Space programs are not ambitious enough

This week, NASA announced the selection of nine instruments for a proposed mission to Europa. Europa is probably the best place we know about to find alien life, and the discovery of alien life would surely be an achievement rivaling the moon landing in NASA – and human – history. I have an issue with the thinking presented by NASA in its press releases, though. Agency spokespeople say things indicating that the purpose of the Europa mission is to determine whether or not Europa “could be habitable.” The exact phrase on the web site linked to above is that this mission is part of “our search for oases that could support life” (emphasis mine). That’s not what I want from a mission to Europa. Probes to outer planets come decades apart, so I want to get as much done in a single shot as possible. What I want is to determine whether or not there is life on Europa.

The important difference between those two statements – determine whether Europa could support life and determine whether Europa has life – betrays a slight difference in ambition. I want the big-risk, big-reward activities and objectives of a true moonshot. NASA is hedging its statements, and lowering the bar of its mission goals.

I’m coming to believe that the statement about Europa Clipper’s objectives is symptomatic of a general lack of ambition in NASA’s modern thinking. You can see it in other statements the agency makes: Mars Science Lab Curiosity‘s mission was to determine whether Mars, at some point in its past, could once have been an environment that supported life. The oft-repeated purpose of the “proving ground” activities in the human spaceflight program’s “Journey to Mars” campaign is to “learn how to live and work in space.”

I don’t want to do those things. I want to find out if there is life on Europa; similarly I want to find out if there is (or was) life on Mars, and I want people to live and work in space.

Ironic that a space program – of all things – would lack ambition, isn’t it?

You might think that this is just the public relations spin. NASA is trying to manage expectations, so that they know they can achieve the first objectives of any mission and claim success immediately. Then they can parade that success in front of Congress, while the scientists go after their real scientific objectives in the “extended mission.” But I think the underlying philosophy here is penetrating beyond the publicity level into the actual mission design. It’s easy to find statements from scientists, engineers, and NASA spokespeople that Curiosity couldn’t actually find life on Mars unless that life walked in front of its camera and waved hello. To me, those statements beg the question: why not? We sent a nuclear-powered jetpack-landed laser-toting robot all the way to Mars, why wouldn’t we put some instruments on it that can identify basic things like amino acids? Similarly: NASA sends a probe to Jupiter approximately once per decade (and slowing). Since that rate keeps dropping as time passes, why wouldn’t we try to answer the big questions as soon as we can?

The way NASA now formulates its missions, I can just imagine a variation of Kennedy’s famous moon landing speech: “Our nation should dedicate itself to the goal, before this decade is out, of lifting a man five inches above the surface of the Earth. If that is achieved, this mission is a complete success. As a stretch goal, we might have that flight go to the Moon.”

The great thing about opening up the ambitions of our space program is that it would enable engineers to implement known solutions to the problems we face in space. For example: we know that humans have health problems after spending long periods of time in microgravity. Do we need to keep answering the question of whether or not humans have health problems after spending long periods of time in microgravity? Or can we instead think about the details of building spacecraft that spin to provide artificial gravity? Similarly, we know that there are extreme logistical challenges in sending people to Mars. Do we think about long a mission we could run given the amount of food we can send up with our astronauts, or can we think about the details of having them grow food on Mars?

The difference between those questions is the difference between “learning to live and work in space” and “living and working in space.”

It’s also the difference between the space program we have, and the space program we imagine.

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