Where No Man Has Gone Before
James Van Allen, after whom the radiation belt is named, asked in 2004 whether human spaceflight is a legacy dream, a survival of some outdated science-fiction notion, now overtaken by harsh reality.
Does human spaceflight continue to serve a compelling cultural purpose and/or our national interest? Or does human spaceflight simply have a life of its own, without a realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its costs? Or, indeed, is human spaceflight now obsolete?
Van Allen's biggest argument against manned spaceflight was the failure of NASA's shuttle program. Over the same period the Shuttle was failing to advance manned flight, unmanned space had produced vast benefits. "In our daily lives, we enjoy the pervasive benefits of long-lived robotic spacecraft that provide high-capacity worldwide telecommunications; reconnaissance of Earth’s solid surface and oceans, with far-reaching cultural and environmental implications; much-improved weather and climatic forecasts; improved knowledge about the terrestrial effects of the Sun’s radiations; a revolutionary new global navigational system for all manner of aircraft and many other uses both civil and military; and the science of Earth itself as a sustainable abode of life."
He asks the obvious question: why bet on the loser, manned space flight when unmanned space has proved the winner? Van Allen wrote: "In a dispassionate comparison of the relative values of human and robotic spaceflight, the only surviving motivation for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure." He ended his article with a question.
Have we now reached the point where human spaceflight is also obsolete? I submit this question for thoughtful consideration. Let us not obfuscate the issue with false analogies to Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, or with visions of establishing a pleasant tourist resort on the planet Mars.
It must have been painful for Van Allen to write those words, almost as if he had been penning an epitaph for a dream.
Five years later, in 2009, the MIT Technology Review published a paper which argued that with new technologies, "the United States stands at the threshold of a new era of human spaceflight" whose achievement would depend on whether the Obama administration made certain key decisions correctly, namely: what goals to shoot for? Would it be the Moon, would it be Mars, would it be the Space Station?
They could hardly anticipate that Obama would actually shoot for "none of the above"; that in 2014 a resurgent Russia would actually threaten to deny the United States access to the space station and even the use of Russian rocket boosters. A "fundamentally transformed America" had gone from being able to put a man on the moon to being unable to reach low earth orbit. But Time replied in its inimitable fashion, in thundering words that bid fair to shake the Russian autocrat to his core.
So you’re not having enough problems digesting Crimea, that half-bankrupt hairball you swallowed because it was there and looked tasty but now it won’t go down and everyone in the world is mad at you? Now you want to pick a fight in space too?
That’s how it seems, at least, after your Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced a number of tit-for-tat sanctions against the U.S. today—specifically among them, targeting our countries’ once-cozy collaboration on the International Space Station. According to Rogy, you’ll quit selling us seats on your Soyuz booster—which, since the grounding of the shuttle, is American astronauts’ only way into space—and use the station on your own, despite the fact that it was largely a NASA construction project. What’s more, you’ll no longer sell us the NK-33 and RD-180 engines we currently buy from you for our Atlas V boosters, at least for any launches of military satellites. ...
As for the engines: yes, it’s true that the NK-33 and D-180 are nice bits of hardware and the Atlas does rely on them. But the Atlas pre-dates you, Vlad. Remember John Glenn? He flew on one of them, as did the ICBMs we were building in those days and pointing your way—and you guys weren’t exactly selling us the hardware we needed to take you out. You don’t want the revenue that comes from globalized trade? OK, so we’ll in-source our engines again and keep the cash at home.
Putin, take that hashtag! Pow! And if you really make us mad, why we'll dust off all those Leave it to Beaver-era textbooks and slide-rules and build us a Vanguard missile.
But far more substantial counter was Time's invocation of private United States space industry as the real hope of manned space. They reminded Putin that America -- while it might not have a NASA manned flight program any more -- had a private space industry, rockets ships were being made by capitalists, you know the people that "didn't build that". Time wrote, "as you surely know, at least two American companies—Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—will all but certainly have their own for-lease spacecraft flying well before then, and even NASA, which has been inexcusably slow in getting a next generation manned vehicle built, may be back in the game by 2020."
Elon Musk pointed out that it's "embarassing that the United States has to thumb rides from the Russians". Musk has answered the Van Allen question to his own satisfaction and believes that manned space flight has a future; that the next step for man must be Mars. And he has sketched out a plan to get there to colonize it. Colonize. That term, so hated by modern academics has made an unexpected comeback in the 21st century, redolent as it is of species-ism, ethno-centrism and privilege-ism.
Musk, who is also the founder of Space X, a space transport company that is already building rockets for NASA, told CBS this week that the technology to send colonists to Mars is coming along much sooner than anticipated, and that we could see potential colonization missions in the next 10 to 12 years.
“We need to develop a much larger vehicle, which would be a sort of Mars colonial transport system, and this would be, we’re talking about rockets on a bigger scale than has ever been done before,” Musk explained. “It will make the Apollo moon rocket look small.”
“That’s what’s needed to ultimately send millions of people and millions of tons of cargo to Mars, which is the minimum level to have a self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” Musk said.
Is Musk joking? Are the manned space advocates nuts? Mars? As Van Allen correctly said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If unamnned space worked we were willing to declare it the winner so clearly if people like Musk find a way to economically colonize Mars then the referee must raise their hand in the ring too.
Historical controversies are ultimately settled by what works. In retrospect, NASA's collapse in the last part of the 20th century might not only have been fortunate but proper. It struck out of the game and allowed it to fall back from its Cold War glory days to a more sustainable role. It was reality in action, picking the winners and losers. Musk may not make it, but someone does then human spaceflight will not have belonged to the past. It's an open question which one science fiction writer posed in this form:
If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature's failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean— 'spaceship.'
Recent purchases by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific