Journey to Mars…for the science

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Credit: pinterest.com

In yesterday’s blog post I promised to provide, as a balance to my critiques of the human space flight enterprise, my “vision” of the kind of space program I wish we could have.

I’d originally planned to title this post “A progressive U.S. space policy: mission impossible?” With U.S. election results now in, it’s safe to say, yes, definitely impossible, for now.

Nonetheless, here’s what I wish the U.S. space program could be and do.

I wish we could have a science-and-applications focused civilian space program.

Let’s continue our journey to Mars – robotically.

Let’s put human exploration beyond Earth orbit on hold – at least for the next 30 years, maybe longer.

Why?

Despite the many robotic flyby/orbit/land/rove missions that NASA and other space agencies have sent to Mars, despite the overwhelmingly vast quantities of data gathered on the planet, we still don’t know enough about Mars to determine whether it ever was, or still is, habitable.

A major step toward answering the habitability question is a Mars sample return mission. For the past 40 years – since the Viking missions were completed – a Mars sample return has been a top priority in the space science community and Mission Impossible politically. The spacefaring nations of the world have not been able, individually or collectively, to obtain funding for a Mars sample return mission. Current plans to return samples from Mars are shaky, and as yet not fully funded.

(Just this week, European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner told the media, “I propose to go on with the ExoMars 2020 mission, but we need money for that,” specifying “several hundred millions…. I hope we will convince the member states (of ESA) that we go on with that programme…. I would be very sad if we stop the programme.”)

Meanwhile, plans for the necessary Earth-based sample containment facility – a biosafety-level-4 lab (BSL-4 is the highest level of biological containment, required for human pathogens) are just that for now – plans on paper. Planetary protection requirements for human missions to Mars is a matter that has yet to be resolved.

If we actually could put people on Mars by the 2030s – which I find highly improbable – they would likely contaminate the martian environment to the point that it might no longer be useful for astrobiological research.

And how does establishing a permanent human presence on another planetary body benefit humankind? I have yet to hear a convincing argument.

Let’s focus on science: the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life in our solar system (Mars, Enceladus, Mars, Europa, Mars, Titan…); the search for exoplanets and studies of their potential habitability; efforts to understand the universe; efforts to understand Earth.

It seems that we know so much about our home planet, solar system, planets around other stars, our galaxy, our universe. We do. Yet so many important questions remain unanswered. Let’s work on answering them.

Let’s expand human presence into space virtually. Let Oculus Rift, Samsung, Sony, VR One, and their ilk take people into space. Let NASA hold a contest to find the VR team that can provide the best “in-space” experience.

Let’s expand citizen-science programs. Make sure that citizen participation and citizen contributions are useful and meaningful to them as well as to NASA.

Let’s continue to work on making the science and technology of robotic space exploration available and useful to the broader community. Let’s help the American people get their money’s worth out of their investment in space.

And let’s continue working on the other “A” in “NASA” – aeronautics research.

As to NASA’s public affairs operations, let’s have NASA spend less time boosting its brand and more time explaining how it is meeting its statutory objectives.

Those objectives, detailed in the 1958 NASA Act, are:

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;

(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;

(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space;

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;

(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;

(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;

(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results, thereof; and

(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

Since I joined the aerospace community in 1983, I’ve been witness to a parade of reports on the U.S. future in space, all advocating for establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon or on Mars or on both – here are some of them:

National Commission on Space, Pioneering the Space Frontier, 1986

NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator, 1987 (Ride report)

Space Exploration Initiative, 1989 (G.H.W. Bush)

Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars, 1989

Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, 1990 (Augustine report)

America at the Threshold – Report of the Synthesis Group on America’s Space Exploration Initiative, 1991

The Vision for Space Exploration, 2004 (G.W. Bush)

Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004 (Aldridge commission)

Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, 2009 (Augustine Committee)

The Global Exploration Roadmap, 2009 (International Space Exploration Coordination Group)

What was wrong with all of these reports? Why have their plans and recommendations not been executed?

The Moon-Mars Thing – the “plan” for sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars, to stay – has inched forward so slowly over the past 30 years that it makes me wonder whether it will ever be affordable. (I do not take seriously SpaceX and Mars One claims about getting people to Mars quickly and affordably.)

Putting plans for human exploration and settlement on hold – until human societies are mature enough to avoid making the same mistakes they’ve made here on Earth (over and over again) – would enable us to ramp up development of the technologies needed to robotically explore Enceladus, Europa, and Titan (and of course continue our exploration of Mars) and employ more of those Ph.D. scientists that our society has been so successful in producing. Many NASA science programs are receiving far more qualified research proposals than budgets permit funding for – let’s beef up those budgets so all the good science gets done.

Scientific, robotic, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are complex biological systems living in a complex ecological/physical/cosmic system. This narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space turns away from conquest and exploitation and becomes a vision of humanity’s collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there.

“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.” (Thanks to John Lennon for this closer.)

 

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The coming transition in space

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Credit: kinblogger.com

“Nothing in the natural world…has any intrinsic value to men. All is worthless, utterly dispensable unless we discover some benefit to ourselves in it…. Men behave as overlords. They decide what will flourish and what will die. I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them.”

These are the words of Charley Duke Breitsprecher, a character in Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, (Scribner’s, 2016). The book is a fictionalized account of the deforestation of North America from the 17th through the 20th century. Breitsprecher, a 20th century descendant of a long line of deforesters, mused on his family history.

As we all know, environmental (including human) destruction continues today, driven by the same force that drove it 300 years ago – an appetite for profit.

Now advocates for the human exploration and exploitation of space want to export this mode of operation to other planetary bodies – colonize Mars, mine the asteroids, take tourists into space, etc.

Include the Obama administration in this crowd of advocates. Recall the President’s April 2010 speech at NASA Kennedy Space Center, in which he said: “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. (Applause.) And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. (Applause.) So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. (Applause.) By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Just last month, the President published a commentary on CNN.com reiterating his support for “humans to Mars.”

I sent a letter to the President today, wondering how we can accomplish human missions to Mars when the space-faring nations of the world can’t even afford to mount a Mars sample return mission. I also wrote, “Humankind is not ready to extend its presence into space – ethical, legal, moral and other issues relating taking this step remain unresolved, including the issue of whether the astronomical expense of such a move is justifiable.”

I wrote on this blog last August:

“As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the ‘space libertarian’ crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the ‘triumph of neoliberalism’ – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice. “

I stand by my words today, as I think about the upcoming presidential transition and wonder who is, or will be, advising the next president on space policy. I expect it will be the usual suspects, and I don’t foresee any major changes in space policy no matter who’s in the White House.

Let’s look at some of the Washington, D.C., think tanks that have paid attention to space policy. I should note that, as far as I can tell, all of these outfits – from progressive to right-wing – are advocates for the human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of space.

First, consider the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), which conducts “technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy. Here’s what this outfit says about itself: “In every area of public policy, from national defense, to the environment, to the economy, decisions are shaped by developments in and arguments about science and technology. The need for accurate and impartial technical assessments has never been greater. However, even purely scientific appraisals are often politicized and misused by interest groups. The Marshall Institute seeks to counter this trend by providing policymakers with rigorous, clearly written and unbiased technical analyses on a range of public policy issues.”

So the GMI says its work is “unbiased” and “impartial.” As to its work on space policy, I call it politically conservative, embracing the neoliberal/libertarian way of thinking about the human exploration and development of space. (But then again, I lean hard left….) It is definitely pro-space development – which is not unusual for a think tank of any stripe, as I’ve already noted. Even the so-called ”progressive” think tanks follow the libertarian line of thinking (see below).

According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Source Watch” service, the GMI “is a ‘non-profit’ organization funded by the profits from oil and gas interests and right-wing funders (listed later).” Source Watch characterizes the GMI as an “industry and right-wing front group.”

In 2014, the Marshall Institute hosted a series of programs on “human settlement in space.” As Institute President Jeff Kueter described the purpose of this series as an attempt to answer the question, “How do we make…a robust space exploration program?” So the question posed was not “Should we do it? But “How should we do it?”

At a program entitled “Human settlement in space: the major challenges and opportunities,” Kueter said the focus would be on “human exploitation of celestial bodies.” Speakers included Mike Gold, Paul Spudis – both long-time space-development boosters – and Haym Benaroya, a professor of aerospace engineering at Rutgers University (I don’t know him or his work). At another program on “Bases in near space,” speakers were Martin Elvis – a vocal advocate of asteroid mining, Cheryl Reed (I only know of Cheryl’s work in the field of planetary defense), and Rosanna Statler, an attorney, self-described commercial space advocate and founder of the Space Enterprise Council (see below).

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – which impresses me as politically middle-of-the-road – periodically does studies and holds programs on the civilian space program. In May 2015, CSIS held a program on “U.S. strategy for civil and military space,” featuring ex-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (appointed by George W. Bush) and Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In August 2015, CSIS held a program on “enhancing EU-U.S. cooperation in space,” featuring 11 panelists. In 2009, CSIS held a program on “challenges for space policy,” cohosted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council (which now appears to be defunct). I’m not aware of any recent CSIS reports on space policy.

At the Brookings Institution, which conducts “research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national, and global level” (and which I’d describe as politically middle-of-the-road), the most recent space-policy activity appears to be a 2014 event on “the future of the U.S. space program.” The question addressed there was not “Should we have a human space flight program?” but “How will the addition of commercial space travel and privately funded space exploration affect the future of the U.S. space program?” Speakers included two planetary scientists, one member of Congress, and vice presidents from SpaceX, Orbital, and Sierra Nevada.

On the progressive (not left-leaning) side of the political spectrum, the Center for American Progress – co-founded by John Podesta, head of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, once President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and a UFO conspiracy theorist – has paid some slight attention to space policy issues. In 2015, the Center held two programs on “how” (but not “whether” or “why”) to proceed with the human exploration and development of space: “Human space exploration: looking back 50 years, getting ready for the next 50,” and “Human space exploration “Human space exploration: the next steps,” featuring NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

Also on the progressive side is the New America Foundation, which has this to say about itself: “For the twenty-first century think tank, simply thinking is no longer enough. Our mission is instead to play a leading role in the renewal of the American promise of social, economic, and political opportunity. New America is developing a new model of civic enterprise: “civic” because it engages and empowers citizen efficacy, and “enterprise” because of the energy and innovation involved in actually making change on the ground…. Civic enterprise…seeks to connect citizens to government by building broad conversations, convening a wide variety of perspectives, and publishing ideas and stories that spark debate and encourage readers to keep reading, clicking, and ultimately responding.” New America is big on “innovation,” as the Obama administration has been.

New America has addressed space policy issues through its Future Tense program, a partnership with Arizona State University and Slate magazine “to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy. Future Tense seeks to understand the latest technological and scientific breakthroughs, and what they mean for our environment, how we relate to one another, and what it means to be human.”

Here are a few details on an April 2015 Future Tense program, “Giant Leap: The Race to Mars and Back”: “Humans have long been fixated on Mars, first as a metaphor of what lies beyond our reach, and now, increasingly, as a destination – for our probes, and ourselves, and perhaps even for our first base in deep space.” All of the panelists in this program (I watched the webcast) were advocates of the human exploration and settlement of space. All were in the space business. The program was “underwritten” by Lockheed Martin. Topics covered included, “A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition”; “How will we tax in space?”; and “Will Entrepreneurs Face Red Tape in Deep Space?”

This May, New America’s Open Technology Institute hosted a conversation with science fiction author Charles Stross, “What can DC learn from sci-fi?” At this event, New America’s Kevin Bankston described White House Office of Science and Technology Policy staffer Tom Kalil – a big booster of the human exploration and development of space – as an “advocate for sci-fi as a policy tool.” Stross was skeptical about the future of human space flight, including the future of SpaceX: “There are persistent cultural issues” relating to expanding human presence in space that “blind us to the realities.” He wondered whether the human exploration and development of space serves as a “lightning rod” for cultural expectations of having a “frontier.” “There’s almost a religious impetus” behind human space flight, he said, noting that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. embrace “mythical” thinking about sending humans into space. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably Christian eschatology,” he said. (I agree….)

Then there are the politically right-wing Atlas Society, Cato Institute, and Heritage Foundation. Ed Hudgins, currently director of advocacy at Atlas – which promotes the political ideology of Objectivist Ayn Rand (think “greed is good”) – has worked on space policy issues at all three organizations. His work is strongly libertarian. In a 2013 “State of the Culture Update,” Hudgins and Atlas Society colleague William R. Thomas discussed whether the new crop of companies developing human space flight technology are different from older, established aerospace companies or just another crop of “crony capitalists in space.” As the “liberty-loving” Thomas noted, Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX are doing most of their business with the government. Hudgins declared that space will be developed by the private sector, not the government – “just like the American frontier was.” Hudgins also noted that the reason why objectivists are excited about the human exploration and development of space is that it proves “the efficacy of human reason.” (Also see the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.)

In a 2007 commentary, “Individualism in orbit: morality for the high frontier,” Hudgins wrote: “the reasons why we’re not a space-faring civilization are many of the same reasons for the problems here on Earth. The main reason is one of values. We do not yet have values that are up to the task of guiding and motivating the development of space. We have a mixed and confused morality—and a culture that is based on and that reinforces that morality. For those who long to reach for the stars and establish a viable culture, a new philosophy is essential. Even for those satisfied with the challenges and joys of this planet, the success of future societies off this Earth could provide a paradigm for resolving the problems that space pioneers will leave behind…. To fuel their launch to the stars, what they will need is a philosophy of rational individualism…. Strictly on the basis of sound economics, space exploration must be privatized. Only entrepreneurs acting freely and under the discipline of profit-and-loss incentives can properly exploit opportunities in ways that will create dynamic, off-Earth civilizations.” (Also see Hudgins’s 2010 post, “Private space triumph.”)

Hudgins is the editor of a book published by the Cato Institute in 2003, Space: The Free-Market Frontier. It appears that Cato has stopped paying attention to space policy since Hudgins left Cato for Atlas.

These days, when it comes to space policy, it looks like the Heritage Foundation is mostly concerned with national-security space issues. Heritage space policy analyst Dean Cheng is an expert on the Chinese space program and testified to Congress about it in 2014.

Of course associations representing the aerospace industry – along with their member corporations – are advocating for the human exploration and development of space and undoubtedly have already provided their views to transition teams: the Aerospace Industries Association, American Astronautical Society, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (nee the Coalition for Space Exploration, formed to advocate for President George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration”), Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Space Foundation. Then there are the dedicated advocacy groups –Explore Mars, the Mars Society, the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation…. (I know that some of these groups receive industry funding; I suspect that all of them do, one way or another).

A dear friend of mine has responded to my critiques of space policy here by suggesting that if I don’t like the space program as it is, I should write a blog post outlining my “vision” of the kind of space program I wish we could have. Stay tuned, I’ll be posting about it within the next few days.