Human Spaceflight

I have, falteringly and with various intermediary about-faces and caveats, changed my mind about human spaceflight. I am of the generation to have had its childhood imagination stoked by the sight of Apollo missions on the television — I can't put hand on heart and say I remember the Eagle landing, but I remember the sights of the moon relayed to our homes. I was fascinated by space and only through that, by way of the science fiction that a fascination with space inexorably led to, by science. And astronauts were what space was about.

I was not, as I grew older, uncritical of human spaceflight — I remember my anger at the Challenger explosion, my sense that if people were going to die, it should be for something grander than just another shuttle mission. But I was still struck by its romance, and by the way its romance touched some of the unlikeliest people. By all logic The Economist should have been, when I worked there, highly dubious about the aspirations of human spaceflight, as it is today. But the then editor would hear not a word against the undertaking, at least not against its principle. With some relief at this I became while the magazine's science editor a sort of critical apologist — critical of the human space programme there actually was, but sensitive to the possibility that a better space programme was possible.

I bought into, at least at some level, the argument that a joint US-Russian programme offered advantages in terms of aerospace employment in the former USSR. I bought into the argument that continuity of effort was needed — that so much would be lost if a programme was dismantled it might not be possible to reassemble it. I bought into the crucial safety-net argument — that it would not be possible to cancel the US programme anyway, so strong were the interests of the military industrial complex and so broad, if shallow, the support of the public. (Like the Powder River, a mile wide, an inch deep and rolling uphill all the way from Texas.) And I could see science it would offer that was unavailable by any other means.

Now, though, I can no longer find much to respect in those arguments. US Russian cooperation seems to have bought little benefit. The idea of continuous effort seems at best unproven — and indeed perhaps worth checking. Leaving a technology fallow for a few decades and coming back with new people, tools and mindsets is not such a bad idea. And at least one serious presidential candidate is talking about actually freezing the American programme, cancelling the shuttle without in the short term developing its successor. Whether Obama will get elected or be willing or able to carry through the idea remains to be seen — but if politicians are talking like this the "it will never happen so why worry" argument becomes far more suspect.

And the crucial idea (crucial to me) that human exploration of Mars might answer great questions about life in the universe no longer seems as plausible or as likely to pay off in my lifetime as once it did. I increasingly think that life in a Martian deep biosphere if there is any, will be related to earth life and teach us relatively little that's new. At the same time it will be fiendishly hard to reach without contamination. Mars continues to fascinate me — but it has ever less need of a putative future human presence in order to do so.

My excitement at the idea of life in the universe — excitement undoubtedly spurred by Apollo and the works of Clarke, Heinlein and Roddenberry that followed on from it in my education — is now more engaged with exoplanets, to which human spaceflight is entirely irrelevant (though post-human spaceflight may be a different kettle of lobsters). If we want to understand the depth of the various relations between life and planets, which is what I want to understand, it is by studying other planets with vibrant biospheres, as well as this one, that we will do so. A world with a spartan $100 billion moonbase but no ability to measure spectra and lightcurves from earthlike planets around distant stars is not the world for me.

In general, I try to avoid arguing from my own interests. But in this case it seems to me that all the other arguments against human spaceflight are so strong that to be against it merely meant realising that an atavistic part of me had failed to understand what those interests are. I'm interested in how life works on astronomical scales, and that interest has nothing to do, in the short term, with human spaceflight. And I see no reason beyond my own interests to suggest that it is something worth spending so much money on. It does not make the world a better place in any objective way that can be measured, or in any subjective way that compels respect.

It is possibly also the case that seeing human spaceflight reduced to a matter of suborobital hops for the rich, or even low earth orbit hotels, has hardened my heart further against it. I hope this is not a manifestation of the politics of envy, though I fear that in part it could be.