.” This thoughtful exposition of the search for habitable planets orbiting stars other than our Sun – extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short – focuses in particular on the work of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), a multinational team of researchers led by Victoria Meadows at the University of Washington and supported by grants from the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“The harder we look, the more familiar the galaxy grows,” Stevens notes. Exoplanet discoveries now numbering in the thousands, and growing, “have rendered science writers dizzy.” Indeed. As Stevens explains in his story, it appears that there’s no such thing as a typical planet or even a typical exoplanet system. Astrobiologists are grappling with whether and how to redefine their concept of a “habitable zone” around a star.

At National Geographic magazine, astrobiology is on the cover of the July issue (now available online). “The hunt for life beyond Earth,” by seasoned science writer Michael Lemonick (author of the 1999 book Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe and the 2012 book Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin), is an engaging primer on the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. I especially enjoyed reading about the adventures of my friend Penny Boston, one of several scientists featured in the piece. (Penny studies snottites – if you don’t know what they are, read the story.) While I have not yet seen the print version of this story, I can tell you that the online version is gorgeously illustrated with photos by Mark Thiessen.

Both Stevens and Lemonick mark the beginning of the field of exoplanet searching at the 1995 announcement of the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet orbiting the sunlike star 51 Pegasi, around 50 light years from Earth. I tend to think of Aleksander Wolszczan’s 1992 report of planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257 as the first discovery of planets beyond our solar system (A. Wolszczan and D.A. Frail, A planetary system around the millisecond pulsar PSR1257 + 12, Nature 355, January 9, 1992). One could argue that the field of exoplanet searching was born even earlier, in 1984, with the first published report of a protoplanetary disk around another star, Beta Pictoris – a discovery that drew considerable public attention, as I recall (B.A. Smith and R.J. Terrile, A circumstellar disk around β Pictoris, Science 226, 4681, December 21, 1984). “It seems likely that the system is relatively young and that planet formation either is occurring now around β Pictoris or has recently been completed,” this paper noted.

Meanwhile, CQ Researcher has produced a 24-page in-depth report (behind a pay wall) on astrobiology. “The search for life on new planets: are distant worlds habitable?”, compiled by Marcia Clemmitt, addresses “the issues,” some history and chronology, the current situation, and the outlook for astrobiology. “The issues” are posed as questions: “Is complex life rare in the universe? Should the search for extraterrestrial life focus on Earthlike planets? Should the search for life rely on robotic missions?”

And then there’s this month’s Mashable Spotlight report, “Why the path to aliens, ironically, begins on Earth,” an unusual take on astrobiology. Writer Neil Ungerleider observes that astrobiologists “search for origins of life on other planets, but astrobiology also uncovers new forms of Earth life we’ve never imagined before. The scientific tools to do so are advancing faster than ever, and as outer space travel increasingly becomes the domain of SpaceX and other private companies, NASA and foreign space agencies are focusing more resources on inner astrobiology. Specifically, the study of and uses for alien-like life on Earth.”

“Turns out, the study of alien life and life’s origins has huge industrial applications here on Earth,” he continues. “The alien catch-22. The search for E.T. depends just as much on heavy industry or big health care as it does on NASA.”

As I said, it’s an unusual take.

Finally, I’ll mention a – well, I’d call it a nutty story in The Independent, a U.K. newspaper not classified as a tabloid but sounding like one in this instance. Under a headline declaring, “Nasa to send astronauts one million miles into space to build world’s most-powerful telescope in hunt for alien life,” the paper reports, “Scientists have announced plans to build a telescope that may give us clues to whether alien life exists on planets millions of miles away. The Atlast, or Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope, will be the most powerful telescope in the world and will be able to analyse atmospheres of planets and solar systems up to 30 light years away.”

The Independent reported that Royal Astronomical Society President Martin Barstow would make an announcement about this project at a meeting in the U.K. this week. I checked the Society’s Web site and found a June 22 press release, “Time to think big: a call for a giant space telescope.” Here’s what it says: “In the nearly 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers and the public alike have enjoyed ground-breaking views of the cosmos and the suite of scientific discoveries that followed. The successor to HST, the James Webb Space Telescope should launch in 2018 but will have a comparatively short lifetime.Now Prof Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester is looking to the future. In his talk at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) in Portsmouth on Tuesday 24 June, he calls for governments and space agencies around the world to back the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST), an instrument that would give scientists a good chance of detecting hints of life on planets around other stars.”

While I could have missed something, it does not appear that the National Research Council’s last decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics, published in 2010, identifies ATLAST as a priority. Given humongous cost overruns and schedule delays on the James Webb Telescope and projections of a flat budget for the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine NASA taking the lead on a mega-scale project such as ATLAST, especially on Barstow’s timeline to launch in 2030. I doubt that NASA or any other space agency will be capable of sending people a million miles from Earth to assemble a telescope in space by 2030.

I could be wrong, of course. I’m just sayin’….