Politics & Policy

Where No Robot Has Gone Before

Back to basics for NASA.

There’s an old joke about the man who asks his neighbor to turn down the loud, raucous noise emitting from her stereo.

“What’s the matter, are you a music hater?” “No,” he replies, “I’m a music lover.”

I’m reminded of this by the calls of some over the years to end the space-shuttle program, even (perhaps especially) by people who are frustrated by our lack of progress in space. In the wake of the latest tragedy, the calls will undoubtedly grow louder, but in many cases, even if correct, they will be for the wrong reasons, and may not lead to the desired outcome. With the loss of another orbiter, policymakers are going to be looking for answers, about what to do — not only to minimize the chances of a recurrence with our smaller and now less-resilient fleet, but what should follow. Here are the kinds of questions that will be asked:

— Does the shuttle need to be replaced?

— How much capability should the vehicle that replaces it have?

— Should it serve military as well as civil needs?

— Should it be a new reusable vehicle, or perhaps a small winged vehicle to go on top of an expendable?

— Should we stop sending people into space and just “do it with robots”?

These are the wrong questions, however, at least for now. The last one in particular is egregiously pointless, because we don’t even know what “it” is.

If history is any guide, policymakers won’t ask the right questions, the useful questions, those fundamental metaquestions that haven’t been asked since the dawn of the space age and NASA’s founding. First and foremost among them are: Why do we have a “space program”? What are we trying to accomplish?

Every press interview, every congressional hearing, every blue-ribbon commission assumes answers to that question, and the assumption is assumed to be shared, and none of those assumptions are ever questioned.

They must be, because they’re not as obvious as many think, and they’re definitely not shared, at least by me, and I suspect by many others as well.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, when NASA was formed, the answer was easy. It was to beat those godless commies to the moon, and thus demonstrate the inherent superiority of a democratic socialist state enterprise for space exploration over a totalitarian socialist state enterprise for space exploration. Oh, and while we’re at it, Lyndon Johnson would like us to help industrialize the south.

Of course, it was couched in loftier terms. We were exploring space, for all mankind. Later, after we won the moon race, the real reason transmogrified to “maintain jobs in Houston, Huntsville, Florida, and California, and other key congressional districts,” while maintaining the “exploration and science” fig leaf. At the end of the Cold War, the new real reason became “maintain jobs, and provide midnight basketball programs for Russian scientists, so they won’t sell nukes to Kim Il Sung and Saddam.” But if anyone asks, we’re doing it for “science and exploration.” And maybe a little “international cooperation.”

Science has never been a good justification for a manned space program. It’s simply too expensive, compared to all other federal science programs, particularly the way that NASA goes about it. But more to the point, by focusing on this purpose of the space program, and excluding all others, it allows people to ask questions like “why don’t we do it with robots?”

There are some space missions that will just never be jobs for robots. Building an orbital infrastructure that can both mine useful asteroids and comets, and deflect errant ones about to wipe out civilization, is unlikely to be done with robots. Building orbital laboratories in which biochemical and nanotechnological research can be carried out safely is unlikely to be practically done with robots. A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon, would be pointless, and find few customers, if we weren’t sending up people. Establishing off-world settlements to get at least some of humanity’s eggs out of the current single fragile physical and political basket is not exactly a job for a robot.

If we decide that any or all of those are national goals — that we truly want to become a space-faring nation and planet, then the robot question becomes superfluous, and it’s clear that they’ll never be accomplished with anything remotely resembling the shuttle, or for that matter, any existing launch system. It’s equally clear that they won’t be accomplished by simply continuing to fund a centralized state space bureaucracy. For those, we will need a space program that represents the traditional American values of entrepreneurship, individualism, and free enterprise, features notably absent from our manned space activities throughout the history of the program, for the past four-plus decades.

For too long, our space policy has been running on the sterile inertia of past mistakes. This latest catastrophe should be viewed as an opportunity to finally, for the first time since the early 1960s, have a real, scraping-it-down-to-the-bare-metal debate on U.S. space policy — what our national goals should be, and the best means to achieve them. That might include rethinking whether NASA itself, a child of that original Cold-War imperative, should continue in its current form, or revert back to its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, whose research was the technological basis of the modern aviation industry.

The post-Columbia discussion should include a look at how all federal agencies help or impede progress. For example, consider current ITAR regulations, which classify launch vehicles as munitions and therefore subject to stringent controls (often to the point of making it impossible to even discuss design issues with Canadian employees without notification six months in advance to the State Department). Or consider launch-licensing uncertainties, which deter investors (who despise uncertainty) from investing in new space transports because the FAA hasn’t yet decided if rocket planes will be managed by the branch of that agency that regulates airplanes, which has one set of stringent (and perhaps unaffordable and inapplicable, for a nascent industry) certification requirements, or another, which licenses launches, but is currently oriented toward disposable vehicles, rather than the routine space transports necessary for low-cost reliable access to space.

Other agenda items should probably include off-planet property rights, and whether remaining in the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty (another relic of the Cold War), which prohibits claims of national sovereignty, is in our national interest (or the world’s, for that matter).

The debate about the future of space exploration should include the American people, and what they want to do in space, not just what they want, like voyeurs, to watch either government employees or robots do.

But it all starts by asking the right questions. And, by the way, that’s not robot work, either.

— Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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