Is the purpose of deep space exploration pure science or proving humanity's worth? – The Space Review

Elon Musk discusses his Mars mission architecture at the International Astronautical Congress last September. Are the efforts of Musk and others putting too much emphasis on human spaceflight at the cost of science? (credit: J. Foust)


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It almost certainly begins with a head tilted toward the night sky—that burst of wandering imagination that compels our fingers to trace paths between the stars, wonder out loud what it might have been like for astronauts to step on the Moon, and whisper under the sheets our scenarios of alien encounters in the backyard.

It’s not just private sector moguls that are sensationalizing doomsday scenarios to justify humanity’s move into the cosmos.

These are the same images, pounded into our heads by pop culture, media, and science fiction novels, which have informed our relationship to everything unearthly. And, they get played out over and over again with each new discussion on the future of human spaceflight. It’s a hopeful narrative that has been adopted by almost every leading figure in the space industry, but with an explicit worldly prerogative that’s often pushed before concrete scientific discovery: “We need to get to space because…”

Consider Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO and poster boy for commercial spaceflight, who regularly espouses such ultimatum rhetoric, arguing that we must colonize Mars to save the human race from the impending doom of ecological destruction or certain extinction on Earth. For him, it’s a matter of life or death.

Or, think toward Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon and creator of Blue Origin, who said at a conference that he didn’t want a “Plan B” for Earth; rather, he wanted to use space to save Earth, by turning the extraterrestrial realm into an industrial complex. And, it’s not just private sector moguls that are sensationalizing doomsday scenarios to justify humanity’s move into the cosmos.

US presidents since the beginning of the Space Age have used anthropocentric language, alongside common securitizing and frontiers logic, to advocate for the importance of not only space exploration, but also human influence in the extraterrestrial realm. Four years after the Soviets had made their presence known with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, President John F. Kennedy called upon Congress to turn its attention toward a space program with “urgent need”:

If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take…

Now is the time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.

President Obama echoed this sentiment in a similar recent essay. He appealed to the public’s childish imagination, while also hinting toward a need for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to building NASA’s space program and getting humans to Mars for the sake of security:

One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders, waving a flag as our astronauts returned to Hawaii. This was years before we’d set foot on the Moon…

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.

To be clear, the scientific community believes going to Mars is a genuine possibility. For instance, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and US National Space Policy outline a plan to have astronauts going to asteroids by 2025 and then on to the Red Planet not too long after. Research by the agency in the years since has been directed towards achieving the long-term Mars goal.

Do we see space as a venue for scientific intrigue and discovery, or does the public view deep space exploration and Mars as the platform for another Earth?

Most will agree that going to Mars should absolutely be a goal of space travel. And, there’s no doubt that putting humans on Mars will lead to more scientific discovery. But, fewer people will recognize the importance of developing space science for the sake of science.

A simple search of Mars-related articles will show that when it comes to reaching other worlds, the state of humanity is a top concern. Government leaders, Musk, Bezos, and other private sector space leaders have continuously pushed humans to the forefront of their mission statements.

This reality and our empirical relationship to spaceflight begs yet another question on the human relationship to science: Do we see space as a venue for scientific intrigue and discovery, or does the public view deep space exploration and Mars as the platform for another Earth? And, what are the consequences of the answer?

To explore the question and whether there are side effects to an anthropocentrically-driven mindset toward space, we must consider our historical ties to the Space Age, imagination, and science. The consequence of the current paradigm is a potentially dangerous undervaluing of scientific knowledge. The decision to deemphasize scientific reality may actually render space unsafe for humanity.

Space exploration to satisfy human imagination and desire

Humanity’s imagination has been, and will always be, a central theme to space exploration. It’s the curiosity of what could be known that intrinsically drives us to explore frontiers and search for answers. But, there’s another factor involved as people advance into different environments: personal desire.

Howard E. McCurdy, in his book Space and the American Imagination, charts over the development of the Space Age where these two factors intersect and how it has affected American decision-making when it came to planetary exploration. McCurdy says that, more often than not, the intricacies of elements like “cosmic radiation or toxic atmospheres” are replaced by “metaphors” of innovation and discovery. These ideas were so compelling and satisfying for the desires of the American public that even the wildest notions extraterrestrial exploration seemed believable.

However, as he comments on a photo of the 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars, “the reality of space exploration, during the early years of venture,” was far different from the “romantic vision offered by advocates of cosmic flight.” This reality, he writes, means that “truth or validity of the vision” is often irrelevant to the feasibility of its undertaking.

Once scientists embarked on space research, they could not have anticipated how truly costly and difficult the process would have been, or the fact that finding lifeforms in other worlds would have probably fallen short. Yet, this pristine vision of exploration could persist beyond the scientific actuality. And, one thing was always clear: when it came to Earthlings considering space travel, the Earth still had to somehow be involved.

NASA could have very well developed an “impressive program of scientific discovery,” centered on “satellite technology, or the emerging science of remote sensing,” but it would not have satisfied the public’s hungry imagination to see itself in a new light.

“If technological civilizations engage in space exploration for sufficiently long periods of time (say millions of years), they may do so in forms that are unrecognizable to species just beginning the venture,” wrote McCurdy. “Yet for earthlings contemplating the possibility of space travel in its initial stages, the vision of human travel to and from the Moon and inner planets dominated their collective imagination.”

This empirical root of a human-centric mindset could explain why for so many space industry leaders the statement, “We need to get to space because…” almost certainly ends with a clause on humanity or the fate of the Earth.

As McCurdy even says, NASA could have very well developed an “impressive program of scientific discovery,” centered on “satellite technology, or the emerging science of remote sensing,” but it would not have satisfied the public’s hungry imagination to see itself in a new light. The human simply could not be taken out of the equation.

Subsequently, leaders of rocket societies, lacking an eminent US scientist to serve as a spokesperson, committed themselves to the grandiose goal of human spaceflight well before the technology had even been conceived.

And today, this divide between the scientist and the American public seems to persist. For instance, the Pew Research Center found in its 2015 report, “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” that while both groups value contributions of science, there are large gaps on how each perceive technical aspects of scientific issues. The center’s 2014 survey of adults and scientists from the American Association for Advancement of Science, found that 59 percent of Americans “view that human astronauts are an essential part of future U.S. space exploration,” while only 47 percent of AAAS scientists say they are essential.

Even more reflective of the divide between the public and scientific experts is the fact that the original Space Act, which laid out the eight main objectives of the US civilian space program. contained no mention of humanity’s hold over space as an environment.

Rather, at the forefront of NASA’s mission was the “expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space,” the establishment of studies that would use aerospace activities “for peaceful and scientific purposes,” and “the preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology,” according to research from the Committee on Human Spaceflight. NASA’s plan intended for a balanced program of science and the possibility of human flight to the Moon beyond 1970.

But it was this drive within the American imagination and a desire for international primacy that McCurdy writes about, which pushed Congress to increase NASA’s budget by 89 percent and extraordinarily put a man on the Moon safely before the end of the decade. The spirit of the human undoubtedly resulted in one of the nation’s greatest scientific triumphs of the century. This reality cannot be underplayed.

Still, in 1986, the National Commission on Space in a report to Congress made it very clear that that while there is “no doubt that exploring, prospecting and settling Mars should be the ultimate goal of human space exploration,” NASA should maintain a strategy to “continue an orderly expansion outward from Earth.” The authors of the report note that every scientific advisory panel that has come together on human spaceflight says that first and foremost the mission of the program should be to “promote science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and education.”

McCurdy later goes on to outline this prevailing gap between NASA’s actual experience in trying to build technology and a persistent desire within the public for the romanticized “space station.” Many looked toward this technology as a pathway for colonizing other worlds, perhaps providing an escape from the difficulties that exist on Earth.

He summarizes the point succinctly in another piece for Technology In Society, where he writes, “ultimately, the willingness to invest in human space flight gained justification from a general cultural desire to extend some part of humanity into the cosmos.” He quotes NASA official Frank Martin, who also perfectly characterizes public reaction to technological innovations that don’t involve humans: “We don’t give ticker tape parades for robots.”

The subject of human-prioritized space exploration, which emphasizes the importance of preserving humanity, has a potential consequence of not only undervalued scientific knowledge, but also manipulated knowledge.

These statements suggest that humans will always be at the forefront of space travel and that entrepreneurs interested in getting to space, like Musk, are perhaps not so nefarious in spreading doomsday rhetoric. Rather, they are exploiting a clear reality—the only way to make their missions a possibility in the public’s eye is for the “technical” aspects of science to sit in the backseat.

“Given sufficient time, a new space exploration paradigm may emerge. Over the years advocates of robotic and human cooperation have envisioned the two exploring space together,” writes McCurdy in his article. “But even in this vision, the two remained separate entities—master and servant, owner and slave, flesh and machine.

The human condition and undervaluing of science

The empirical evidence of emphasis on humanity within space exploration is likely to elicit a response of “So what?”

It’s valid for anyone to buy into the lofty sentiments of space entrepreneurs who essentially say that leaving Earth is the only option for humanity’s survival. “I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humanity]: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out,” said Musk at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September. “The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”

Even Hannah Arendt, a Jewish-American philosopher, as early as 1958, pondered the possibility of re-creating life beyond the Earth when she witnessed the Soviets launch Sputnik I into cosmos just a year before. She predicted in her book The Human Condition the emergence of theories that are now being supported by leading space figures:

Foremost in our minds at this moment is of course the enormously increased human power of destruction, that we are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself…

However, no less awesome and no less difficult to come to terms with is the corresponding new creative power…we have begun to populate the space surrounding the earth with man-made stars, creating as it were, in the form of satellites new heavenly bodies, and we hope that in a not very distant future we shall be able to perform what times before us regarded as the greatest, the deepest, and holiest secrets of nature, to create or re-create the miracle of life…

The subject of human-prioritized space exploration, which emphasizes the importance of preserving humanity, has a potential consequence of not only undervalued scientific knowledge, but also manipulated knowledge, she writes. Scientific pursuits, especially the conquest of space, move forward with an explicit point of proving the “stature of man.”

For instance, when it comes to Mars exploration, Robert Markley in his article, “Red Planet Scientific and Cultural Encounters,” charts NASA and the public’s interest in continuing to research even the possibility of going to the Red Planet. He argues that each renewed endeavor was the product of whether or not the NASA was able to find details on Mars that pointed toward life. Whether or not a mission was too much of an investment depended on public interest so much so that decisions were made even if it wasn’t the right time.

The Mars Mariner program, he writes, was “an ambitious prelude to a heroic but overhyped strategy to colonize Mars before 2020.” There wasn’t enough valuable emphasis on the technological advances or feasibility of the idea. And of course, the US had to scale it back because it was too far of a leap.

The same mentality persists now and will have the consequence of undermining the importance of scientific certainty. Arendt, in her book, offers a historical example of Galileo’s discovery of the telescope. Rather than being seen as having great potential for scientific innovation and discovery, it was turned into an affirmation of humanity’s potential. Its main purpose was therefore undermined:

Instead of the dichotomy between earth and sky we have a new one between man and the universe, or between the capacities of the human mind for understanding and the universal laws which man can discover and handle without true comprehension.

With eager private sector leaders now seeing space an absolute for human beings, there is a grave potential that failure to check ambitions with fact and scientific reality will render space unusable.

When it comes to outer space, the threat of astrophysics was the “abstraction of thought from reason and common sense,” writes Lisa Messeri in her book Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. For her, the proof lies within the real gap between public views and the scientific community’s views the feasibility of certain space activities.

Messeri shows how Arendt’s point about the manipulation of scientific knowledge for the purpose of proving humanity’s worth is still a valid concern:

In searching for habitable planets, astronomers confront the changing ways they can inhabit their places of science. No longer do they simply dwell at the observatory; they also inhabit increasingly distributed sociotechnical networks…

Going to the observatory will not soon fade from practice, but it will be driven more and more by a need to be in place and connect to history of the pression less and less by a scientific need… the making of habitability as the definitive metric of an exoplanet that would have the greatest human significance.

The increasing insignificance of science in favor of lofty humanistic ambitions presents a general disservice to society. And it’s a trend that will ultimately be our undoing in space. While there is discussion about the need to go to deep space, there is far less conversation on what must be done and considered from a scientific point before traversing new environments. Continued de-emphasis on the research will mean that we miss important realities on the feasibility of our endeavors.

To put into perspective the real world impact of such ignorance just on one level, officials at NASA now estimates that there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit. A hypervelocity impact with one of these objects produces enough kinetic energy that even the smallest fragment could completely destroy a satellite.

NASA scientist Donald Kessler recognized the danger of space debris as early as 1978, predicting that debris could cascade in a chain reaction that made low Earth orbit unusable for spacecraft. With eager private sector leaders now seeing space an absolute for human beings, there is a grave potential that failure to check ambitions with fact and scientific reality will render space unusable.

Thus, seeing space as the Plan B and making humans the point of exploration may have an unintended consequence: environmental and commercial destruction on Earth could be manifested within this extraterrestrial environment. Perhaps, an emphasis on scientific reality could mitigate the side effects of our unchecked ambitions.