Tuesday, November 18, 2014

To Be or Not To Be

Carl Sagan lectures in December 1988 at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Video source; The Book Archive YouTube channel. You may be subjected to an ad first.

The USA Today editorial board published an opinion column on November 10 which seemed to conclude that the recent Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic accidents prove that humans should no longer go into space, because it's too dangerous and costly. Robots can do it cheaper and more safely.

The editorial begins by dismissing NewSpace commercial enterprises, claiming they rely on “thermal rocketry” which is too expensive, and that they rely too much on tax dollars. But then they conclude that “the most exciting things to come from private enterprise, just as from NASA, are likely to involve putting machines in space, not humans.”

The USA Today editorial is so confused that the authors don't even understand the difference between a thermal rocket, which would be a nuclear or solar powered vehicle, and a chemical rocket, which is today's common propulsion such as used on Antares and SpaceShipTwo.

Some commercial enterprises, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR, receive no tax dollars. They're 100% funded by private investors, although some day the government might be a customer.

Setting aside the article's rhetorical muddle, it seemed intended to provoke yet another round in the endless debate over the value of human spaceflight versus robotics.

The European Space Agency made history on November 12, 2014 when the Rosetta mission's Philae lander settled on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

The first image from the surface of a comet, released November 13. Image source: European Space Agency.

The comet is 319 million miles from Earth, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

No human lives were risked.

The cost was 1.4 billion euros, or about $1.7 billion, a pittance compared to the cost of a human mission. At a June 25 hearing of the House Science Committee, the co-chairs of a team that delivered a report called Pathways to Exploration estimated that a human spaceflight to Mars could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might not be achieved until the 2050s.

But the Philae mission ended prematurely. The lander's harpoons failed to fire, so the lander bounced around the surface, settling a kilometer from its intended site. The result was that the solar panels were unable to fully recharge. ESA reported the primary science mission was completed before Philae went into hibernation mode, but much more work had been planned.

It takes about a half-hour for a signal to travel between Rosetta and Earth, meaning an hour for a problem to be reported and a fixing command to be received.

What if Rosetta had a human operator who was able to navigate Philae in real time? Might the problems have been avoided? Would a human presence have been worth the additional expense and risk?

Twenty-six years ago, astronomer and science populist Carl Sagan delivered a lecture at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in which he ridiculed any scientific justification for human spaceflight.

This lecture was a little less than three years after the Challenger accident. The Space Shuttle had resumed flights only three months earlier. President Ronald Reagan had proposed Space Station Freedom in January 1984, but that project was nowhere close to completion; in fact, the House of Representatives came within one vote of cancelling the Space Station in June 1993.

Sagan claimed that, “Other things being equal, robotic spacecraft costs tens of times less than a comparable manned mission.” He also complained that it had been ten years since a planetary spacecraft mission had been launched. “The United States has opted out of planetary exploration,” he declared.

Planetary Society co-founders Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman. Image source: KPCC-FM.

Being an astronomer, Sagan of course had his own interests. His co-founding The Planetary Society in 1980 was intended to “demonstrate — simply by its existence — that the public strongly supported planetary exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life and to wave that fact in the faces of politicians and policy makers around the world,” according to their web site.

Other space advocacy groups existed, such as the National Space Institute and the L5 Society; the latter in particular was founded to promote human space settlement. (The two would merge in 1987.) Why another?

Sagan's activism could be perceived as capitalizing on his popularity to steer limited government space dollars away from human spaceflight to robotic planetary science. In a December 1980 essay published in The Planetary Report, Sagan wrote that “a vigorous program of unmanned planetary exploration would cost about a tenth of a percent of the federal budget; the Voyager spacecraft, when they are finished with their explorations, will have cost about a penny a world for every inhabitant of the planet Earth.”

During his December 1988 GWU lecture, Sagan was far more strident in dismissing human spaceflight.

There is nothing in robotic exploration of the planets, in great astronomical observatories in Earth orbit, in instruments in Earth orbit monitoring the health of our global environment, that requires people. It is much more cost-effective, and in some cases much more reliable, to use robots than humans. Nevertheless, NASA is strongly oriented towards manned and womaned spaceflight. As all ongoing bureaucracies, it probably needs a reason to continue flying people.

Sagan recounted the origins of the 1960s human lunar spaceflight program. “Apollo was a political program,” he said, not a scientific program. “Programs of that magntitude are driven by political, not scientific, reasons.”

In Sagan's view, during the post-Apollo era, “NASA has been left to design its own justification, and when any bureaucracy is left to do that, it does what all bureaucracies do — it attempts to preserve the jobs of everybody who’s employed at that particular moment, and you get a very interesting pastiche of unrelated programs.”

At the time of this speech, Mikhail Gorbachev had just become chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, consolidating his rule of the Soviet Union. His policies of glasnost and perestroika were opening his nation to the West, and eventually led to the downfall of the Soviet empire.

Sagan, for decades a peace activist, foresaw using NASA again as a political tool to help end the Cold War.

I maintain that there is no good justification for us spending badly needed funds on a human mission to Mars other than the political goal of international cooperation with specific attention to improving relations on a long-term basis with the Soviet Union ...

There’s lots of terrific science — geology, meteorology, seismometry, possibly biology to keep scientists happy. But I stress, you could do all that with robots. The reason for sending people there has to be political.

Six years later, Sagan published Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

The title in itself was rather surprising, because for much of the last fifteen years he'd seemed to dismiss a human future in space, other than political.

(Click the image to view at a larger size.) According to The Planetary Society web site, “This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun.”

What may have changed his thinking was the “Pale Blue Dot” image taken at his suggestion by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. It showed that “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

Sagan wrote on page 171:

When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what's in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above — the whole Earth, the Earth in color; the Earth as an exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager's pale blue dot.

Those images could have been made by robots. But for Sagan, the fact that humans did it in his view created a consciousness for our species that we have a communal responsibility to protect our homeworld.

In the chapter “Scaling Heaven,” Sagan repeats his earlier arguments about government-sponsored human spaceflight being largely political. “Governments do not spend these vast sums just for science, or merely to explore. They need another purpose, and it must make real political sense.”

It's not enough to go to Mars because some of us have dreamt of doing so since childhood, or because it seems to us the obvious long-term exploratory goal for the human species. If we're talking about spending this much money, we must justify the expense.

Sagan wrote that “Human spaceflight in general — to say nothing of expeditions to Mars — would be much more readily supportable if, as in the fifteenth-century arguments of Columbus and Henry the Navigator, there were a profit lure.” But the dawn of the NewSpace era of commercial spaceflight was nearly twenty years in his future. In his time, attempts to commercialize space failed, due to the absence of visionary entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Bob Bigelow, and no Lori Garver willing to challenge a hidebound NASA bureaucracy protecting its turf.

Bigelow Aerospace founder Bob Bigelow meets on February 4, 2011 with NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Image source: Space.com.

On page 218, Sagan proposes what sounds a lot like today's NASA Asteroid Initiative:

The notion that rare materials might be available elsewhere is tempered by the fact that freightage is high. There may, for all we know, be oceans of petroleum on Titan, but transporting it to Earth will be expensive. Platinum-group metals may be abundant in certain asteroids. If we could move these asteroids into orbit around the Earth, perhaps we could conveniently mine them.

If Carl lived today, I have to wonder if he would embrace the NewSpace movement.

In my opinion, space exploration isn't a human/robotic either/or question.

Robots are a tool for humans to use as humans see fit.

Voyager, Rosetta, the Mars Curiosity rover, and other robotic missions are simply tools humans created to help them explore.

But they don't mean that humans will never follow.

They prepare the way.

If robotic technology had existed in the 15th Century, would the Spanish monarchy have sent robots instead of people in an effort to find a shorter trade route to the East Indies?


But what would those robots do when they encountered an unexpected land mass with peoples of unknown origin?

Sailing in commercially contracted vessels, Columbus used his expertise with trade winds to cross the Atlantic. He and his crews were learning how to navigate using the technology available at the time.

And that's what humanity does today on the International Space Station.

Just as did the explorers of 500 years ago, we use the technology available at the time to prepare the way for humans — not to prepare the way for the technology.

Communication signals travel at the speed of light, but that cosmic speed limit also limits our ability to remotely control robotic craft.

It takes a little over a second for signals to travel between Earth and the Moon.

But with Mars, it would be different. Depending on the positions of the planets, a signal could take anywhere from three to twenty-two minutes.

A signal one-way to Rosetta is about a half-hour.

Humans can't possibly remote-control a robot with that kind of time-delay. All they could do is program the robot with artificial intelligence and hope for the best.

So having a human nearby, perhaps manipulating the robot from the safe environment of a mother ship, could improve a mission's chances of success.

But to populate the solar system with humans means bringing down the cost while maintaining safety. That was the idea behind the birth ten years ago of NASA's commerical space programs — to build “a robust space industry” that would “become a national treasure.”

The solution for commercialization of space exploration is for NASA to help humans do what they've always done — develop and use the tools at their disposal in search of the “profit lure.”

A January 2013 Deep Space Industries promotional film.

An October 2014 Planetary Resources promotional film.

Two U.S. companies are already paving the way for commercial asteroid mining, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. A third company, Asteroid Initiatives, describes itself as an asteroid prospecting company “dedicated to leveraging the technology developed for cubesats, chipsats, and solar sails to dramatically lower the cost of asteroid exploration, making prospecting for resource exploitation and mining commercially feasible. Before you can do asteroid mining, you have to do asteroid prospecting.”

Is this much different from the technologies evolved during the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th Century?

It's no surprise that on November 13 Deep Space Industries added a mining entreprenur to its board of directors. To quote from the press release:

“Space resources is a fast-moving investment frontier and I really like DSI’s focus on using materials that are already out there,” said new Board member, Julian Malnic. “Deep Space Industries is not just an innovator in its industry, it is pioneering it. Using asteroid materials must be the primary basis for any serious development of space. I think DSI is very well positioned to do this.”

The crews on the International Space Station are learning how humanity can live “off the land” when literally there is no land.

Robotic cargo ships deliver supplies every few weeks. Machines recycle urine and sweat into drinking water. Plants are grown in microgravity. A NASA humanoid robot is aboard learning how to walk, and soon may be joined by a Russian counterpart.

On November 17, the first 3-D printer was installed. Mike Snyder, Lead Engineer for manufacturer Made in Space, said in the press release:

This experiment has been an advantageous first stepping stone to the future ability to manufacture a large portion of materials and equipment in space that has been traditionally launched from Earth surface, which will completely change our methods of exploration.

When settlers crossed the Old West, they stayed in or near forts. The forts of 21st Century expansion into the solar system will be the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats.

Computer animation of the Bigelow BEAM docking at the ISS. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.

In 2015, a test version of the habitats will be sent to the ISS for a two-year test. Called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), it will be folded inside the trunk of SpaceX Dragon CRS-8, attached to an ISS docking port using a Canadian robot arm, and then inflated.

We have the people, the tools, the resources and the profit lure.

Now it's time for history to repeat itself.

When Carl Sagan's Cosmos series aired in 1980, he led his viewers through the wonders of the universe on a mythical vessel called the Spaceship of the Imagination.

At a time when Carl opposed human spaceflight in favor of robotic craft, he was on TV leading us on a great exploration aboard a machine where a person controlled the bridge.

Perhaps it took the Pale Blue Dot for him to realize the contradiction.

If Carl were still with us, I would ask him if he might rethink his position on human spaceflight if NASA focused its talents on the “profit lure” with the Asteroid Initiative, the ISS, NewSpace partnerships and robotic spacecraft scouting the way.

In an era where planetary science still fights for scraps with other underfunded NASA programs, perhaps he'd conclude that NewSpace will awaken a new wonder in the nature of our universe — in the finest tradition of Cosmos.

Carl Sagan on the bridge of the Spaceship of the Imagination. Image source: CosmicOrigins.com.

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