In 2013 I wrote the following in response to a call for papers from the National Academy of Sciences on the importance of human spaceflight to the United States, to be submitted to the Committee on Human Spaceflight. The papers were asked to address three main questions: 1) What benefits are provided by human spaceflight endeavors? 2) What are the greatest challenges to maintaining a human spaceflight program? 3) What are the ramifications of the U.S. ending its human spaceflight program.
Input Paper to the Committee on Human Spaceflight
The United States and international community benefit from the scientific and engineering knowledge gained as well as the economic growth from human spaceflight endeavors: government and private. A human presence in space can greatly multiply the number and quality of science objectives that can be accomplished. Humans working in space and on the surface of other moons, planets or other objects in the solar system can collect more data for scientific investigation than using tele-robotics or Earth-based remote sensing. Many investigations scientists would like to pursue are based on direct observation of humans living and working in space, focusing on the life and human sciences: biology, fitness, nutrition, psychology, etc.
Having a human spaceflight program also allows for greater mission flexibility than robotic or remote sensing missions. Often while investigating one scientific inquiry, more questions will arise which would require mission objectives to change if these new questions are to be pursued. Having humans performing the mission allows for that kind of flexibility, rather than a highly specialized robot or instrument that could not attempt a task it was not designed for.
Infrastructure and industry must be built up that consists of government and private companies cooperating in providing support to human spaceflight. These activities foster innovation when it comes to developing the engineering and technological systems to make human spaceflight possible. These technologies can often then be taken from the human spaceflight realm and used in an entirely different application benefiting not only astronauts but citizens of the US and of the whole world.
Five servicing missions were flown by Space Shuttle crews to the Hubble Space Telescope to conduct repair and upgrade EVA’s on the telescope’s components — an excellent example of human spaceflight complimenting robotic spaceflight. (STS-103, Servicing Mission 3A , FloridaToday.com)
This infrastructure to support a human spaceflight program generates jobs in all sectors of the economy across the US and contributes to the health and growth of the economy. Eventually a space economy can develop and will bring even more wealth to the nation and the world, improving quality of life. Resources such as water, minerals and solar energy are widely available without traveling far from cislunar space and will be necessary if human civilization is to continue to improve and grow.
Human spaceflight gives a face to the whole of the science community. Because if its high visibility with the public, and its adventurous nature, this visibility helps inspire new generations of scientists, engineers, technologists and science educators more effectively than just passing money into STEM education programs. A supply of new innovators in the US economy are essential to maintaining economic prosperity and a technological advantage for the country.
When the endeavors of humans exploring space are seen, it instills an optimistic outlook for the future of all life on Earth. A space program that works towards improving life on Earth, expanding our knowledge of our place in the universe and eventually providing the foundation for which to build a space faring civilization upon — securing survival of Earth life — gives hope for all of Earth and the attitude that will drive further ambitions of improvement and innovation.
All of humanity is brought together when we watch the human explorers venture beyond the comfort of our planet. In experiencing the thrill of discovery, adventure and exploration we also experience humility by seeing ourselves from another perspective, as inhabitants of an island oasis in the vast sea of space. This new view of our place in the universe brings people together like no diplomacy or religion has ever been able to accomplish.
To accomplish these outcomes of human spaceflight, initial burdens must be overcome. The research, development and operating costs of a human spaceflight program are often pointed at as a great challenge. Scientific investigations which make up the bulk of the current human spaceflight activities rarely result in monetary gain from the end-product technologies developed using the new knowledge. But a government program that pushes through the initial phases of operating at a loss will prove reliable technologies that enable real economic growth off the surface of the Earth. When private organizations find that the technology is financially within reach, they will expand into space to take advantage of economic opportunities, and invent new opportunities to make human spaceflight profitable.
The United States would lose its position as de facto leader in space exploration if NASA’s human spaceflight program was terminated. The image of being at the forefront, the leading edge of technological progress and pioneering adventure that human spaceflight exemplifies would be lost, in addition to all the valuable scientific opportunities, and the associated economic growth surrounding human spaceflight. An image of being the world leader in spaceflight translates into the image of the nation as a whole and that tarnished image would negatively affect the status of the US as world leader in science as well as diplomacy and international relations.
The role of a human spaceflight program is justifiable based on its scientific gains alone. But taking into account the effect of human spaceflight in the country’s economy, future and international image leaves little room for argument against maintaining a strong and constant presence of humans in space.