In Defense of Human Spaceflight
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close, with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.” Frank Boreman Apollo 8
“Robotic exploration is to real exploration as masturbation is to glorious, loving sex.”-
Nothing is more irrelevant than the supposition, even if true, that robots can carry out space exploration better than humans. The exploration of space is not only a matter of thrust ratios, frequencies and angstroms; it is a matter both of our survival and of our spiritual and moral growth as a species. Are we merely dust that through some accident of cosmic proportions has
become aware of itself? Are we the only life in all the long, lonely, light-years? Or are we travelers in time and space on a journey searching for “The Meaning of it All?”
That search proceeds outward in every direction every day. Down into the microbe and the
most basic bits of life, outward into the heavens at the limits of visual, X-ray and radio telescopes. It continues in quiet moments when we contemplate the universe in our individual lives, whether in a monk’s meditation at a monastery, a child’s prayer, or the appreciation of some wild and untouched place.
This is the distinction between us and our machines. The plucky rovers on Mars are not
plucky- that is anthropomorphism. Nor are they exhilarated by the awe and mystery that reaches from, “the inner mind to the Outer Limits.” They will never call back from Mars saying, “Mars is so cool!” and refer to anything more than the temperature. They are not self-aware. They have no possibility of an existence after this, no chance that they could ever be more than they are at this moment.
Can’t we get our thrills secondhand? No. A camera is not an eye and a rover is not a person. Does anyone believe that Sojourner on Mars had the impact of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man” on our moon? We go to the ocean depths, the clouds and the vacuum beyond, not merely for commerce, not only to fight our battles, but to gain new perspectives on our condition, and ourselves, to obtain new measurements for our awareness.
To anyone who has seen the Mona Lisa in person, seeing it on TV or in an art book is meaningless. The original cannot be captured, it must be experienced.
Perhaps a better example came from my own experience. My wife and I were walking at the wonderful Asheville zoo. We were on a stairway; unbeknownst to us we were just outside the lion’s exhibit. A lion roared. I’ve heard the MGM lion do it at movies for years. But this wasn’t a
recording. It was a real lion at point blank range and it bypassed our conscious minds to hit our hindbrains first. My wife flew up the stairs in a blur. Black belt that I am, I snapped around in a fighting stance faster than ever before. A classic example of fight-flight reflexes, for all that my only chance against the lion would have been to choke it to death by stuffing myself down its gullet. You can watch “Animal Planet” until hell freezes over and it will not for one instant, approximate the reality of what is like to hear a lion roar in person.
There are of course the usual arguments against humans in space. But let’s start with an
examination of that statement, “humans in space.” Humanity is now and has always been “in space.” The thing in the sky is a G-2 main sequence star perhaps halfway through its lifespan. Its attributes govern every second of our existence on this ball of rock we live on. We are in space every moment of our life. The so-called “realists” who think of space as something outré, that doesn’t involve them, suffer from myopia of epic proportions, like an astronomer who looks through the wrong end of a telescope.
Space has and can intrude on even their parochial world in an instant. October 29, 2003 -
the Halloween Storm - spawned auroras that were seen over most of North America. Extensive satellite problems were reported, including the loss of the $450 million Midori-2 research satellite. A huge solar storm impacted the Earth, just 19 hours after leaving the sun. Days later on November 4, 2003, one of the most powerful X-ray flares ever detected swamped the sensors of dozens of satellites, causing satellite operations anomalies. Astronauts hid as deep as they could go in the International Space Station, but still reported radiation effects including ocular “shooting stars.”
Meteor Crater lies thirty-five miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. It dates from an impact 50,000 years ago. We were here. We just weren’t under that one as humans hadn't reached North America. Which is good, as this was a 2.5 megaton wake-up call. That was utterly dwarfed by the 1908 event in Tunguska, Siberia. That event, thought to be an airburst of a bit of cosmic flotsam, was in the 10-15 megaton range, right up there with a strategic-level hydrogen fusion bomb. These cosmic marbles aren’t gone and there is nothing that says Earth’s orbit is sacrosanct from them just because we have cell phones, cable TV and it would be gosh darn inconvenient for us to stop a thirty-five mile long rock at 45,000 mph.
Mars is due to get one of those later this year. It will come in over one of the Mars rovers, who will not note it with anything other than detached mechanical efficiency, if their limited instrument packages allow them to take any note at all. We will get to see it on TV, but there, my friends, for the grace of God, go we.
I remember looking up at comet Hale-Bopp during its last approach to Earth. While others were enjoying the cosmic light show (and I won’t claim to be immune to that) I did realize that I was looking at global species extinction mere light-minutes away, had the orbit been a little different. A miss is as good as a mile with cosmic bowling but you are playing for all the marbles. When you look at the moon, realize that you are looking at a body created because something hit the good earth we’re standing on, hard enough to tear that bit off and hurl it into the sky. If that is too big for you, too out there and distant for your contemplation, go stand by Upheaval Dome in Utah.
But a mere chunk of rock is survivable. It’s not likely to get all of us, though it could. Even if it didn’t wipe us all out, would a technic civilization ever arise again? We’ve mined most of the easily reachable resources around. Could we start over again?
There are greater terrors in space that could whiff out our planet like a child blows out a candle on a birthday cake. We can protect ourselves and our genetic heritage from some of them. Asteroids might be pushed or blasted away from us, but if a gamma ray burst goes off in our local area of space, well, game over. Even basic levels of local space control will entail investment in infrastructure in space that dwarf all we have done to date. We will need stations and not merely something like the International Space Station, but true factories, colonial stations and deep-space ships. This can’t be thrown together from nothing, despite what Bruce Willis’ did in“Armageddon.”
Some of the “robot-firsters” will decry manned space, their advocacy exceeding that of Asimov’s Susan Calvin, “It’s too expensive.” They will be joined by the social engineers, “We need all the money to solve our problems down here on Earth.”
Disabuse yourself of the notion that if all Earth’s miniscule space budgets were plowed into the social budgets of countries, that there would be a measurable decrease in the world’s problems.
Trillions have been poured into anti-poverty programs. Whether this has been effective or not is a discussion for another place- however one must notice that poverty, ignorance and warfare are doing quite well. If they were a stock they might have gone up like you hope your 401K would.
In any event, the world’s space budget is a mere rounding error on social spending.
Even more fundamentally, the two issues are unrelated. Space is a technological battle with a social component. Poverty is a political and social problem and far less a scientific one. It is related to the nature of our species and its existence. Or as my Dad put it in the most basic terms, “ If at the beginning of time you gave everyone in the world a refrigerator, at the end of the first month there would be those with a thousand refrigerators and those with none.” And so it will always be.
Space is not simply a hole into which money that could be better used for food stamps
or worker retraining is flushed. It fundamentally helps economies and the poor. The single most powerful example of this is the weather satellite. Storms that sank ships and destroyed cities are now spotted early enough for avoidance and evacuation. Farmers have the ability to plan for weather and crop management in a way their ancestors could not have dreamed of.
Communication satellites make the world one huge party line. The president of the United
States and the premier of China can speak in real-time. A doctor in New York City can diagnose and help treat an appendectomy in Antarctica. On a more basic level, electronics have become so reliable they are almost taken for granted. We have computer chips, solar cells, biomedical sensors, cell phones, blackberrys and laptops from the space program’s drive for technology.
Other may piously intone that we should not go out in to space until we get our act together as a species. The idea that we must somehow correct all of Earth’s ills or somehow evolve to a pure state of political organization is naiveté. Or if it is not, it may well be that in exploring space we will gain the perspectives needed to allow change to come. Perhaps we will truly come to see Spaceship Earth as the small fragile place it is, with no safe place to leave our hazardous junk and no crew who are unimportant. Earthrise on the moon made a seachange in how we see ourselves and our little blue marble. The rise of the world-wide ecological movement has some root in the arid soil of the moon.
But there is no sign on the cosmic rollercoaster that says you must be this tall and morally evolved to take this ride. I do not see our species changing that much as we head to the stars.
We are man most mortal and doomed to die (for all we are putting it off as far as we can each generation). We will lie, pollute and corruptly make our way among the stars. And why not?
We were not made as angels and we will not become angels anytime soon. We were not required to be angels when we left the cave, when we left Africa, when we walked the land bridge into
America and when we sailed from Europe. The sanctimonious, who set themselves over the rest of us in judgment, will probably never find us fit enough for the stars. Had it been left to them we’d still be in caves.
Our machines are our tools and servants, good ones too. We will take them with us and occasionally send them ahead for there will be hells in the galaxy that no mother’s child should face. We will leave some of those to our mechanical friends. But if our footprints do not overtake their tires and tracks, if we do not confront God’s handiwork and wrest from it the “meaning of it all” then we might have as well stayed home with our Xbox, playing HALO and watching Lucas and Spielberg’s more interesting pictures of space. Or perhaps in the anteroom to Hell we will meet the dinosaurs-they will look at us
and say with sympathy born of a mutual fate. “Asteroid?
Bummer. So you didn’t have a
space program either?”
Sidebar Spacer Spinoffs
Technology - NASA Spinoffs
CUBING - NASA initiative led to the Memory Short Stack, a three-dimensional
semiconductor package in which dozens of integrated circuits are stacked one
atop another to form a cube, offering faster computer processing speeds, higher
levels of integration, lower power requirements than conventional chip sets, and
dramatic reduction in the size and weight of memory-intensive systems, such as
medical imaging devices.
ANALYSIS - This NASA program, originally created for spacecraft design, has
been employed in a broad array of non-aerospace applications, such as the
automobile industry, manufacture of machine tools, and hardware
QUALITY MONITOR - Utilizing a NASA-developed, advanced analytical technique
software package, an air quality monitor system was created, capable of
separating the various gases in bulk smokestack exhaust streams and determining
the amount of individual gases present within the stream for compliance with
smokestack emission standards.
REALITY - NASA-developed research allows a user, with assistance from
advanced technology devices, to figuratively project oneself into a
computer-generated environment, matching the user's head motion, and, when
coupled with a stereo viewing device and appropriate software, creates a
- NASA Spinoffs
BABY FOOD - A microalgae-based, vegetable-like oil called Formulaid
developed from NASA-sponsored research on long duration space travel, contains
two essential fatty acids found in human milk but not in most baby formulas,
believed to be important for infants' mental and visual
PURIFICATION SYSTEM - NASA-developed municipal-size water treatment system
for developing nations, called the Regenerable Biocide Delivery Unit, uses
iodine rather than chlorine to kill bacteria.
LENSES - A modified version of a dual ion beam bonding process developed by
NASA involves coating the lenses with a film of diamond-like carbon that not
only provides scratch resistance, but also decreases surface friction, reducing
PURIFICATION - Space technology designed to sterilize water on long-duration
spacecraft applied to swimming pool purification led to a system that uses two
silver-copper alloy electrodes that generate silver and copper ions when an
electric current passes through them to kill bacteria and algae without
SWIMSUIT - NASA-developed riblets applied to competition swimsuits resulted
in flume testing of 10 to 15 percent faster speeds than any other world class
swim-suit due to the small, barely visible grooves that reduce friction and
aerodynamic drag by modifying the turbulent airflow next to the
BALL AERODYNAMICS - A recently designed golf ball, which has 500 dimples
arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles, employs NASA aerodynamics
technology to create a more symmetrical ball surface, sustaining initial
velocity longer and producing a more stable ball flight for better accuracy and
COOLERS/WARMERS - Based on a NASA-inspired space cooling system employing
thermoelectric technology, the portable cooler/warmer plugs into the cigarette
lighters of autos, recreational vehicles, boats, or motel outlets. Utilizes one
or two miniaturized modules delivering the cooling power of a 10-pound block of
ice and the heating power of up to 125 degrees
TRAINING - Space-developed cardio-muscular conditioner helps athletes
increase muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness through kinetic
SHOES - Moon Boot material encapsulated in running shoe midsoles improve
shock absorption and provides superior stability and motion
and Resource Management - NASA Spinoffs
- The first commercial products manufactured in orbit are tiny microspheres
whose precise dimensions permit their use as reference standards for extremely
accurate calibration of instruments in research and industrial laboratories.
They are sold for applications in environmental control, medical research, and
ENERGY - NASA-pioneered photovoltaic power system for spacecraft
applications was applied to programs to expand terrestrial applications as a
viable alternative energy source in areas where no conventional power source
FORECASTING AID - Space Shuttle environmental control technology led to the
development of the Barorator which continuously measures the atmospheric
pressure and calculates the instantaneous rate of
MANAGEMENT - A NASA-initiated satellite scanning system monitors and maps
forestation by detecting radiation reflected and emitted from
FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL - NASA development of an instrument for use in
space life support research led to commercial development of a system to monitor
an industrial process stream to assure that the effluent water's pH level is in
compliance with environmental regulations.
MONITOR - Development of Jimsphere wind measurement balloon for space
launches allows for making high resolution measurements of the wind profile for
meteorological studies and predictions.
SYSTEMS - A spinoff company formed to commercialize NASA high-data-rate
telemetry technology, manufactures a high-speed processing system for commercial
RESEARCH - NASA research on future moon and Mars bases is investigating
using plants for food, oxygen, and water to reduce the need for outside
supplies. This research utilizes Hydroponics (liquid nutrient solutions) instead
of soil to support plant growth and finds applications for vegetable production
RESISTANT MATERIAL - Materials include chemically-treated fabric for sheets,
uniforms for hazardous material handlers, crew's clothing, furniture, interior
walls of submersibles and auto racer and refueler
INSULATION - Aluminized polymer film is highly effective radiation barrier
for both manned and unmanned spacecraft. Variations of this space-devised
material are also used as an energy conservation technique for homes and
offices. The materials are placed between wall studs and exterior facing before
siding or between roof support and roof sheathing. The radiant barrier blocks
95% of radiant energy. Successful retrofit installations include schools and
shrink wrap ovens.
and Medicine - NASA Spinoffs
IMAGING BREAST BIOPSY SYSTEM - The LORAD Stereo Guide Breast Biopsy system
incorporates advanced Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs) as part of a digital camera
system. The resulting device images breast tissue more clearly and efficiently.
Known as stereotactic large-core needle biopsy, this nonsurgical system
developed with Space Telescope Technology is less traumatic and greatly reduces
the pain, scarring, radiation exposure, time, and money associated with surgical
CANCER DETECTION - A solar cell sensor is positioned directly beneath x-ray
film, and determines exactly when film has received sufficient radiation and has
been exposed to optimum density. Associated electronic equipment then sends a
signal to cut off the x-ray source. Reduction of mammography x-ray exposure
reduces radiation hazard and doubles the number of patient exams per
ANGIOPLASTY - Laser angioplasty with a "cool" type of laser, caller an
excimer laser, does not damage blood vessel walls and offers precise
non-surgical cleanings of clogged arteries with extraordinary precision and
fewer complications than in balloon angioplasty.
SKIN DAMAGE ASSESSMENT - Advanced instrument using NASA ultrasound
technology enables immediate assessment of burn damage depth, improving patient
treatment, and may save lives in serious burn
TISSUE STIMULATOR - Employing NASA satellite technology, the device is
implanted in the body to help patient control chronic pain and involuntary
motion disorders through electrical stimulation of targeted nerve centers or
particular areas of the brain.
SUIT - Custom-made suit derived from space suits circulates coolant through
tubes to lower patient's body/ temperature, producing dramatic improvement of
symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other
PACEMAKER - Incorporating multiple NASA technologies, the system consists of
the implant and a physician's computer console containing the programming and a
data printer. Communicates through wireless telemetry
SCREENING - NASA image processing techniques are used to detect eye problems
in very young children. An electronic flash from a 35-millimeter camera sends
light into the child's eyes, and a photorefractor analyzes the retinal reflexes,
producing an image of each eye.
URINALYSIS - NASA fluid dynamics studies helped development of system that
automatically extracts and transfers sediment from urine sample to an analyzer
microscope, replacing the manual centrifuge
GAS ANALYZER - Astronaut-monitoring technology used to develop system to
monitor operating rooms for analysis of anesthetic gasses and measurement of
oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen concentrations to assure proper breathing
environment for surgery patients.
WHEELCHAIR - NASA teleoperator and robot technology used to develop chair
and manipulator that respond to 35 one-word voice commands utilizing a
minicomputer to help patient perform daily tasks, like picking up packages,
opening doors, and turning on appliances.
Productivity/Manufacturing Technology - NASA Spinoffs
LIQUIDS - Based on the NASA-developed ferrofluid concept involving synthetic
fluids that can be positioned and controlled by magnetic force, the ferrofluidic
seal was initially applied in a zero-leakage, nonwearing seal for the rotating
shaft of a system used to make semiconductor chips, solving a persistent
problem‹contamination due to leaking seals.
SENSOR SYSTEM - Laser-based automated welder for industrial use incorporates
a laser sensor system originally designed for Space Shuttle External Tank to
track the seam where two pieces of metal are to be joined, measures gaps and
minute misfits, and automatically corrects the welding torch distance and
- Based on a concept for optical communications over interplanetary distances,
microlasers were developed for the commercial market to transmit communication
signals and to drill, cut, or melt materials.
BEARING SYSTEM - Bearings developed from Space Shuttle designs support
moving machinery without physical contact, permitting motion without friction or
wear, and are now used in electric power generation, petroleum refining, machine
tool operation, and natural gas pipelines.
LUBRICANT - A NASA-developed plasma-sprayed coating is used to coat valves
in a new, ten-inch-long, four-cylinder rotary engine, eliminating the need for
lubricating the rotorcam, which has no crankshaft, flywheel, distributor, or
COMPUTER TRAINING - Known as Interactive Multimedia Training (IMT),
originally developed to train astronauts and space operations personnel, now
utilized by the commercial sector to train new employees and upgrade worker
skills, using a computer system that engages all the senses, including text,
video, animation, voice, sounds, and music.
WATERSTRIPPING - Technology developed for preparing Space Shuttle solid
rocket boosters first evolved into the U.S. Air Force's Large Aircraft Robotic
Paint Stripping (LARPS) system, and now used in the commercial airline industry,
where the waterjet processing reduces coating removal time by 90 percent, using
only water at ultra-high pressures up to 55,000
WELDING TORCH - Based on the Variable Polarity Plasma Arc welding
technology, a handheld torch originally developed for joining light alloys used
in NASA's External Tank, is now used by major appliance manufacturers for sheet
Safety - NASA Spinoffs
HAZARD DETECTOR - NASA technology has made commercially available new,
inexpensive, conveniently carried device for protection of people exposed to
potentially dangerous levels of microwave radiation. Weighing only 4 ounces and
about the size of a cigarette pack, it can be carried in a shirt pocket or
clipped to a belt. Unit sounds an audible alarm when microwave radiation reaches
a preset level.
RESPONSE ROBOT - Remotely-operated robot reduces human injury levels by
performing hazardous tasks that would otherwise be handled by
ALARM SYSTEM - Pen-sized ultrasonic transmitter used by prison guards,
teachers, the elderly, and disabled to call for help is based on space telemetry
technology. Pen transmits a silent signal to receiver that will display the
exact location of the emergency.
RESCUE CUTTERS - Lightweight cutters for freeing accident victims from
wreckage developed using NASA pyrotechnic
AIR TANKS - Lighter-weight firefighter's air tanks have been developed. New
back-pack system weighs only 20 lbs. for 30 minute air supply, 13 lbs. less than
conventional firefighting tanks. They are pressurized at 4,500 psia (twice
current tanks). A warning device tells the fireman when he or she is running out
STORM WARNING SYSTEM - Lightning detector gives 30-minute warning to
golfers, boaters, homeowners, business owners, and private
LIFE RAFT - Developed for the Apollo program, fully inflates in 12 seconds
and protects lives during extremely adverse weather conditions with
self-righting and gravity compensation features.
- NASA Spinoffs
WINTER TIRES - Viking Lander parachute shroud material is adapted and used
to manufacture radial tires, increasing the tire material's chainlike molecular
structure to five times the strength of steel should increase tread life by
BRAKES - New, high-temperature composite space materials provide for better
brake linings. Applications include trucks, industrial equipment and passenger
PURIFICATION - A laminar airflow technique used in NASA clean rooms for
contamination-free assembly of space equipment is used at tollbooths on bridges
and turnpikes to decrease the toll collector's inhalation of exhaust
SAVING TECHNOLOGY - NASA research on composite materials is used to achieve
a 30-percent weight reduction in a twin-turbine helicopter, resulting in a
substantial increase in aircraft performance.
AIRCRAFT ENGINE - Multiple NASA developed technological advancements
resulted in a cleaner, quieter, more economical commercial aircraft engine known
as the high bypass turbofan, featuring a 10-percent reduction in fuel
consumption, lower noise levels, and emission reductions of oxides of nitrogen,
carbon monoxide, and unburned hydrocarbons.
LUBRICANTS - An environmental-friendly lubricant designed to support the
Space Shuttle Mobile Launcher Platform led to the development of three
commercial lubricants for railroad track maintenance, for electric power company
corrosion prevention, and as a hydraulic fluid with an oxidation life of 10,000
STORAGE SYSTEM - The Flywheel Energy Storage system, derived from two
NASA-sponsored energy storage studies, is a chemical-free, mechanical battery
that harnesses the energy of a rapidly spinning wheel and stores it as
electricity with 50 times the capacity of a lead-acid battery, very useful for
WING DESIGN FOR CORPORATE JETS - NASA-developed computer programs resulted
in an advanced, lighter, more aerodynamically-efficient new wing for Gulfstream
TO SCHOOL BUS DESIGN - Manufacturer uses three separate NASA-developed
technologies originally developed for aviation and space use in their design and
testing of a new school bus chassis. These technologies are a structural
analysis computer program infrared stress measurement system, and a ride quality
spinoffs in this area include: Safer bridges, emission testing, airline
wheelchairs, electric car, auto
Author Edward McKeown is a writer and editor