The Sciences

A Gadfly's Perspective on Human Spaceflight

The question about benefits is rhetorical but an instance of holding missions concerned with sending humans to space up to the same scrutiny reserved for other, often less prestigious, expeditions.

Late last year, the Government of India sanctioned Rs 10,000 crore for the country’s first human spaceflight programme, to be fulfilled by 2022. Under this project, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to send three Indian astronauts to low-Earth orbit for a little less than a week and return them safely.

Colloquially called Gaganyaan, the project is part of India’s efforts to portray itself as a global space power or at least place itself at par with China.

Politicians that typically balk when asked to invest in climate-change mitigation or fundamental research jump at the chance to release the purse strings for spaceflight – even if they are of dubious relevance. Case in point: the ‘space command’, which India, China and the US are currently setting up. Indeed, as a result of such showmanship and megalomania, the leaders of these countries are militarising space in earnest. If taken to its logical conclusion, this will further wreck a world already divided along religious, racial, class and caste lines.

Such space projects are useful when demagogues are looking for something to blow their trumpets over, at the expense of asking whether there are any real science outcomes. This is why – especially when governments announce new space initiatives – we need to raise uncomfortable questions about their overall guiding logic and benefits.

One such question is of priorities: is it worth investing in a programme that may not be able to produce any concrete social benefits?

Any large technological programme with massive investment is highly likely to produce marginal benefits, sometimes called spin-offs. Oft-quoted examples include the development of the World Wide Web and the synchrotron — both at CERN, the European lab for research in nuclear physics. Satellite-based space missions have gone beyond that, however, having changed the way we communicate and observe the natural universe in revolutionary ways. ISRO has also made commendable contributions, particularly in light of its humble yet entrepreneurial beginnings in Thumba, a small hamlet near Thiruvananthapuram, in 1963.

Also read: ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space

But the potential benefits that could accrue from human spaceflight are not very clear, at least not immediately. Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA, wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year:

NASA remains one of the most revered and valuable brands in the world, and the agency is at its best when given a purpose. But the public doesn’t understand the purpose of spending massive amounts of money to send a few astronauts to the moon or Mars. Are we in another race, and if so, is this the most valuable display of our scientific and technological leadership? If science is the rationale, we can send robots for pennies on the dollar.

The celebrated physicist Steven Weinberg is also a well-known science communicator. His latest book, Third Thoughts (2018), includes an article he wrote in 2013 in the journal Space Policy. In the article, he rebuts a paper entitled ‘The essential role of human space flight’ published in the same journal. The paper reads:

… should the US and nations at large pursue a human spaceflight program (and if so, why)? I offer an unwavering positive answer … Space exploration is a human activity that is intrinsically forward-looking, and as such, has positive potential. Both national and international space programs can galvanize the population, inspire the youth, foster job-creation, and motivate the existing workforce. The nature of the enterprises involved—their scale, novelty, and complexity—requires a steady and continuous upward progression toward greater societal, scientific and technological development. That is, in order to overcome the challenges of human spaceflight, progress is required. More to the point, the survival of humanity depends on expanding beyond the confines of our planet. Human spaceflight, in short, presents us with an opportunity to significantly advance the nation and the global community.

In his article, Weinberg refutes the key arguments in favour of human spaceflight, saying that space-based observatories like the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have broadened our understanding of the universe. More recent breakthroughs on the origin and evolution of the universe have all been derived from data generated by these observatories.

The Hubble space telescope also belongs in this league, and its mantle as the most significant space-based observatory will soon be passed on to the James Webb Space Telescope. Additionally, robotic missions – like the Curiosity rover on Mars, the Yutu rover on the Moon, JUNO around Jupiter and the Hayabusa 2 probe at the Ryugu asteroid (not his examples but just as relevant) – are expanding our horizons. Weinberg then asks the same question of human spaceflight: What are its benefits?

Some have said that astronauts’ experiences can inspire others and generates a “certain potential for greatness for the present and future generations”. But Weinberg is dismissive of this aspect: “Manned spaceflight is a spectator sport, which can be exciting for spectators, but this is not the sort of excitement that seems to lead to anything serious.”

The question about benefits is not asked rhetorically but as an instance of holding missions concerned with sending humans to space up to the same scrutiny reserved for other, often less prestigious, expeditions.

In addition, we must also ask what the priorities of our publicly funded space science and technology initiatives are. Sending humans to space without an overarching vision that answers such questions will cost us dearly as a nation.

Consider the US National Academy of Sciences’ decadal strategy for Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS). Such peer-reviewed surveys are notable for sampling the aspirations of the scientific community, enabling larger bodies to build a prioritised programme of science goals that can play a major role in the US. For example, ESAS 2017 declared that NASA should prioritise the study of the global hydrological cycle; the distribution and movement of mass between oceans, ice sheets, groundwater and the atmosphere; and changes in surface biology and geology.

Also read: If ‘Chandrayaan 2 Was a 90-95% Success’ Is the Answer, What’s the Question?

India already has satellites that assist monitor Earth dynamics, including earthquakes, landslides, large-scale groundwater extraction, atmospheric moisture and winds, sea conditions, and its scientists collaborate with agencies that use satellites to study ice-sheets and glaciers. Such observations provide inputs to develop hazard mitigation programmes.

ISRO should focus on such applications, and the science thereof, in a more purposeful manner and fix targets to develop comprehensive Earth observation systems; and on building linkages to higher education centres in the country that could then conduct research based on the data obtained from Earth and planetary observation systems. And it should locate these projects within a list of priorities and a broader scientific agenda that has been justified to the government. It makes more sense to leave human spaceflight, at least when we know a mission-critical part of the 21st century is just beginning, to those with fewer goals on their hands.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.