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Human spaceflight.

John M. Logsdon's "A Sustainable Rationale for Human Spaceflight" (Issues, Winter 2004) is an invitation to begin public discussions that can lead to a more successful space program that will be a source of the national pride he invokes.

The problem is that the declaration of President George W. Bush that Logsdon quotes in his first paragraph, "Our journey into space will go on," has rallied few scientists, engineers, or laypeople. Many scientists still see no compelling reason for humans in space. (Even in the 1980s, the Nobel Laureate physicist Edward Purcell remarked to me that the energy needed to lift a person out of Earth's gravitational well would feed him or her for a lifetime.)

For a substantial number of remaining space enthusiasts--and I know them from academia and science fiction conventions alike--the president's plans are a disappointing unfunded mandate. The demise of the troubled Space Shuttle program threatens to curtail the life of what most consider NASA's greatest hit, the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile, rank-and-file space researchers have grown cynical. One laid-off engineer recently e-mailed me, after I published a commentary on Columbia in the Washington Post: "I can assure you that NASA and the federal government do not want applicants. It is downsizing and makes sure people of any skill are made to stay unemployed." And 62 percent of respondents to an ABC poll opposed the president's plan.

Even among space advocates, exploration is an imperative in search of a rationale. For some, it is a showcase of civilian scientific and technical prowess, of national Promethean prestige. For others, it expresses the destiny of all humanity to transcend its earthly limits and spread through the cosmos, transforming the surfaces of the Moon and planets into economically productive habitable zones. And for still others, it is a scientific frontier; they in turn are divided on whether the presence of human investigators in space is worth the risks. Finally, in popular culture, both robotic and human initiatives are another new extreme sport, a cosmic Monster Garage.

Without being informed enough to recommend policies, I propose that scientists, engineers, lay enthusiasts, and other knowledgeable people finally debate openly what allocation of research money promises to yield the greatest benefits for human knowledge and well-being. The space budget should be considered along with the exploration of the deep sea and other frontiers. Hazards should be addressed openly but in themselves should not keep people from space; we owe our safe late-industrial society to the reckless entrepreneurs of the 19th century. And it was Jerome Lederer, father of NASA's safety program, who established the agency's initially admirable record by forthrightly calling his office Risk Management.

Critics of NASA should also be more aware of its positive unintended consequences: the unjustly trivialized spinoffs, strongly documented in a 1972 report by the University of Denver, Mission-Oriented R & D and the Advancement of Technology. A scientifically vibrant space program will make unexpected discoveries more likely by helping gifted researchers from many disciplines and nations talk to each other. This has been the pattern from the development of radar (and much else) in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's chaotic Building 20 to the breakthroughs in nonlinear science at IBM.

A reformed NASA remains one of the most constructive ways to show the flag. The sustainability of our society needs (among other things) the scientific and technological innovation that it can help provide. National pride, like individual self-esteem, should thus be an outcome rather than a reason.


Senior Research Associate

Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

National Museum of American History

Washington, D.C.

Visiting Scholar

Department of the History and Sociology of Science

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Like the NASA worldview he represents, John M. Logsdon looks to the past in search of some rationale for further adventures in space. Just as NASA continues to invoke Christopher Columbus and President Bush invoked Lewis and Clark in his speech recommending Moon and Mars missions, so does Logsdon cite historical precedent, harkening back to the Cold War to recommend power and especially pride as reasons for sending humans to the Moon and Mars. For me, however, these missions evoke not pride but embarrassment, not power but dissipation. Wasting precious resources on stunts with no practical payoff smacks of a Roman circus, a public entertainment to amuse and distract.

We went to the Moon in the 1960s "for all mankind," as the plaque we left there proclaimed. Presumably we would return to the Moon and fly on to Mars in the name of humanity as well. Then let the rest of humanity share the cost. The United States possesses about one-third of the world's wealth. When the rest of the world is prepared to pay two-thirds of the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to send people to Mars, then the United States might argue that it was playing its proper role in a great human undertaking.

Until then, such an expedition by the United States looks more like potlatch than pride. Potlatch is the ritualistic behavior of some North American Indians tribes. The wealthiest and most powerful members of the tribes gather for occasional ceremonies in which they throw their most valued possessions into the fire. The winner is the one rich enough and secure enough to squander more of his possessions than any other. It is the native American version of what economist Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption. People affect tennis attire in their daily rounds to suggest that they are rich enough to play all day instead of work, and they wear designer clothes to suggest that they can afford to pay more for their raiment than it is worth. Sending humans to Mars with current and foreseeable technology is a way of saying that we have so much wealth we can afford to squander it on fabulously expensive adventures with no practical return on investment. Far from being proud of this public circus, I am chagrined by its self-absorption and waste.


Department of History

Duke University

Durham, North Carolina
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Title Annotation:Forum; two comments on John M. Logsdon's article on space policy
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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