NASA emphasizes the value of exploration for its human spaceflight program, but what sustains those key elements, like SLS and Orion, are the jobs they create. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
Going to the Moon or Mars is often explained as a nod toward the human desire to explore the unknown: the endless frontier perspective much cited in explaining why humans go over the next hill to see what is there. Human spaceflight since its beginnings—once shed of the Cold War-derived motivations—has been a constant quest to extend humans’ reach into the unknown. There are gestures toward practicality in the calls for planetary exploration so that we can see why Mars turned into a desert and Venus a hell of intense heat and pressure. Why those planets moved in different directions becomes an intellectual puzzle whose answers may serve as vehicles for surviving a possibly catastrophic future here on Earth. This, in turn, often bolsters the case for pursuing human spaceflight: the Moon or Mars as refuge from a dying Earth. The fight therefore is to keep the space science and other missions running because of their long-term social utility, not necessarily profit in the traditional sense of economic profit and loss.
That is not enough
Building a space program solely on the quest for the unknown has proven to be a fraught activity, one that often encounters opposition. This state of affairs is not necessarily the product of views completely hostile to the quest but is rather one built on perspectives accentuating different priorities. Those perspectives focus on essentially three views: social and economic need, economic exploitation of outer space, and/or national security concerns. The first, social and economic need, is a view which concentrates on bettering the lives of those on Earth. For example, at the time of the Apollo 11 launch, demonstrators showed up at the Kennedy Space Center to protest the money put into the program while human needs in terms of poverty and health persists. Those funds, if diverted, could aid the struggle for improving the human condition. The reality is such a one-for-one tradeoff will not occur: the poor and disadvantaged lack the necessary political heft to win that battle.
Economic exploitation of outer space builds on the understanding that, from low Earth orbit, many things become possible for commercial purposes. Communications and remote sensing, joined by space navigation, were the early forerunners of such efforts. These initial tasks did not require a human presence, a fact still relevant for most space commerce activities. Space tourism is much discussed, but the practical issue of affordable and dependable access to and from space has delayed progress. Regardless, this perspective minimizes the human space exploration aspect of space activities.
Perhaps most importantly, the third perspective focuses on the security uses of outer space, all which are currently provided through uncrewed missions with no apparent loss of effectiveness. The point is that each of these perspectives is not hostile to human space exploration but places that as a lower priority. As a result, resources in their view should go toward their priority.
The order with which each perspective appears is the result of a specific state’s history and vision of itself. They shift in importance over time: nothing is static, and a mix of views will appear and fade away depending on events. So, for China, national security was the original driver, while in India, space activities of political necessity had to be tied to social and economic development. While both states have moved on since that original period, the earlier perspective merely fades but does not disappear.
The ultimate justification
Human spaceflight has no independent justification because, to this point, everything accomplished in outer space can be accomplished by robotic means. The original Earth-orbiting satellite proposals, such as the 1945 article by Arthur C. Clarke, had humans on board to complete tasks now carried out by comsats and remote sensing systems. (The US, around the same time, rejected a proposed Earth-orbiting satellite because it was not a weapon; therefore, had no military purpose.) Both these functions do not require humans. In fact, humans add immense costs and other requirements simply to sustain their lives on board the spacecraft. Humans can make a difference in space operations because of their adaptability to changing circumstances. Not every contingency can be solved remotely, so the question becomes what justifies the presence of humans on a mission given the heightened costs and additional support technologies.
In the short term, the justification that sustains US human space exploration comes down to jobs, specifically constituent jobs. Other justifications embodied in the theme of human nature and the quest to explore the unknown are often heartfelt by their articulators, but are not the critical factor. Space politics in the United States is a priority for few either in the public or Congress. Linking activities to constituent jobs brings in the additional political support necessary for continuation.
That linkage allows NASA to overcome its failures: Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and the interminable delays developing the Space Shuttle and the Space Launch System (SLS). Approval of the shuttle program in 1972, the X-33 program in 1996, and the SLS in 2011 were all premised on jobs, in California for the first two and more generally for the third. The great unknown is whether the first two would have been approved absent that justification, given both were during presidential election years.
This reality does not negate other motivations, especially the frontier concept or the more general human quest to understand the unknown. The stark reality is that this mix of the sacred and the profane keeps US human space exploration moving forward. The earlier insult mocking the SLS as the “Senate Launch System” was a backhanded compliment to the two senators (Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas and Bill Nelson from Florida) involved. They took the tools available to keep human space exploration on the national agenda. Both are gone from office but the program moves on. Recent events put the SLS in jeopardy, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to SLS (see “Rethinking EM-1, and SLS”, The Space Review, March 18, 2019.) He has no choice, given political realities.
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