Elizabeth R. Cantwell, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Co-Chair of the National Research Council Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space; Space Studies Board Member
Kim Stanley Robinson, Author
Jeff M. Bingham, Professional Staff Member, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Marc Kaufman, Journalist, The Washington Post
Linda Billings, George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs
Elizabeth R. Cantwell, director for mission development for the Engineering Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Space Studies Board member, began by talking in broad terms about the National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey on biological and physical sciences in space, of which she is a co-chair. She drew parallels between the challenges facing humans exploring space and those they face here on Earth—climate adaptation, aging and health, and preservation and use of critical resources. Therefore, she postulated that scientific and technological advances needed for human space exploration could be pertinent to solving problems here. In fact, she argued that the debate over the future of human spaceflight may have become as complex as the issues surrounding global climate change. They both incorporate political, policy, and human behavior dimensions, and solutions to both require advances in science and technology. Furthermore, the ability to communicate with the public about these challenges has suffered from some of the failures discussed in the previous sessions.
She provided a lengthy list of science and technology advances needed to support human exploration of space. They range from understanding the adverse effects of space on human health, to ensuring the availability of breathing gases, water, and autonomous medicine for long periods of time, to understanding the mechanist role of gravity in regulating biological systems, to making space exploration affordable by developing game-changing materials and power generation capacities. This science will provide a better understanding for producing food and fighting infection, for example, which could have applications on Earth. Overall, she believes the process of human exploration and understanding new environments results in new ways of thinking about our world and ourselves.
Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction writer, said he would sketch out a possible future for humans in space but wanted to emphasize that the topic could not be discussed without reference to the “planetary environmental emergency that we are now in. If we don’t keep this emergency at the top of our list of priorities, then we are being escapist and doing more harm than good.”
Although some of the previous discussions advocated using analogies and metaphors to tell the story of space exploration, Robinson insisted they may be misleading. Space is not like the New World or the Wild West, but is more like Antarctica, he argued. In the summer there are 1,200 people in
Antarctica and in the winter there are about 100, but “they are not noticed very much,” nor will those who explore space in his opinion. He said that he had been in Antarctica and it was difficult and boring, and that is the same for space exploration, which he does not find to be inspirational. Those who recently volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars would have to be indoors and underground for the rest of their life; it was a strange response that did not recognize the reality of the situation, in his view.
The near-term future of space exploration will be the equivalent of establishing several Antarctic research stations plus a few rich tourists. Eventually, off-world communities will evolve “organically” out of the research stations, as happened in Antarctica when Chile and Argentina sent families there to strengthen their positions as to who owned it. In space, it will not happen for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the problems facing Earth are immediate. “Space is not the solution to the emergency that we face,” Robinson said.
Furthermore, Earth is at the bottom of a gravity well, so there will never be a great number of people traveling into space because it is so expensive, despite creative ideas like space elevators.
In “a couple hundred years,” perhaps terraforming of Mars will begin and beyond that, in hundreds or thousands of years, self-replicating machines and artificial intelligence. Eventually, the solar system will become our neighborhood. We should not underestimate what we can do technologically just with a linear extrapolation of existing engineering capabilities. The distances between stars, however, are “stupendous,” and it would take “forever to get there” with multigenerational starships. The people who take that journey will become a separate species and never come back; they are not “part of the human project,” he argued.
Returning to the present, Robinson continued, considering the environmental emergency we are facing, talking about human space exploration could be “easily misinterpreted as escapist and elitist, involving only a small percentage of the human population.” Instead, the focus should be on space science, which he emphasized is an Earth science, and that fact needs to be communicated to the public. Studying Venus’s atmosphere helped us discover the ozone hole, he asserted. “We are thrust into the position of being global biosphere managers…. There is no part of life in this biosphere that we cannot intervene in … and we have started to wreck it without understanding how.” Learning how to manage the biosphere is partly a space science, he insisted, through comparative planetology and studying Earth directly from space. Managing Earth’s biosphere is necessary if we are to avoid what is looking like the sixth great-mass-extinction event. That is why one cannot talk about space science except in the context of the global emergency we are in, he concluded.
Robinson said that the concept that people should create colonies in space as a hedge against an environmental disaster on Earth is “damaging” to the space program. “Space is not a bolt hole; it’s not a gated community. And also we may not be meant to be anything but Earth’s creatures…. We have not proved that we can live 200 or 500 years separate from Earth.” For example, our connection to bacteria in the soil on Earth may be essential to our survival. “We have all our eggs in one basket … so we can’t afford to treat Earth casually.” We cannot talk as though “getting 500 privileged scientists off planet” would be enough to make people feel better about an impending planetary catastrophe. It is a “stupendously damaging argument,” in his opinion.
As for how to better connect with the public, Robinson said that people trust scientists to be their doctors and build and fly airplanes, for example. There should be posters reminding people of that. It is time for the climate science community, as a community, to “bite the bullet” and tell the public that “we are in a fight for the hearts and minds of our own population.”
Jeff M. Bingham is a professional staff member for the Republican staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. In introducing Bingham, Cantwell explained that his committee was responsible for writing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. 1
Bingham explained that the future of the human spaceflight program became “very uncertain” in 2009 when President Obama sent Congress his fiscal year (FY) 2010 budget request with temporary budget numbers for human spaceflight while waiting for the results of a review by a blue ribbon panel chaired by Norman Augustine.2 Congress thought that the president would provide an amended budget request for FY2010 after the Augustine committee completed its report, but he did not. Instead the President waited to make his proposal as part of the FY2011 budget request. Bingham said that the way the FY2011 budget request for human spaceflight was presented meant that it was “dead on arrival” in Congress. The proposal “simply was unacceptable” and was “too much of a diversion from where we had been going” with the plan that was set in motion by President George W. Bush.3 It was an “alternative that was unlike anything anyone expected, proposing complete and total reliance on an as-yet-unproven capability in the commercial sector to do human spaceflight for this country.” The government would not have a role in human spaceflight after the space shuttle program ended, under the proposal. Every member of Congress “blasted” the plan and for different reasons—there was no clear picture “of why people hated this so much.”
In that environment, his committee, which is an “authorizing” or “policy” committee, needed to determine the direction of the human spaceflight program. Congress already had passed two laws, the 2005 NASA Authorization Act and the 2008 NASA Authorization Act, essentially embracing President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration4 and emphasizing the goal of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), while not neglecting the “huge resource investment in LEO”—the International Space Station (ISS). Congress knew it wanted a program to send humans beyond LEO and wanted to do it sooner than the Obama administration. Congress did not want to wait until 2015 to decide on what new “heavy lift launch vehicle” should be built, for example.
Bingham then explained how both Republican and Democratic Senators worked together on a bipartisan basis, and with the White House, to craft the bill that became the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The Senate also worked with the House of Representatives, which had a bill with a different approach, but after 3 weeks it was clear that a compromise could not be reached “so we had to a force a decision—the Senate bill or nothing.” “Nothing” was “frightening enough” that the House passed the Senate bill. He said that the process was “instructive” and showed how to pass legislation with such diverse viewpoints.
“It is possible to bring consensus, and communication is the key,” he said. It is expensive to send humans into space and difficult to justify without a consensus. “Public consensus drives politics,” and people undervalue their ability to make a difference, in his view.
1 The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) authorizes all of NASA’s activities for FY2011-FY2013, including human spaceflight program. The Act is a compromise between President Obama’s proposal to rely on the commercial sector to develop a new system to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station, and Congress’s preference that the government—NASA—develop a new Space Launch System and Multipurpose Crew Vehicle to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) as well and beyond LEO. Under the Act, NASA will develop a launch vehicle system and a crew capsule as a “backup” to the commercial sector for LEO operations and for governmental beyond-LEO journeys.
2 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, Seeking A Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington, D.C., October 2009.
3 President Bush made a speech in January 2004, the “Vision for Space Exploration,” that directed NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars. NASA initiated the Constellation program to execute that direction.
4 NASA, The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, Washington, D.C., 2004.
Bingham closed by reminding the audience that although the authorization bill was enacted, the funding to execute it—appropriations—were still pending. The whole debate demonstrates that there is a “latent understanding of the value of humans in space” in Congress, he said. He concluded by pointing out that the act calls for a NRC study to provide the destinations, missions, goals and other specifics that should comprise the program.
Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post and Linda Billings from George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs joined Cantwell, Robinson, and Bingham on the panel.
Cantwell asked how the value of human spaceflight could be communicated. Kaufman said that he could not imagine a worse scenario than what has happened in the past 10 years. The 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy was followed by President Bush’s vision, which was endorsed by Congress but not funded adequately. That tells people we are not serious, he said. The Augustine committee5 came out and said Constellation was not funded sufficiently and there was not enough money for the ISS or for many other things, so the administration “understandably decided to blow up the whole process.” He tried to discover who in Congress supported the administration’s plan and could find only one member of Congress, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who did, because he believes private enterprise is the right approach. The Senate came together largely because they viewed the NASA bill as a jobs bill, in his view, noting that Senator Richard Shelby, a deficit hawk, said that President Obama’s plan would only pass “over his dead body.” Kaufman thinks the final result is a bill that is acceptable but is not optimistic that it will be executed because of the budget situation. He thinks the next year or two will be a continuing “human space exploration disaster,” and the message to the public “could not be worse.”
Billings said she concurred with Robinson’s comments and is “deeply skeptical about prospects for the human future in space” today. She said that referring to the discourse over President Obama’s plan as “uncivil” was like saying that Godzilla was a lizard. She went on to say that she is not certain that humans are intellectually and emotionally ready to move out into space. She is a science fiction fan, and she worries that if humans were able to move out in large numbers into space in the next 50 years, she thinks about it more in terms of movies like Alien and Outland where corporations stake their claims in space and humans are expendable—when humans are useful, that is fine, but when they are not, “you’re ejected.” Referring to alien races in the Star Trek series, she said she sometimes feels that humans are a mixture of Klingon (warlike) and Ferengi (focused on monetary value).
Cantwell asked about the dichotomy between the inspiration of thinking about humans in space and the financial reality of actually creating an executable human spaceflight program. Bingham responded to Kaufman’s comment that President Bush’s plan was underfunded by explaining that it was not only because Congress would not fund it, but because the Bush administration did not request adequate funds in the first place. He recounted a conversation he had with an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official about why OMB was trying to kill the president’s program (by requesting inadequate funding), and the OMB official replied, “What do you mean?” Bingham explained to the official that to execute President Bush’s vision would mean taking all the money from science and NASA’s other programs, thereby destroying the coalition that would be needed to support it. “Everybody would be the enemy of exploration,” and that is, in fact, how it turned out, he said. That does not need to be the case, he said; the Obama administration can request the needed funds, although he is not optimistic that it will.
5 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, Seeking A Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington, D.C., October 2009.
An audience member said that one good thing about President Bush’s program was that it set a level of funding and was to progress at the rate that the funding permitted, the “pay-go” approach, adding that human spaceflight should be international. Bingham agreed on both points. Another audience member asked if the number of people going into space had value—if we go beyond LEO only a few people will go, but if there is commercial transport to LEO, many people could go. Robinson opined that only wealthy people could afford to go into space as tourists, calling it “bungee jumping for the ultra-rich” and that having space as a “gated community” is a “misuse” of space because space exploration is more important than that. Bingham said that space is a “pioneering effort” that is just beginning. He views commercial human spaceflight as important in eventually allowing limited government resources to focus on what the government does best, exploring space, and if there is profit to be made, the commercial sector will have that opportunity. Both are needed, he concluded.
Cantwell said that when whatever is being communicated associated with human spaceflight is received by the public as elitism, “we lose.”
Kaufman said that he disagreed with everything that was being said. He believes the “future is commercial,” approvingly referring to space entrepreneurs as “swashbucklers” and arguing that it is the private sector today that is exciting the public about space. Billings responded by reciting her long experience with commercial space, which began in 1983. “Virtually all of those budding business enterprises fell by the wayside,” she observed. She thinks that what inspires the public is the fact that people can go into space at all. When a human being could take a picture in space and return to Earth and say what it looked like and felt like there, it was a change of human consciousness. The public now thinks of themselves as people who live on a planet in a solar system in a universe, “and I think that is comforting to people.” She believes we need to think more about the “meaning” of what we do in space because that’s where we can engage with those who are not part of the space community.
The conversation turned to whether competition with China would stimulate public interest in space exploration. Bingham jokingly offered his opinion that the Chinese would have to go to the Moon and come back and “hand us our flag—that would get our attention,” he exclaimed. In his view, however, international cooperation should be the goal. Billings said that “coopetition” is the new way.6 Kaufman said that he did not think it would be significant if China went to the Moon before the United States returned there. He believes that the discovery of life elsewhere would be a “bigger deal” than China going to the Moon.
In response to a question about what message he would want to send to ensure the nation’s future in space if he were in Bingham’s position, Robinson replied that he would make space an “environmental cause.” The message needs to get across that “we are on a planet, and we can’t get off, and we have to take care of it.” Laughingly saying that he was “stepping into his own shoes,” Bingham argued that the ISS presents the opportunity to study the biosphere and wants more attention paid to that.
How to control commercial operations in space was another question from an audience member who was concerned about orbital debris or “strip mining on the Moon” or other activities that might harm the global commons. Bingham said that for commercial crew, for example, the companies would have to meet government regulations.
In response to Billings’s statement that she did not think humans were sufficiently mature to go further out into space, an audience member asked if international cooperation might mitigate that problem because it was part of “growing up.” Getting more people from other nations up to the ISS, for example, would be one way to galvanize support for human space exploration as well as for the United States and the other ISS partners. Billings agreed that nations are anxious to have their own citizens fly into space. She finds Bonnet’s idea (discussed in Session 5) of having a code of conduct for the people of Earth like the ISS code of conduct to be an interesting idea.
6 As discussed in Session 2 by Jean-Pierre Swings, coopetition is the combination of cooperation, collaboration, and competition.
From the audience, Hammel said that she would send people two places in space: back to the Hubble Space Telescope and to an asteroid as a steppingstone to Mars, a better steppingstone than the Moon in her opinion. Bingham pointed out that the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs NASA to contract with the NRC to do a study of what the next destination should be for human spaceflight, and he is content to await that answer. Bonnet said, in terms of what humans can do usefully in space, there is education on the ISS and repairing space telescopes. He suggests a space station at the L2 Lagrange point where astronauts could repair telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope that will be located there. He supports Hammel’s choice of asteroids, and Mars’s moon Phobos, as possible destinations as well.
In conclusion, Kaufman said that he would like to see the ISS used for the science that was promised at the beginning of the program and reiterated his support for commercial human spaceflight. Billings observed that, from her standpoint of following the ISS for 27 years, there has been little effort to explain how the ISS serves foreign policy. She thinks that careful thought be given to where the human spaceflight program is going and that it needs to be global: “we are all crewmembers on spaceship Earth and we need to think about our future … collectively.” Bingham said that he thinks we can accomplish great things in space if we have the will, and communications is a key to that. Robinson repeated his theme that eventually humans would make the solar system their “neighborhood,” but now is not the time. Now is the time to focus on the health of Earth, in his view.