A difficult question for space advocates

It’s that time of year again! That is, it’s NASA Authorization Act time.

Mostly, I agree with Dr. Steve Squyres’ views. NASA does need a clear long-term goal, it is getting too little support for its missions, and it would be best to leave implementation details up to the space agency’s own program management. But that’s not what I want to discuss here.

What I want to write about is the troubling effect NASA budget and mission discussions has on space advocates. They get the Mars people at the throats of the human exploration people, as the space technologists snipe at Earth science supporters. Meanwhile, the pro-aeronautics camp trashes the education outreach groups and the outer moons proponents try to make off with the fundamental scientists’ stuff.

Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and there’s not enough to go around.

The resulting NASA policies over the past several decades years have been on the incoherent side, and I think that is because the space community shies away from a really difficult question – a question that we currently cannot answer well. The crucial thing that we have to pin down is this:

What is the driving purpose of our space program?

I don’t mean to ask whether we should or should not have a space program. Suppose the answer is “yes.” Now, we need to identify what it’s for. What do we want out of NASA?

The reason why I want to ask this question is because NASA’s short- and long-term goals should fall out as consequences of our answer. We need not bicker over whether we should build a Space Launch System or wrangle an asteroid into lunar orbit. The value of those items should be clear when we measure their contribution to the overall NASA mission.

I also don’t mean to ask whether NASA’s goal should be the Moon or Mars. Those are points on the map, and they are not ends in and of themselves. They are destinations, not purposes. Even if we get to the destinations, the space program will not thrive without a purpose. We’ve seen that before.

So let’s ask ourselves the big question. The one that space advocates don’t want to talk about, I think, because they are afraid of sounding a little crazy when they answer.

Is the answer, for example, that we want NASA’s purpose to be to find extraterrestrial life? Should the space program’s goal instead be to expand human life to colonies beyond our home planet? Or ought NASA’s biggest prerogative be defending the Earth from asteroid impacts? Do we have such a need for tangible short-term benefits that space technology development is the best answer? Should cranking out fundamental scientific research be the main goal of the space agency?

I contend that each of these answers implies that some destinations, missions, and technologies would be better choices than others. This is a good thing, because then our overall purpose for NASA will clear up the annual muddle. For example:

  • If NASA’s purpose is to find alien life, then we ought to be sending as many robotic probes as we can to get under the ice of Outer Solar System moons like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.
  • If the goal is sustaining human colonies on other worlds, then human exploration of Mars and/or the Moon should get the lion’s share of NASA attention.
  • If planetary defense is the motivating goal, then the space program should be doing all it can to characterize, explore, and learn to manipulate asteroids and comets.
  • If space technology is the purpose, then NASA probably ought to be developing and expanding on the International Space Station.
  • For basic scientific research, the agency should be putting up all manner of space telescopes and sending probes to easy-to-reach targets, like Mars.

I don’t mean to suggest that NASA should do nothing else. But the main thrust of NASA activity really should support the overall goal directly.

Personally, I think the main purpose of the space program should be to locate extraterrestrial life (with human colonization a close second). Discovery of alien life would be a world-changing event. I think that’s the kind of impact we should be trying to achieve. Locating extraterrestrial life wouldn’t be the end of the story, either – if it is found, then other goals will quickly ensue. So, I see that as a good self-perpetuating purpose for the space program. (Human colonization of space is a close second.)

I want a big, ambitious purpose for NASA. I want that purpose to be unambiguously clear. And I want the purpose to be persistent enough to drive budget authorizations for enough political generations that we actually see progress towards the goal. In order for all that to happen, though, the space community needs to first identify the goal!


It seems that being at Williams College again for only a weekend is enough to prompt a little self-reflection.

Hopkins Gate
Hopkins Gate

I returned to my alma mater for the 2013 commencement exercises. The graduating seniors seemed like a powerhouse of innovation, leadership, and social change. The commencement speaker, Billie Jean King, stood up for gender equality through her career in professional sports. One of the honorary degree recipients, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, went from being a refugee to founding hospitals that provide medical care in impoverished nations. Another honorary degree went to Annie Lennox, who, at a pre-commencement event, condemned material and celebrity culture and spoke about how her visits to Africa inspired her to HIV/AIDS activism.

What, I thought, am I doing to improve the world we live in? Sure, I don’t have the influence power of Lennox – who did acknowledge the irony that her celebrity status and material security enable her to drive activism – but my chosen career is all about building spaceships. What does that do to make the Earth a better place?

I truly believe that it helps. That I am serving a fundamental good.

Imagine this: a group of people have fallen into a hole in the ground. The hole is too deep to get out of, and resources at the bottom of the hole are very scarce. The situation is bleak. What are they to do? Those with liberal inclinations may feel that they can best solve their problems by banding together and coordinating their efforts: cultivating moss and vines on the wall of the hole for sustenance, helping each other out when sickness strikes, and sharing the water that collects in nooks and crannies. The conservatively minded among them might instead think that each denizen of the hole should try to improve their lot individually – if some parts of the hole get more sunlight and water than others, and so some of the people are richer than others, then so be it – because that improves the standing of the people as a whole and the well-off individuals may devote some of their hard-won resources to assist others.

I think that both of these approaches are important ways to improve conditions in the hole. But I also think that there’s another thing that the people in the hole can do.

They can climb out.

They can get together and hoist a representative from among their number higher, and higher, until that person can plant his or her hands on the lip of the hole and breach the horizon.

The struggle to climb out is crucial to meaningful existence inside the hole. Without the idea that the people can climb out, what are they improving life inside the hole for? There needs to be a goal – but more than that, the goal needs to advance. It helps to set the goal high, because in striving to achieve it, we might learn more about our environs and ourselves, and find other ways to improve conditions – ways that we might not have seen at all if we hadn’t started to climb. The people in the hole don’t know what lies above, so they will need to give their climber provisions – and so might develop new and improved ways to cultivate, prepare, or preserve food. They might need hoists to get their climber up to ground level – and so might design mechanisms and machines that save labor in other activities.

Most important of all: once out of the hole, the climber can come back to relate what they see…or to help others follow.

I build spacecraft. I don’t feed the hungry, or clothe the needy, or heal the sick – at least, not to much more or less an extent than the average middle-class person does. I don’t volunteer in the Peace Corps, or tutor in sub-Saharan Africa, or assist in impoverished clinics. I build space ships.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, though, we have a global positioning system that allows those aid workers to get where they need to go. We have a global communications network that allows those volunteers to coordinate their activities from the most wired national capitals to the remotest wastelands. We have weather data that improves our ability to predict storms, droughts, floods, and climate. We have pictures of the Earth that show us the lay of the land, and how the land is changing.

Because of spacecraft and the space industry, we learn how to make more efficient solar power generators. We learn how to stretch out thin resources into expanded capabilities. We learn basic scientific facts about other worlds, giving us more lenses through which we can look at our own. We learn to build more and more precise scientific instruments. We learn to build more robust and effective machines. Sometimes, we put a human being on one of our spacecraft, and we learn even more. We learn to be better climbers.

I’m only one person, and I can’t do everything to help. I do what I can. One thing I can do is to keep moving the goalposts outward. I can keep us climbing.

To see the fruits of these efforts, I can look everywhere: from the precision medical device on my belt to the way we fundamentally think about the Earth as a planet, the influence of space exploration and industry manifests itself.

We need problem-solvers on Earth. I’m glad to see them. Alongside them, though, to keep making the world a better place, we need climbers.

I know I’m not the first person to say this. I also hope I’m not the last. But, you know, sometimes it needs saying.