Do We Need Human Exploration?

Over the previous three decades, our nation’s leaders have reduced NASA’s buying power by 25%. This decline has spurred some destructive infighting among aerospace stakeholders. Private industry attacks NASA, saying the bureaucracy is too slow and risk averse. Universities attack NASA because their grant programs are getting cut. Scientists attack aeronautics, space technology, and human exploration because the money could be diverted to science missions.

If I were king, I would work to get everyone into sync. The academic community, industry, and NASA all must work together to move our programs forward. Exploration without science is shortsighted. Science without exploration engineering leads to a dead end. In order to gain understanding of Earth, we must get off it. To understand the Solar System, we must get out into it. Science and exploration will stall without technology, including aeronautics. Costs will rise, capability will shrink, and our leaders will see fit to reduce the public space program still further. The only choice for the space community is to work together.

I’m not being a Pollyanna here. One of the most politicized communities, academia, already does a good job at cooperating. Every ten years, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) brings the science community together to look at what we know already; and this group determines the highest-payoff investigations—what we need to know next, to know the most. The NAS gives that list to NASA, providing advice for setting the priorities for research in space.

We don’t have a similar method for human exploration—of polling experts to develop a decadal set of advice. One reason is that human space exploration is a relatively immature activity. Science has had a 500-year head start. While universities are set up to do astrophysics, with a department in most universities, that’s not true of human exploration. While I would stop short of establishing a human exploration department within universities, I would recruit the physics, chemistry, biology, and aerospace faculties, financial and business departments, and other disciplines. Together they can help develop the human exploration priorities in a reinvigorated and properly funded program.

On the other hand, we could simply limp along on NASA’s current budget and shift more funding over to science programs. We could go to Mars with robots alone and still conduct good science. But that approach will never get us to Mars; and we happen to be humans, not robots. Imagine if we had only explored the American West using robots! Eliminating human space flight would abandon many of our most ambitious goals, including the establishment of extraterrestrial colonies, mineral extraction, and manufacturing.

Then again, we can’t abandon science for human space flight. In order to allow for human exploration on Mars, for example, we need to understand more about the property of its soils. Scientists have already discovered that the Martian surface contains a great many carcinogens. (Sorry, Matt Damon. Those potatoes might not have been as good for you as you thought.) We need more data to figure out how to make a spacesuit that can protect astronauts—and settlers.

The same goes for missions to asteroids. Human exploration and science need to work together if the space program is to serve the entire American system. Asteroid missions can work the way Apollo did. On the last several Apollo missions, the science community worked with the astronauts for many months to maximize the knowledge from human flights. The Apollo astronauts picked up many rocks on the Moon, and scientists are still getting data from them. We know much more about the history of the Solar System, Earth, and the Moon because of those rocks. Could they have been collected by remote vehicles? Certainly. But not as well. Human eyes, knowledge, and intelligence are far more capable of negotiating unknown environments than machines are. Besides the knowledge ore extracted from rocks, there is the knowledge that came from putting humans on a foreign body. That intelligence improves our lives on Earth and will help put us on Mars.

The answer to getting all these needs in sync lies in the budget. If you have the budget you need, it is much easier to put cooperative programs in place. A fully funded space program offers the single best answer to all of its stakeholders working together.