Friday, 5 July 2013

Spaceflight epiphany

We need more of this
While 'Spaceflight Epiphany' sounds like it should be a NASA project, it is actually an account of my personal experience. I've had a big change of heart on the value of getting people into space.

For many years I have subscribed to the view, supported by many scientists, that putting people in space is a painful waste of money. A manned mission costs vastly more than automated probes, which means there is much less money available to do the science. We have got most of our valuable scientific knowledge about the universe from the likes of Hubble, WMAP and Planck, not from Space Shuttle and the ISS.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg points out the way that a major science project, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), was abandoned because the funds went instead to the International Space Station (ISS). The SSC would have been significantly more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and would have achieved results a good ten years earlier. This would have been a major step in major science research.

By comparison, ten times as much money has been spent on the ISS as was due to go to the SSC, but it has yielded nothing of scientific value. All the useful space science, Weinberg points out, has been done using unmanned satellites. “In the days of the cold war,” Weinberg commented, “perhaps it really was important to America to be the first country to put a man on the Moon and not let it be Russia, but today I think that really is irrelevant. The United States is not now in competition with any country resembling the Soviet Union and we do not need to show we are technically just as competent as they are. Any argument of national prestige that could have been valid in the 1960s is certainly not valid 50 years later."

At the moment I am writing my next book, which is about space exploration, and in doing so I have recaptured some of the excitement I felt during the Apollo mission - the same excitement that provides part of the reason for loving science fiction like Star Trek or James Blish's Cities in Flight series. The 'epiphany' word reflects my belief that Weinberg is wrong.

It's true that with a few exceptions, like the Shuttle mission that fixed the problems with the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror that initially rendered it useless, humans have contributed a negligible amount of the scientific value of space missions. But, much though I love science, life (and specifically space exploration) is not all about the science. Scientists inevitably overvalue the scientific component of any activity, but in reality there is more to life – and in the case of manned space exploration, more to making life worth living.

The fact is that manned space exploration - and I mean going back to the Moon, to Mars, to the asteroids... even one day to the stars, not messing about in the ISS, as far away from Earth as Boston is from Philadelphia - is one of humanity's greatest achievements and really is worth doing for its own sake. It may be corny, but all that final frontier stuff really is true. We should be out there, exploring, pioneering, indulging our curiosity. Because it's what we do best.

And if we stop, we lose a part of our humanity.

Image from NASA via Wikipedia

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