Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Case Against Manned Spaceflight

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic orbiting of the Earth, initiating the era of manned spaceflight. Humans were no longer limited to our home planet, we were now citizens of the universe in a way we had never been before. In the history of humanity, it was one of the big steps.

We still hear cries to continue with manned spaceflights, calls I believe are misplaced. The arguments in favor of it tend to come in three kinds: (1) putting humans in space is for the good of science in that it gives us data we could never have otherwise, (2) manned spaceflight is a technological seed, producing practical engineering marvels that we would not have otherwise had and which enrich human life on Earth, and (3) nothing excites the cultural imagination more than manned spaceflight which raises the profile of science generally and results in more young scientists and more support for the funding of science. None of these arguments, I claim, still work.

(1) Human beings evolved to live in certain kinds of conditions -- specifically, those with a certain amount of gravitational pull. We are clunky beings with lots of bodily needs, needs that take a lot of space and energy when we are trying to go somewhere. Anyone with a toddler, trying to drive to see family an hour away knows how much stuff you need to move a human, space that you wish you had for other things you wish you could have brought. Spaceflight is no different. Room is at a premium and when you are taking people instead instruments, you can take a lot fewer instruments, do a lot less science, and spend a whole lot more money. The simple fact is that when you look at amount of science done per dollar, manned spaceflight is absurdly expensive and keeps you from being able to send up instruments that could have otherwise gone, that if our true interest was in making measurements, we would never take the idea seriously.

(2) The standard line is one left over from the 60s that the requirements of manned spaceflight lead to new discoveries that can be fitted for applications on Earth. This was certainly true in the 60s when we had little in terms of technological research and development infrastructure and we were just beginning the computer age. We did get technologies from the space race. But the fact is that things are radically different now. The technological challenges of making materials light enough and strong enough to build rockets, of coming up with electronics capable of controlling the mission and allowing sufficient communications, of meeting the survival needs of the astronauts have already been met or could be with what we have already developed. Not much new would come from it and we have a technologically-based economy that is filling the niches we find in contemporary society on its own.

(3) When John F. Kennedy announced that we would put a man on the moon, the idea seemed as absurd as Dick Tracy's two-way wrist tv. But to this generation of young people, it is a mundane fact that we can travel in space. Indeed, the two-way wrist tv is nothing compared to the iphone. The cultural imagination is not engaged by manned spaceflight because we do not have to imagine it. It is not seen as the impossible task it was once thought to be and it no longer challenges our view of ourselves as earthly beings. I do think that we need to get children excited about science. I do think that major undertakings can have this effect. I also think that the days of manned spaceflight being able to do this are gone.

With none of the three standard arguments for manned spaceflight being sound, the question is how we should spend our scientific dollars. We need to spend most of it doing science, but some of it in ways that are more directed towards public relations because we need to keep the public profile of science prominent. We need to put instruments in space and manned spaceflight keeps us from doing lots of good science. We also need new Mr. Wizards, new Carl Sagans, new Bill Nyes. We need an army of them. Have you ever watched the NASA channel? Of course not. It is awful. Why don't we have a weekly Brian Greene show? Why don't we have charismatic scientists having really fun and interesting conversations with amazing graphics? My philosophy of science class was excited by even the mention of Mythbusters. Why aren't we doing more of that? Making science accessible, exciting, and interesting. Yes, putting a man on the moon did in the 60s, but times have changed and the face of science -- the marquee project -- needs to change with it.