A recent correspondent to Aerospace America magazine (April 2012 issue) argued that human spaceflight was, at core, a joy ride for privileged astronauts, and that robot explorers could do better and more science exploration than any human space mission. The writer further asked that advocates of human space exploration help him make sense of the cost of NASA’s current human spaceflight programs in light of the nation’s deficit troubles. I volunteered to assist, and my reply also appeared in the April 2012 issue:
Plainly, Americans wish to see a continued U.S. presence in space, and politicians, however imperfectly, reflect that priority in the budget because of the real and perceived value of human spaceflight. Our elected representatives attach enough importance to U.S. human spaceflight that they have consistently funded such a program for over fifty years.
NASA’s budget of approximately $8 billion annually for human spaceflight (about 0.2% of the federal budget) is hardly the cause of our deficit woes. Zeroing out human spaceflight will make only an imperceptible dent in the $1.3 trillion deficit the president proposes to run this year.
Those funds protect our current initiatives in space and set the stage for future exploration. We have just completed an International Space Station for a cost approaching $100B. Research aboard should deliver a future return on our investment, but we do need to maintain a crew there to conduct research and get the pay-off. Likewise, investing in our current commercial crew transport program will restore U.S. domestic access to the ISS, and lower the long-term cost of reaching the Station.
As NASA develops the means to reach beyond low Earth orbit, we solve engineering and scientific problems that serve to maintain a vigorous and healthy industrial base. This delivers to the nation a managerial and technical competitive edge that transfers directly to national defense and related technology leadership. There is no better way to stimulate our high-tech sector — other than with a war — than with a challenging program of human spaceflight.
Certainly, human spaceflight attracts human talent to our aerospace sector in a way that defense work or robotic exploration does not. Our high-tech industrial base plainly benefited from the human team forged in the Apollo years, followed by the shuttle and Space Station. Challenging our best students with tough, yet exciting problems at the frontiers of engineering and science plainly attracts talent in a way that developing better windmills or bullet trains does not. I was personally inspired in the 1960s to study science and math not so I could grow up to build better transistor radios than the Japanese, but so I might have the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts. Our nation’s determination to lead in space attracted tens of thousands like me to a technical education, and we have gone on to give our country another generation of leadership in civil aircraft manufacturing and defense technology.
The nation also benefits, as we have since Apollo, from a global perception that we are leaders in the most challenging, visible, and peaceful application of high-tech: space exploration achievement. Putting human explorers on the space frontier is the most visible expression of that leadership.
Why not just use robots to maintain this technical edge? First, other nations like China and Russia understand the prestige that flows from putting their explorers into space. Second, humans play a decisive role in solving the problems of space science and ensuring mission success. As I wrote in my March 2012 “View from Here” column, planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who supervised the missions of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and is now chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, strongly backs human exploration. In 2009 he told a Space.com interviewer:
You know, I’m a robot guy, that’s what I have spent most of my career doing, but I’m actually a very strong supporter of human spaceflight. I believe that the most successful exploration is going to be carried out by humans, not by robots.
What Spirit and Opportunity have done in five and a half [now eight] years on Mars, you and I could have done in a good week. Humans have a way to deal with surprises, to improvise, to change their plans on the spot. All you’ve got to do is look at the latest Hubble mission to see that.
And one of the most important points I think: humans have a key ability to inspire, that robots do not.
This exploration partnership between people and machines is the only way we will be able to tap the energy and raw materials available at the Moon and on nearby asteroids, resources that are the key to building a thriving industrial economy in space.
We can ensure these benefits continue to flow to our nation with a prudent investment in the future of human exploration. The Augustine Committee in 2009 estimated we will need about another $3B annually to return Americans to deep space – perhaps $10B instead of the $8B we now budget. The payoff from that investment compares favorably to the $3B spent on the worthless 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program, or the $10B our citizens wagered on last month’s Super Bowl. The president’s 2009 stimulus bill cost $787B and delivered little but added debt to our economy; it would have funded NASA’s current human spaceflight budget for 98 years.
America has the resources, even as we borrow $1.3 trillion per year, to invest a small fraction of its wealth on insuring its competitive technological and educational edge. Our elected representatives and our policy makers must choose national priorities, cut where necessary, and fund those areas that truly deliver benefits now and into the future. Human space exploration is one of those priorities where a modest investment will yield new discoveries, new wealth, and a secure future for our citizens.
Thomas D. Jones, PhD
Planetary Scientist, veteran NASA astronaut