SETI bioastro: Human Spaceflight Without NASA?

Date: Thu Dec 11 2003 - 08:12:41 PST

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    By Robert Roy Britt

    "Perhaps the pioneer settlers in space communities will live (and even die) in front of a worldwide audience -- the ultimate in commercial reality TV."

    -- Sir Martin Rees, British author and cosmologist

    Space visionary Freeman Dyson, the acclaimed emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, recently had a conversation with Robert Zubrin, the world's biggest cheerleader for human missions to Mars.

    "Your scheme of Mars missions is excellent," Dyson said, "but it has one fatal flaw, the fact that you are expecting NASA to do it."

    "Ah, but when we give NASA a real challenge like this, it will be a different NASA," Zubrin replied.

    "I think he is right," Dyson said last Thursday. I had asked Dyson and other top scientists about the future of human spaceflight, on a day when worldwide media reports said President Bush might soon announce a major new human space initiative, to the Moon and perhaps Mars.

    White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan later said there would be no such announcements soon. Then over the weekend Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, teased television audiences with the promise of "a bold agenda for this country" and said the president "would not give up on space exploration."

    In an interesting coincidence, an international group of lunar experts on Thursday issued The Hawaii Moon Declaration, calling for a human presence on the Moon.

    Dyson and other scientists are thrilled at the prospect of getting space program get back on its feet, in a big way, in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Yet they disagree significantly on the motivations and methods for getting there.

    Space babies and

    If Dyson were president, there would one day be colonies on the Moon, along with film crews to capture the first lunar baby being born.

    Physicist Robert Park of the American Physical Society, like many critics, argues that robots can do the exploration. Park calls the idea of NASA sending astronauts to the Moon "totally embarrassing," given it has been done.

    There is another path gaining scientific adherents and -- this is crucially important -- financial backing.

    Sir Martin Rees, a British cosmologist and author of popular books, figures rich entrepreneurs like founder Jeff Bezos should lead the way to the Moon and Mars, with NASA playing a supportive role.

    Rees questions NASA's resolve to lead human space missions and the appetite of the U.S. public for inherently risky flights. He cites negative reaction to the shuttle's safety record, which runs about a 2 percent risk of catastrophe -- there have been two disasters in 113 flights.

    "I think the future of manned spaceflight will only brighten if it's done by people prepared to cut costs and take risks in a fashion that's seemingly unacceptable to the U.S. public in a NASA project," Rees told me.

    In his new book, "Our Final Hour" (Basic Books, 2003), Rees sees a future of otherworldly journeys dependent on wealthy capitalists, who ideally would collaborate with a newly motivated but redirected NASA.

    Paths to riches, again

    Bezos is one of several businessmen pouring money into their own private space ventures. The online entrepreneur has reportedly, in secret, put together a team of experts to build a $30 million re-usable space vehicle. He's said to have been a space buff since at least high school.

    Other teams are in hot in pursuit of the X-Prize, a $10 million purse to be awarded the first group that completes two suborbital space flights in a piloted vehicle within a two-week period. More than 20 private groups are working to claim the prize. Among the apparent leaders is a company called Scaled Composites, led by aerospace maverick Burt Rutan. Last week the company chalked up the sixth test flight of its SpaceShipOne craft.

    PayPal founder Elon Musk, in his early 30s, is pursuing a more traditional path to second-round riches. Last week his new company, SpaceX, unveiled its reusable Falcon rocket. The Falcon is expected to soar into space early next year with real payload -- a Department of Defense satellite.

    To Rees, these are the seeds of a revolution.

    "If humans venture back to the Moon, and even beyond, they may carry commercial insignia rather than national flags," Rees says. "And perhaps the pioneer settlers in space communities will live (and even die) in front of a worldwide audience -- the ultimate in commercial reality TV."

    NASA faces a defining moment in its 45-year history, Rees and others believe. The agency can "either get mired deeper in ever more costly and less inspiring shuttle-based projects," he said, "or else save itself by easing the path for cut-price ventures and private entrepreneurs."

    Writing the script

    If Rees sound like a good director for the first cosmic reality show, Freeman Dyson could be the scriptwriter.

    Dyson, long a supporter of colonizing other worlds, imagines humans and robots co-existing in space. And he is not averse to commercialization. But he said clear distinctions must be drawn between the robotic and human space programs. Robotic missions should be geared toward scientific, military and commercial goals.

    Human space flight has a bad reputation because "the pretence that the shuttle and the space station could do first-rate science has now collapsed," Dyson said. He thinks human spaceflight should be viewed as sport: "Its goals are public entertainment and international competition."

    A return to the Moon should be primarily an adventure and a test of survival skills, Dyson believes.

    "With good television coverage and some genuine human drama, the public will probably be willing to pay for it," he tells me. "Best of all would be to have a man-and-wife team and watch them raise the first lunar baby. If we go back with the pretence that it is for science, the public will probably switch to another channel."

    Does NASA have the guts?

    All this raises the question of whether NASA, viewed as stodgy and bloated by some experts, is anywhere near capable of such a compelling production effort. And can the publicly funded agency shift to full cooperation with the private sector?

    Perhaps most important, does NASA have the stomach for human spaceflight, after the harsh criticism it has suffered in the wake of the seven deaths aboard Columbia? Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, book author and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, thinks the agency is up to the task.

    Like other scientists connected to NASA, Tyson would not discuss what the White House might or should announce. But he was willing to share his general views on human spaceflight.

    "I do not equate concern for safety with being risk-averse," Tyson said. "If NASA were really risk-averse, nobody would ever get launched, ever."

    Tyson served on a 12-member commission, appointed by President Bush, that studied the future of the aerospace industry. The group made recommendations last year on ways to promote space exploration and maintain national security.

    "Any sensible model to privatize human space exploration would require some prospect of financial gain," Tyson said last week. Given the enormous costs of space travel, that model might require "initial government funds to stimulate such a market, as what happened with the government investments in airmail when travel by airplane was a nascent industry."

    Step aside, NASA

    Other analysts have staked out opposing positions on the privatization of space, suggesting adventurous companies -- like those run by Musk, Rutan and Bezos -- should go it alone to find wealth in space tourism, asteroid mining or wild new television shows. All the firms need, in this view, is a nudge from government in the form of approvals, payload contracts and perhaps tax incentives.

    The growing number of proponents for this future think NASA should simply get out of the way.

    "This is naive and wrong-headed," says author and artist William K. Hartmann, also a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

    Hartmann thinks international governmental cooperation is the best way to get humans to the Moon or Mars. Eventually, if a proper framework can be set, commercialization could and should blossom, Hartmann figures.

    Industry would certainly salivate over the opportunities. By all accounts there are seemingly unlimited resources in nearby space objects -- abundant water, metals and minerals, plus constant solar energy to power any project.

    Hartmann, whose latest book is "A Traveler's Guide to Mars" (Workman Publishing Company, 2003), worries whether any possible new Bush directive on human spaceflight would serve long-term global interests, however.

    "Do we want to hand over this unique moment and all those resources to a bunch of deregulated CEO's with their short-term, self-serving accountant mentality?" asks Hartmann. "Or can we design a strategy that fosters a better global payoff for our grandchildren?"

    Decision time

    Forty-two years after the former Soviet Union launched the first man off this planet, human spaceflight is historically poised.

    Analysts see a stark choice: The U.S. space program will fly forward and explore commercial, industrial and technological opportunities from the Moon to asteroids and on to Mars, or it will fall back into endless loops of what many call a mediocre science program fraught with dangerous trips a mere 250 miles back and forth to a financially bloated, underperforming orbital outpost.

    The ultimate goal of any return to human spaceflight, in the minds of many scientists, would be a multi-billion dollar crewed mission to Mars like the one proposed by Robert Zubrin, who leads the Mars Society. On Saturday, the advocacy group placed a plea on its web site for members to "get off your duff" and urge Bush on to Mars, lest NASA fall into a "pork-barrel cul-de-sac that will leave us stranded halfway to nowhere for decades."

    The Planetary Society, a separate advocacy group, had already begun urging its members to write to the White House in early November, also to encourage a human mission to Mars. More than 2,500 messages were sent by Nov. 26, the group says.

    If the U.S. president is indeed pondering a human mission to Mars, voter preference is surely on his mind.

    "I cannot predict whether the public will support a Zubrin-style set of missions to Mars," Dyson said. "It depends on whether it really will be a different NASA doing the job. But I am sure the chances of public support are better for this than for continuing to go nowhere with the shuttle and space-station."

    Meanwhile, there are new political factors that go beyond votes.

    China is suddenly on an aggressive path toward the Moon and Mars after launching its first man into space in October. India on Friday announced it had developed a rocket capable of putting a man on the Moon, a goal the country has set for itself.

    In a black void where the U.S. government sees the laurels of Apollo, others eye rich, endless opportunity. If President Bush does not decide the future of human spaceflight, perhaps the leader of another country, or the chief of an online book-selling empire, will.

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