Scientists and exploration

A session of the recent AAAS conference in Washington dealt with scientists’ reactions to the Bush Administration’s science policy and budget. The end of an AP article about the session discusses what two of the panelists, Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Neal Lane of Rice University, former NSF director, had to say about NASA:

NASA has gotten a budget boost, but most of the new money will be going to the space shuttle, space station and Bush’s plan to explore the moon and Mars. What is suffering is the space agency’s scientific research efforts, [Bierbaum] said.

“Moon and Mars is basically going to eat everybody’s lunch,” she said.

Lane said Bush’s moon and Mars exploration effort has not excited the public and has no clear goals or plans.

He said Bush’s moon-Mars initiative “was poorly carried out and the budget is not there to do the job so science (at NASA) will really get hurt.”

Interestingly, Lane was advising Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) last year on space issues.

Meanwhile, a small California newspaper, the Paradise Post, reports on what a local astronomy professor, Jim Regas of Cal State Chico, has to say on the subject. Regas said that NASA doesn’t have “any business attempting an expensive project like putting a man on Mars” because of a cost he estimates (without explanation) of being around $400 billion. He would rather see $1-2 billion spent repairing Hubble.

Regas clearly favors machines to men: “If we’re taking men out of planes on Earth, why in the world would anybody want to put people in these rockets and go to Mars? It’s a million times more dangerous and more expensive… Given the advancement in robots and technology, sending people anywhere is a colossal waste of money. The only caveat in this whole thing is that I bet you the Chinese are going to send men to the moon, and it’s going to become political.”

21 comments to Scientists and exploration

  • Brent Ziarnick

    Scientists (robots can do anything!) are, without a doubt, the worst people in the world to be identified with space.

  • Chris Martel

    NASA has been doing science for decades. We have learned a lot about the universe and Earths ecosystems. This new knowledge should not be underestimated. People need to keep in mind that everything NASA does is paid for by us. Thus everything NASA does should somehow benefit us. Here lies the great debate. It’s difficult for me to see how learning about the state of the universe 15 billion years ago benefits mankind in any significant way. I don’t see how building or continuing investment in an outrageously expensive and overly complex machine (shuttle or station take your pick) that’s just going to sit in LEO benefits mankind. Here it seems robots CAN do better. The main question I have is what is the use of robotic missions to anywhere if not to enable human exploration and eventual colonization? Ultimately the human race is the most important subject a human being can ponder. Everything else is subject to the human race if you’re a human. With regards to the ISS, NASA commitments to other countries and they should be met. The Moon to Mars initiative provides an opportunity for NASA to lead the world in laying the foundation for a permanent human settlement of the solar system. This should be the ultimate goal. Science capabilities will increase a trillion fold when humans can utilize the resources of their entire solar system. Just as the colonization of the new world sparked the industrial revolution and the age of reason, so too will space colonization kindle unimaginable advances for mankind.

  • Mike Puckett

    How come everybody interviews scientists and nobody asks the engineers what they think?

    In the 60′s, NASA was an engineering driven excercize and that was when it was at its most dynamic.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    One thing the article did not mention is that both Bierbaum and Lane served in the Clinton Administration. Not that I would ever accuse scientists of having a political slant…

  • Brent Ziarnick

    Amen, Mike!

    Give NASA back to the engineers and we’ll have a NASA worthy of the nation!

  • Dogsbd

    The idea that NASA’s sole reason to exist being for the advancement of science is one of the primary reasons, IMHO, that the agency has languished over the past 30 years. Scientific discovery in the field of astronomy is a wonderful thing, but how many people have been fed by beautiful pictures, in any wavelength, of the Orion Nebula? How many homes would be heated if the exact age of the Universe were discovered tomorrow? As exciting as it would be, what tangible benefit would the discovery of an Earth like planet hundreds of light-years away be to the average human being? Even the Cassini mission to Saturn hasn’t discovered anything that will be a direct benefit to the average people. I’m much more interested in astronomical “happenings” closer to home, the Moon, NEOs and Mars. These are places that have the potential to be actual destinations for man to personally visit in the near future, no one is likely to be headed out to visit Saturn any time soon much less the Orion Nebula.

    These destinations closer to home have the potential to provide resources that will benefit everyone on the planet, much more so than the Hubble space telescope and similar pure science endeavors in space. Space exploration should not just be about learning what is out there, how it got there and/or how long it’s been there. Space exploration should be more about how man can actually get out there himself and then USE the resources found there to benefit mankind. I prefer to think of the “E” in VSE to stand for “Exploitation” rather than just Exploration. I wish more people in places of influence thought of it that way as well.

  • Dlgsbd, I agree with just about every word, although I would probably emphasize the spiritual benefits of exploration a bit more than the practical benefits. A key class of benefits that are almost always ignored are political benefits. The United States Constitution was written in the New World and not in tired old Europe for a reason. It is a safe bet that the next great advance in human political organization will not be developed in our squabbling nation, much less in even older Europe and Asia, but on the new frontier. I think we desperately need that advance, hence the desperate need for a new frontier.

    Regarding Saturn and what the Russian might call the “near far future”, I believe that the Saturn system will be colonized relatively early on. The technological requirements are not that different from those required to get to the asteroids or Jupiter, yet the Saturn system is richer in all-important organics and volatile ices, and they’re in much lower gravity wells.

    However, the key reason for a Saturn-first strategy is Jupiter’s radiation belts. Short of some sort of electromagnetic “active” radiation protection (as opposed to passive shielding) — which my physicist friends tell me is unlikely in the foreseeable future — Jupiter’s inner satellites will remain out of reach for human explorers. Not so Saturn’s moons, where the rings absorb much of the radiation.

    The biggest problem is likely to be energy generation. All those ices are at or near chemical equilibrium, making any chemical energy generation that may be needed a difficult proposition. Heavy metals and nuclear materials would have to be imported from Earth (or, possibly, the asteroids). With fusion, it takes energy to create energy, so, if anything goes wrong, where does the initial energy to start the reaction come from? I can envision “eternal flames” of rare and irreplaceable nuclear fission reactions maintained in religious institutions to retain that all important starter energy. . . .

    – Donald

  • Jackass

    I hate to call you out in public Donald but you brought it on yourself. What are you smoking? I’ll bet crack. If it were pot your ideas might make some sense. So I’ll bet crack.

  • Well, Mr. Jackass, my ideas may or may not be a valuable contribution, but your post does nothing to elucidate whether that is so. All you have made clear is that you’ve picked an accurate name for yourself.

    – Donald

  • TORO

    Why don’t we colonize Antartica? Among the reasons is that nobody wants to live there. Imagine walking to the park. And yet it is 1,000,000 times easier to live on Antartica than the moon. And again 1,000,000 times easier to live on the moon than Mars. The day I see humans flocking to Antartica is the day I can begin to imagine colonizing another planet.

    Truth is, we have not yet learned how to live on Earth. We blow each other away, there are no plans to stabilize population, and no attempt to end global slavery. Stabilize Earth and then a thousand years from now a few dozen humans will “colonize” the moon and Mars. There is no need for gov’t elsewhere when gov’t on Earth is not yet effective.

    Not to mention we can’t even get humans to and from LEO.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    I was going to post a long, reasoned comment here responding to a few of the early posts, and pointing out that many of NASA’s past problems have been because it was _engineers_ not scientists, who were running the agency.

    But I see that somebody left the cage doors open… There’s really no point.

  • So these snobs think that space is their personal playground courtesy of the US Taxpayer. Sorry I believe that NASA is mission is to send humans into space. If these scientist want space for thier own personal use, they should pay for it.

  • Mr. Walker

    In an attempt to get the discussion back on track…

    The posting appears to be one describing members of academia realizing their “kingdom” is in jeopardy. It is unfortunate they react in such ways, but it is human nature.

    Mr. Lane is incorrect in his statement that the effort has not excited the public and has no clear goals or plans. Mr. O’Keefe repeatedly expressed his astonishment at the public’s excitement; both through his personal interaction and via the number of hits the NASA website has experienced. Furthermore, from the day of President Bush’s announcement, the VSE has had a clear set of goals and a time table in which to complete them. The CEV flyoff, shuttle retirement, and returning to the moon are only some of the major milestones awaiting us in the not too distant future.

    The scientific community must take a step back and look at the VSE in its broadest sense. Yes, it may “eat someone’s lunch” to accomplish needed goals, but instead of sending out the occasional probe on a mission-type basis, a sustainable infrastructure will be created to send (en masse) the greatest probe of them all – the human.

  • In all these discussions about who is doing what to whom, nobody mentioned the main reson we’re spending taxpayer dollars on space in the first place:

    Americans don’t like it _at all_ when other countries are in charge of this frontier. Vocal public support or not, politicians will really know about it if America’s lead is lost. And like the rest of the economy, the time of easy dominance appears to be drawing to a close.

    Will we just throw up our hands and capitulate? Saturn may sound a long way off, but whether or not Americans one day have to apply for a visa to visit Saturn or other closer places may be determined by our actions in the next 25 years or so.

  • Jackass

    Sorry Mr. Robertson. You’re right my comments were out of line and did nothing to make this thread more interesting. What I should have said was… What type of “spiritual benefits” could arise form the colonization of space? How would these “spiritual benefits” benefit mankind in ways that would warrant you to write, “I would probably emphasize the spiritual benefits of exploration a bit more than the practical benefits.”? Ironically in your own post you go on to list several practical benefits to colonization, i.e. political reform, natural resources and energy production. Which brings me to another point what does this mean… “I can envision “eternal flames” of rare and irreplaceable nuclear fission reactions maintained in religious institutions to retain that all important starter energy. . . .”? I honestly am sorry for the comment I made earlier in the post. I am absolutely dedicated to space colonization as a real goal for humanity. Your statements seemed to be incoherent and unsupported. Do you think people who are not interested in the space frontier may be put off and hardened against space endeavors by rhetoric like what you have posted?

  • Mr. Jackass, I accept and return your apology.

    Regarding “spiritual benefits,” you are right, I did not talk about them here, though I have elsewhere. What I mean is that, throughout human history, most cultures have had their greatest “flowerings” of original ideas, arts, sciences, technologies, whatever, when they are engaged in physical exploration of something totally new. You can’t discover something new by staring at your navel. I personally believe that this input of new ideas into an old culture is the most valuable aspect of physical exploration, and why it cannot be done by machines.

    Regarding Saturn, my admittedly far out speculation went as follows below. I admit that I am neither a chemical engineer nor a physicist, so some or all of this may be off base. I also believe it is worth thinking about far future things like colonizing the rest of the Solar System, especially since I believe that, at some point, we will cross a technological threashold and transportation will become relatively easy (note, though, that easy is not the same as fast; the initial colonization of the Americas was relatively efficient but very slow, both for the individual colonist and as a process). I believe what follows is reasonable speculation for someone attempting to look so far in the future, but I may not have been clear.

    Anyway, the reasoning at Saturn (and the rest of the outer Solar System). The question is, how do you provide power for a permanent, live-off-the-land colony at Saturn?

    1). Most of the ices on the moons probably are at or near chemical equilibrium, therefore it will be difficult to impossible for any people visiting or living in the Saturn system to generate chemical energy. For example, you can’t burn something without free oxygen or another oxydizer and a fuel. You have to find or create chemicals that are not at equilibrium. If it takes as much energy to liberate the oxygen and fuel out of local resources, as you get out by burning them, assuming no other input, you’re up a creek.

    2). Fissile materials and other heavy metals will be extremely difficult to come by in the outer Solar System and probably will need to be imported. Hence, you’re not likely to use fission to maintain a large scale colony over long periods.

    3). Most fusion reactions require some sort of intense energy input to start the reaction, e.g., the chemical trigger in a hydrogen bomb, or the high-energy lasers for intertial confinement fusion, or the high-energy magnetic fields for magnetic confinement fusion.

    4). If you are living off the land at Saturn for an extended period, and, for any reason, you lose your fusion reaction, where does the power come from to start it back up? If you’re smart, you’ve got something stored away you can use to “trigger” the reaction. My suggestion was a store of fissile material, but a really big mirror to concentrate sunlight would also work.

    5). In human history, when a culture has needed to maintain a critical resource over long periods of time, it has almost always fallen to religious institutions to maintain the resource. Because of their inherent extreme conservatism, religious institutions tend to be the longest lived of human organizations.

    I freely admit that this is Science Fiction, but I believe that it is reasonable Science Fiction.

    – Donald

  • Dogsbd

    I was reminded of this discussion of spiritual benefits when I read the following article:


    Specifically this at the end:

    “I was imagining what it would be like if you ripped out all the things sometimes claimed to have no practical applications – the Apollo space programme, Concorde, medieval cathedrals – what would you be left with? A pale shadow that would inspire no one.”

  • sunman

    I believe that both Bierbaum and Lane were being asked by a reporter how the Exploration Initiative rebudgeting would affect science; as the dean of a school where earth science is done and a fellow at a public policy institute (and former NSF director), they probably had some valid insights into what it takes to keep the scientific community healthy enough so that new technologies continue to be developed and engineers have the wherwhithal to do new engineering to meet new needs. I may be naive, but I saw nothing political or even anti-Exploration in their comments, just the facts, ma’am.

    I don’t believe either the Administration as a whole or NASA has done much to engage the public, or even Congess (beyond Mr. DeLay, anyway) with the Vision for Exploration. Perhaps that’s appropriate for an initiative that is still ill-defined beyond a new family of spacecraft, but it’s a lacuna that needs filling if the Exploration Initiative is to be funded over the long run.

  • Dogsbd

    Sunman, please define “ill-defined”.

    I do recall reading in the Draft Crew Exploration Vehicle solicitation released back in Jaunary the missions envisioned for CEV in Spirals 1-5, up to and including manned missions to Mars. Now it didn’t name who would be in the crews, but I thought that was a pretty good definition of what NASA has in mind to do.

  • Leo

    The Moon is far inferior to Mars as a location. Mars has water, an atmosphere that shields from solar flares and cosmic radiation, and abundant quantities of the basic elements and raw materials needed for industry. Moreover, its atmosphere and soil are a viable medium for plant growth. Finally, by fantastic coincidence, its day is 24 hours long, meaning sunlight is available in a form useful for growing food. Water, oxygen, and methane fuel can be easily manufactured from the atmosphere. Volcanic and seismic activity have produced valuable concentrations of mineral ores.

    The Moon, by contrast, has no water (it is so dry if it had dry concrete would would mine it for the water), and is missing many key materials. Its only oxygen is tightly bound in rocks that need high energy melting to extract it. It has no atmosphere, a two week day night cycle, meaning no farms. The Moon may be an outpost, but it will never be a home.

  • Chris Martel

    I agree Leo. Who needs another gravity well? The moon may be a good test bed for farther out missions but is the extra effort really worth it?