NASA White Paper: Human Space Flight

This area is to collaborate on a response from the society to http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/ASEB/DEPS_083343

 

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1. What are the important benefits provided to the United States and other countries by human spaceflight endeavors?

The realist view. Ask any engineering student today at any American university what stimulated him or her to become an engineer, and you'll likely find inspiration from the space program and/or space-related science fiction to be one of the top three early influences. Many students originally enter into the aerospace engineering field because of their interest in space and NOT in aeronautics. Given the importance of aircraft and space technology to our national security posture, and the operational security of needing to rely on homegrown engineers, it is vital that impetus that draws those engineers into the field remain insulated from budgetary erosion.

NASA was brought into being as the public relations face of what has essentially remained a military technology research program designed to reach parity with the Soviet Union which used Sputnik to demonstrate it's intercontinental ballistic missile capability. While NASA's roots may have originated as a publicity stunt, the Mercury astronauts thrust themselves before the American public, to the protests of Dr. Wernher von Braun (who preferred automated systems), as heroic icons that would enable the people to live vicariously through them as a new generation of explorers. It caught the public's imagination like a firestorm and it resulted in a soft power coup for the US government. Before this coup, children were mainly inspired by cowboys and westerns, and afterwards by astronauts and space.

To this day space technology often serves a dual-use role. NASA's public relations success made it useful for recruiting people into the aerospace profession, which in its dual-use capacity provides a bridge for the civilian labor force to develop US military aerospace technology, the US government's primary foreign policy instrument for projecting hard power (Kosovo, the Iraq No Fly Zone in the 1990s, and contemporary discussion of possible No Fly Zones over Syria). The general public is not inspired by military weaponry to the same degree they're inspired by astronauts. It is in the US national security interest to maintain this source of inspiration. A source so powerful and compelling that it not only entices our own next generation of engineers, it does so with all advanced and developing industrial nations.

The idealist view. The harsh, profane, and pragmatic world of realism is too dirty and gritty for some people who prefer to see humanity not as it is, but as it can be. In taking a step back to view our current place in the grand arc of history, the presence of human beings in space represents the greatest of all paradigm shifts in our existence as a species. One that rivals in importance humans exit out of Africa or Columbus' Voyage to the Americas; or on an even grander scale, the first emigration of life out of the oceans onto land. Assuming that life throughout the galaxy is common, when looking back upon ourselves, we are but an endemic species living on a single planet. Given the reality of how close we've already come to self-inflicted extinction during the Cold War and the growing level of ethnic and religious conflict throughout the world, our species still faces an existential threats from geocentric conflicts.

As any astronaut who has had a moment of free-time, or a civilian who looked upon the Earth from orbit watching an omnimax/imax film will tell you, viewing our own world from space confers a new perspective that breaks the two-dimensional geocentric perspective into a larger sense of self. Our species has a tendency to be culturally insular equivocating “normalcy” with homogeneity and “abnormalcy” to heterogeneity. This tendency creates a dehumanizing effect on external groups, which results in ethnic conflict. The space perspective expands this sense of homogeneity to the whole planet, which can create a soft power opportunity for any political regime to build world peace.

2. What are the greatest challenges to sustaining a U.S. government program in human spaceflight?

a) Congress. Above and beyond everything else, the tendency of Congress to think short-term as it relates to their own job security and getting re-elected. If any government program, not just the space program, cannot in some way benefit their state (if a senator) or district (if a representative), then they'll rate its importance with lower priority than one that will do so. In the current class of Congress, “benefiting one's district” has come to be defined as eliminating government programs so as to reduce tax burdens. Thus for any government program to survive in this legislative climate, it must provide a measurable return on tax payers' investment. Overcoming this redefining process will not be easy given the hyper-customization brought about by Internet companies that deliver information content which allow for selection/de-selection biases.

Close on the trail of this problem is the desire for Congress to avoid investing in expensive programs that offer no or poorly defined exit strategies. The single greatest reason the US government has avoided expanding our human presence in space is because of Congress' desire to avoid locking up a sizable portion of our discretionary budget on a national expedition that doesn't provide a short-term geopolitical advantage.

b) Internal cultural rivalry between HSF and robotic exploration camps. On one hand, the HSFP faction consists of a constituency that slants towards engineering. Their support for the entire space program, along with the science it engages in, is wholly contingent upon the promise of human space colonization. On the other hand, the robotic exploration faction consists of people who slant towards science. Their support is indifferent to nationality, so long as the data is made universally available. They're often happy to simply have powerful instruments and ask the grand scientific questions of astronomy. Their exploration of Mars is an end unto itself and it does not necessarily represent any effort towards resource scouting for possible future human settlement or development of the solar system. If they lose a space platforms they'll simply switch to other phenomena related to their field or offer their services in another country.

 

c) Retasking the culture within the HSFP. The programmatic challenge facing NASA's Human Space Flight Program (HSFP) is that it predominantly serves as a PR role for generating interest in the STEM fields. But given the difficulties in maintaining the Space Transportation System and the realization that a private commercial organization can develop orbital transportation more efficiently and cost effectively, NASA, which has derived part of its identity from the HSFP finds itself adrift.

In this legislative climate, NASA needs to shift the culture of the HSFP from the vicarious “heroic astronaut” inspired by the Mercury program to its original roots in NACA, as a publicly funded research organization that helps spawn new space industrial sectors. The Johnson Space Center would do well to learn from other centers that already function in this role. Emerging space sectors may develop in several environments (asteroids, Luna, or Mars), and so instead of choosing any particular development path for space NASA should reproduce all space environments where industrial activity may occur, and do so with the highest degree of fidelity and on as large a scale as possible. This space environmental simulators can provide an incubator environment for industrial research.

In this interim phase of NASA's history, the HSFP can be retasked from being oriented towards scientific exploration to industrial research. Robots controlled via telepresence by human operators on Earth should have the dominant role in this research in all simulated environments, while astronauts would offer support in the form of maintenance & repair or performing acts of manual dexterity beyond the capability of a particular robot. Where industrial research produces unexpected results, astronauts can engage in, in a residual capacity, exploratory scientific research. Perhaps NASA can generate external revenues in the form of royalties or access fees while the mass production of the technologies developed should fall to the responsibility of its inventors.

 

This different organizational mission should resolve the anxieties of Congress who may no longer feel compelled to straight-jacket NASA's operations with biannual budgetary constraints and instead allow NASA to adopt a structure similar to Fannie Mae or the USPS. But this arrangement will not be stable for long.

 

 

Much will depend on the means by which in-space industry generates its revenues. If initial industries generate revenues via markets wholly contained within one or a small bloc of nations, then the political structure that will emerge will likely be mercantilist in some form. But if the cost of developing a space industrial operation is so great that it needs to generate its revenues from the whole global economy to become economically viable, then the political structure likely to emerge will need to be more international in scope. If this process is not handled with sufficient care and nuance, it can destabilize the world order, much the same way that Columbus' discovery and the Dictatus Papae did within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia was developed to resolve that instability. The United Nations would likely be incapable, in its current form, to do the same.

 

Resolving this political problem is perhaps the single greatest challenge facing the US government with respect to space. For in this seed will come a new heliocentric political economic order, which will provide the means and ends of space colonization, the expansion of the global economy into a new Earth-Cis-Lunar econosphere, and of course contain within it the process by which countries maintain or yield some of their sovereignty. It is very likely that the United Nations Charter will need to be revised, all current space treaties either amended or replaced with new treaties, in addition to any treaties that may involve the space economy. Overcoming this challenge will involve a major realignment of the existing world order.

3. What are the ramifications and what would the nation and world lose if the United States terminated NASA's human spaceflight program?

 

Terminating the HSF program would obviously result in a loss of all of the benefits cited above.

 

To use a school analogy, abandoning the HSF program would be the equivalent of abandoning all sports in favor of reducing the school's tuition fees or hiring more security guards. It would deprive a significant portion of the population a source of soft power that inspires excellence and that has long been a source of innovation. Given the economic disadvantage of an expensive labor force, the US can only maintain high standards of living by better innovating new technologies than its economic rivals. The NASA HSF program is but a mere national trophy, but it is one that inspires excellence and innovation, and one that other nations would be more than happy to take from us to claim before the world that they are top sources of innovation, thereby they will be the beneficiaries of the world's best and brightest immigrants. Note – it is from such immigrants that America achieved many of its successes.

 

To borrow a historical analogy, it would be the equivalent of burning the Great Library of Alexandria or the Barbarian Conquest of Rome. The culture of the people will change forever and for the worse. We've had instrument-based astronomy for centuries. Yet astronomical science never grabbed the spine of the popular imagination as powerfully as the early American space program did within a few short years as illustrated in the change within American culture from cowboys to astronauts/spacefarers. For little boys and girls, astronomy is a hobby. But being an astronaut is a heroic source of inspiration that grabs them for life. The American culture does not want to be told about facts and figures, they want to be shown scenarios within which they can see themselves.

 

Terminating the HSF program would in effect culturally lobotomize America's future generation to any interest in STEM.