In December 2008, the MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group issued a report: The Future of Human Spaceflight (it's a pdf) which claims to be an examination of the fundamental premises of human spaceflight:
The United States stands at the threshold of a new era of human spaceflight. In its first term, the new administration will make the most important decisions in a generation about this endeavor. What are those decisions, and how should they be made in the best interests of the country?* * *
Ultimately, these decisions derive from the larger question: Why fly people into space?
To answer these questions we rethink the rationales government-funded human spaceflight and then address current policy questions in light of those rationales.
In addition to these most fundamental of questions - Why fly people into space? - I propose raising two additional questions:
- Who should fly people into space?
- How should flying people into space be paid for?
I will also propose five principles I believe should guide us in thinking about how to answer these three questions.
In my personal opinion, the MIT Study is one of the more clear-eyed and reality based examinations of space policy issues I have recently encountered. That said, I also deny that it constitutes the final word on this topic.
The MIT report is limited in scope to the subject of government-funded human spaceflight apparently excluding from the outset consideration of a governmental role in promoting and facilitating the funding of human spaceflight by non-governmental parties. The MIT report simply assumes that governmental expenditures funded with tax revenues shall remain the only meaningful mechanism to pay the costs of flying people into space.
The MIT report further accepts without examination the notion that the United States should "reaffirm its long standing policy of international leadership in human spaceflight" however little consideration appears to have been given to whether the United States should support or oppose efforts by other spacefaring nations that might eclipse the perception of US leadership.
Might the United States better realize the soft power benefits of doing space exploration by working to enhance and facilitate the space exploration achievements of other nations? Just as Project Apollo advanced American geo-political interests by demonstrating our technological superiority over the Soviet Union, might we now better advance our geo-political interests by demonstrating a willingness to be a "team player" willing to encourage and support other nations as they seek to claim a share of the spotlight that comes from achievements in space exploration?
I also assert that consideration of the following five principles will provide a framework or foundation to better facilitate policy discussion:
1. For the immediate foreseeable future, human spaceflight shall be driven largely by existential motivations rather than utilitarian motivations;
2. Doing space exploration the "right way" can facilitate our ability to think ecologically and with respect to the extended sustainability of large scale human ventures;
3. The taxpayers of our nation cannot shoulder the entire burden of funding a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration;
4. The United States - by itself - cannot accomplish a meaningful and sufficient program of human space exploration, even if our nation were to remain the world leader in this arena;
5. The ultimate long term objective of human spaceflight should be for our species to attempt to become spacefaring; to become a two planet or multi-planet species.
Before delving into the details, I advocate reading and keeping in mind a few observations made by William Langewiesche in January 2004, written after the Columbia disaster but before George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, found in a short essay in the January/February 2004 edition of The Atlantic Monthly:
In the aftermath of the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia an important debate on the purpose and future of the U.S. human-space-flight program is under way, though perhaps not as forthrightly as it should be. The issue at stake is not space exploration in itself but the necessity of launching manned (versus robotic) vehicles. Because articles of faith are involved, the arguments tend to be manipulative and hyperbolic. If the debate is to be productive, that needs to change.
In my opinion, arguments concerning space exploration are too often manipulative and hyperbolic and I agree with Langewiesche's call for an honest national debate concerning human space exploration. I also agree with Langewiesche's 2004 observation that
Such a debate would almost certainly lead to the conclusion that the United States has for thirty years followed human-space-flight policies that are directionless and deeply flawed, and that those policies must now be radically changed, with whatever regret about the historical costs.
I also believe that our current space policy debates are too often hardware oriented rather than objectives oriented.
For example, we see robust debates between advocates of the Direct 2.0 architecture and NASA's current ESAS architecture while others tout all EELV solutions.
Still others (such as the Space Access Society) advocate an aggressive push for smaller, fully reusable launch vehicles that shall allegedly significantly reduce the cost of access to low Earth orbit.
We believe that radically cheaper access is possible in the near term with current technology, by operating reusable rockets with sufficiently lean organizations at sufficiently high flight rates. Rocketry has become more medium-tech than high, as witness (among other things) growing third-world missile proliferation. At the same time, modern lightweight materials and electronics greatly ease combining the necessary high performance, ability to abort intact in case of problems, and fast-turnaround small-ground crew reusability. This lets us break away from the traditional expendable-missile "ammunition" design and "standing army" operations mindsets, with potential huge benefits to cost and reliability.
For the record I am personally unpersuaded that the foregoing assertions are true, at least with respect to radically cheaper access in part because of a lack of identifiable demand for large numbers of launches, something which returns us to the original question:
Why fly people in space, at all?
Form must follow function and until we can answer questions such as
- Why fly people into space; and,
- Who should be paying to fly people into space,
It shall be difficult to resolve what technologies, rockets and space flight architectures best accomplish those objectives.
It is interesting to note that the Space Access Society itself proposes to take this all on faith:
Market studies do strongly indicate that somewhere around one-tenth of current US launch costs, the market for space launch will reach a tipping point where demand for launches starts expanding fast enough to more than make up for reduced per-launch revenue. The overall launch market will start growing rapidly at that point, as investment in further launch cost reductions changes from a leap of faith to a sure thing. Further cost reductions will drive further market expansion, to the point where the space transport market will rapidly begin to approach the air transport market in economic importance. (At least two such new markets, tourism and post revolution-in-military-affairs defense, are already growing steadily less speculative. The chief thing we can predict about the other new markets that will appear as costs drop is that they'll surprise us. Who would have predicted in 1952 that, say, fresh flowers would be profitably air freighted across oceans?)* * *
Much depends on a leap of faith - faith in the studies that show large new markets emerging at lower launch costs to support the necessary higher flight rates - "if you build it, they will come".
" . . . if you build it, they will come . . ."
Well, maybe and maybe not. The MIT Study (page 7) cited above offers this conclusion:
There are presently no known natural resources in space that can be profitably exploited. Even were such resources and an efficient extraction scheme to be discovered, it is unlikely that human presence would be required. Human presence will always be more expensive than remote operations, so any genuine space-based extractive business is likely to be heavily based on remote presence. Therefore technology and economic development are secondary objectives of human spaceflight.
But therefore, we must make the effort to take a clear-eyed, reality based look at questions such as "Why fly humans in space?" and "Which humans should fly in space" and "How should such flights paid for" perhaps we can better evaluate a sensible route forward for the United States government and begin to formulate a truly progressive vision for space exploration.
Tomorrow, Part Two of my series shall address why the Obama Administration cannot, indeed dare not cancel US taxpayer funded human spaceflight;
Thereafter, Part Three shall address in greater detail the five principles suggested above;
Part Four shall propose an international lunar race similar to what Vladislaw proposed a day or two ago in his Daily Kos diary; and
Part Five shall propose that a real life "Babylon 5" space station & propellant depot be built with US support and encouragement but owned by an entity not under the direct control of any of the current spacefaring nations of the world.
So, stay tuned space fans!