Debating Human Spaceflight

Every year, New York’s Hayden Planetarium hosts a debate in memory of the renowned science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. The topic of the most recent debate, held on March 15, 2010, was “Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where Next for the Manned Space Program.” The debaters — or more accurately, panelists — were all extraordinarily well qualified to discuss the subject:

Kenneth Ford, expert on artificial intelligence and human cognition, and chairman of the NASA Advisory Council.

Lester Lyles, retired Air Force General, formerly in charge of diverse military space programs.

Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, one of the world’s leading lunar scientists and a major advocate for a sustained human presence on the Moon.

Steven Squyres of Cornell University, co-leader of and spokesman for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.

Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer, popular writer, and leader of the movement to launch a quick and aggressive manned Mars program.

And last but by no means least, the moderator: Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, space expert, television star, director of the Hayden Planetarium — and (like me) a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.

The event proved to be wildly popular, despite very modest publicity. Hundreds of people were standing on line when I arrived, a half hour early, and hundreds more joined later. Every seat in the very large auditorium was taken, and a large overflow crowd watched the debate by simulcast. Many of the remarks — particularly those by Zubrin, but also many others — elicited prolonged cheers and applause.

Lester Lyles, Kenneth Ford, Robert Zimmerman, Paul Spudis, and Steven Squyres (left to right) remained seated throughout the discussion, while Neil deGrasse Tyson paced back and forth.
Tony Flanders
Tyson opened the event, explaining that though billed as a debate, it would in fact be more like an informal discussion, a bunch of interested people sitting around a table at a bar. The reality was rather different, proceeding more like a television interview. After brief opening remarks by each participant, Tyson would ask each panelist a question, sum up the answer, and then ask a related question of the next panelist. In less competent hands, the format might have been stifling. But Tyson’s questions were so cogent and his summations so accurate that he elicited a very lively yet (on the whole) courteous interchange among the panelists.

Toward the end of the event, the format was broken by Buzz Aldrin, who had been invited to participate by telephone. Aldrin proceeded to lay out his program for manned spaceflight in intricate detail and at very great length. Tyson tried to cut Aldrin short several times, but it’s hard to dominate someone who isn’t physically present, and it’s equally hard to say no to the second man to walk on the Moon. After Aldrin had finished, the format was more open and direct, proceeding soon to questions from the audience — several of which were more statements or tirades than questions at all.

Zubrin hammers home a point while Ford (left) and Spudis (right) look on bemused. Zubrin's passion and conviction are so strong that it's hard to disbelieve him while he talks.
Tony Flanders
Tyson had intended the debate to focus on whether we should proceed directly to Mars (as advocated most strongly by Zubrin) or use the Moon as a trial and staging exercise, as proposed (though never funded) by the Bush administration. But in the interim between the planning and the event, the Obama administration had proposed yet another course, focusing neither on the Moon nor Mars but instead on the development of new technologies and the privatization of space. Zubrin reserved his greatest scorn for this new plan, pronouncing it to be a death sentence for human spaceflight, and stating that NASA had never accomplished anything useful except in pursuit of a lofty and specific goal, like the first human Moon landing. All the other panelists had more nuanced responses, ranging from very strong though mild-mannered support of NASA’s technology programs from Ford and Lyles to an agreement by Spudis and Squyres (and perhaps Tyson) that NASA needed to be more goal-oriented but not necessarily fixated on Mars as Zubrin is.

Neil deGrasse Tyson remained firmly in charge throughout the event.
Tony Flanders
I can only touch on a few highlights of the discussion; it ranged over a very wide range of subjects. Spudis is perhaps the strongest advocate for the Moon as a destination in its own right, not just a steppingstone to Mars. Squyres brought up asteroids as a potential destination, suggesting that mining asteroids is the most promising commercial application of spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. Several people alluded to the possibility of landing on Mars’s moon Phobos, a proposal that’s taken very seriously by the human-spaceflight community, though it's never been noticed much by the wider public.

Almost everybody talked about the commercialization of space. Many people spoke, both pro and con, about space as a demonstration of national prestige and prowess. Intriguingly though perhaps not surprisingly, retired general Lyles was the strongest advocate of international cooperation, and the strongest opponent of using space as an instrument of national competition.

I was intrigued that nobody either on the panel or in the audience questioned the aggressive pursuit of human spaceflight. In my mind that’s very much an open question — which is not the same thing as saying that the answer to the question is necessarily no. But refusing to take such a fundamental question seriously, taking human spaceflight as axiomatic and not enquiring into its rationale, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

But for better or worse, this was a panel and audience of true believers — and a very lively, fascinating, and invigorating bunch it was.

11 thoughts on “Debating Human Spaceflight

  1. Steve Westmoreland

    What is the point of humans going all the way to Mars, just to land on Phobos?…Crazy!

  2. Tomasz Kokowski

    I respect Mr. Zubrin for his pursuit of the small step for man on Mars. However, I don’t agree with accusing NASA for nothing good except human Moon landing. Space exploration needs innovation, new technology research and of course commercialization as well. Especially, the last issue is a cardinal factor – competition, to keep spaceflight paradigm of Faster, Farther and Frequent real and alive. So, manned and unmanned, commercial and non-commercial space exploration are equally important. One day perhaps, in the future it could happen that Space and other worlds could be the last chance for mankind.

  3. Andy W

    Excite the public by setting out a clear, exciting and valuable 20 year timeline of exploration goals along those in the Augustine report. Keep hitting new goals every five years. This approach gives researchers new data, shakes out systems, pushes technology forward and keeps the public engaged. Do exciting and valuable work while building up capability towards the Mars landing goal. 2018 Lunar Orbit with Tele Robotic Rover and Polar Sample Return; 2023 Near Earth Asteroid with Human Landing and Sample Return; 2027 Mars Orbit with Tele Robotic Rovers, Air Vehicles with Sample Return; 2030 Human Mars Landing. This country spends more on DVDs and video games that human space exploration. The economic benefits are also always under-rated by many so-called experts that don’t realize how innovation works. If you don’t think that keeping a crew alive for two years on a fifty million mile trip isn’t going to drive technology ahead in leaps, then you don’t understand how breakthroughs happen. It is only when we try to do things that are beyond the practical and necessary, that can we learn what is truly possible.

  4. Paul Vondra

    It seems to me that the Hubble Space telescope represents the ideal balance of values and goals for the space program. An unpiloted spacecraft whose educational, scientific and ,yes, prestige value is, IMO,at least equal to every astronaut flight ever launched put together, including the Apollo missions. Yet it could never have been so without the servicing by astronauts so expertly conducted from the initial deployment in 1990 to the final servicing mission last year.
    And dollar for dollar, which was more valuable: the two Voyager spacecraft which explored the four major planetary systems of the outer solar system in detail for the first time, or the dozen or so microgravity laboratory shuttle missions which each cost as much as both Voyagers?
    There is a place for astronauts in space, yes, but they are not the to-all-and-end-all of NASA, or any other space agency, nor should they be.
    Finally, anyone suggesting we put astronauts with all the exhalations of their life support systems, all their germs and bacteria flooding into the Martian environment before a definitive answer is achieved on the question of indigenous Martian life, is advocating for the scientific crime of the millennium.

  5. Jason

    The idea that Nasa needs manned-flight to maintain this mythical “interest of the public” is the real false-axiom here. Even when men were walking on the moon, (at a time when high technology and constant stimulation were hardly conceivable in our everyday lives) the interest of the general public dissolved after the first couple of missions. That didn’t put a dent in the budgets for the unspeakably wasteful space shuttle and space station projects that would follow to this very day. The public has a 10 second attention span and Nasa has generated far more oohs-and-ahhs out of just the planetary probes and Hubble than a thousand Apollo’s – not to mention a wee-bit of science here and there.

  6. Pete Jackson

    A flight to Phobos actually has a lot to commend it. It tests out all the deep space part of a Mars mission, yet leaves the question of the deep gravity well of Mars to a later stage.

    From Phobos, astronauts can observe in great detail all the grandeur of the changing face of Mars, and, very importantly, can control surface robots in real time,making these robots much more efficient than control from earth with six to thirty minuts time delays. In addition, Phobos is an excellent ‘space station’ where equipment can be left around without drifting away, but which can be moved as needed with minimal effort. Astronauts can drift around and explore the entire moon by themselves. A space tourist’s delight, and an excellent potential source of funding!

    In addition, Phobos is an excellent radiation shelter, blocking cosmic rays from behind while Mars blocks most cosmic rays from front.

  7. coolstar

    Jason and Pete Jackson both make very good points above. The moon is basically a stepping-stone-to-nowhere! You don’t leave one deep gravity well, go 400,000 km to set down in ANOTHER deep gravity well. Not to mention that to STAY there for any length of time you have to be underground for most of that time. Leave it to the Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute to suggest such a frankly, stupid plan.

  8. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    “I was intrigued that nobody either on the panel or in the audience questioned the aggressive pursuit of human spaceflight. In my mind that’s very much an open question — which is not the same thing as saying that the answer to the question is necessarily no. But refusing to take such a fundamental question seriously, taking human spaceflight as axiomatic and not enquiring into its rationale, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.”

    Tony, thank you for acknowledging the elephant in the auditorium. I wish this panel had included one or two critics of human space flight.

    I personally agree with Paul and Jason regarding the relative merit of space telescopes, planetary probes, and other robotic missions. And I’m grateful to see this discussion happening on the Sky and Telescope website.

  9. Mark Weaver

    Sending humans to the Moon was perhaps our greatest achievement, but was completed in an atmosphere of aggression and fear due to the Cold War. Further manned spaceflight is more about testosterone and pride than science. Leave space journeys to the increasingly capable robots. Sending humans is too expensive and dangerous.

  10. pdarwin

    I agree that it would be great for NASA (better still the Administration funding it) to be more goal oriented with respect to missions proposed for the future. However, I will concede their point that developing more technology to get the job done faster would be a good idea first – if the technological development was focused upon future missions with specific goals that are achievable and will eventually be manned. Robotics are great for taking initial risks and reducing loss of human life. Secondly, there is much to be said about commercializing space. There are no laws or a legal body for controlling such endeavors. Let’s face it, we can’t conrtol the Internet! We don’t want irresponsible behavior going amuck and creating a disaster. Mining asteroids (what tools or explosives) may lead to diverting one into the path of the Earth. We also don’t want raw materials being brought onto our planet and risk releasing a virus or other contamination. Look around and witness the harm from introducing birds, insects, frogs, etc. from one area into another on the planet. Additionally, the waste materials our commercial endeavors burn, bury or pour into our water or our atmosphere. Are we mindful of the controls that need to be put in place to protect ourselves? Let’s not wait to learn what we should have done to have prevented a disaster after it happens.Personally, I’m concerned that we are not ready yet in this area.

  11. Ibrahim

    I’m glad you quickly corrected yourself, it is not a debate, but a discussion panel. A few voices of reason would have given some balance to your PANEL. Space travel is a HUGE waste of money and effort. Human life cannot be sustained for a voyage to Mars. Stop watching Star Trek and spend some time reviewing some of Fred Hoyle’s writings (not his fiction, but his scientific writings about space travel). As more time passes, Hoyle becomes less radical and more correct.

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