A few days ago, I was thinking about some of the arguments for and against human spaceflight. Professor Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was recently cited as saying that we should stop placing people into space. Tim Peake, the recent European Space Agency British astronaut, after returning from a 6 month mission, was the focus of his attention on this occasion, but in others Lord Rees even went so far as to condemn the Apollo program as being a waste of time, and that more could be done with robotic missions.
Friends of mine have had the distinct and very rare honour to have held and examined first hand, some of the Apollo lunar samples that astronauts from 11 through to 17 brought back by the bucket load. In total almost 850 lbs of moon rocks brought back during the Apollo missions have provided scientists with over 45 years of research data (and counting), whereas robotic missions have at best brought back a few precious ounces (grams) of material. Ian Crawford, an eminent lunar scientist at Birkbeck College, University of London, has long argued that only by sending humans back to the Moon (and to Mars) will we really start to gain a full insight into these worlds, and he’s right.
On their travels in the lunar rover, astronauts on Apollo 15, 16 and 17, managed to cover in a matter of days, what it took robotic rovers almost a decade to do (and that was by sheer luck with the rovers having an expected lifetime of several months). The Apollo astronauts found rocks such as the famous “Genesis” rock, which hugely expanded our insights in to the formation of our Moon and the solar system, through to the “Orange Soil” uncovered by Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan on Apollo 17.
Placing a real geologist on the lunar surface, with the human ability to “just try having a look here”, and no time delay or software programming required, is more expensive than placing a robot on the Moon (or indeed Mars), but the value of it can be measured in so much more than scientific return.
Tim Peake’s mission was hailed as a huge success for British science, and yes, whilst the scientific return and achievements of the ISS do pale compared to Apollo, it’s still putting science in the public eye, in a way that no robotic mission ever has or will ever. Tim engaged with thousands of school children, and hopefully inspired them to think of science as not just “old men in white lab coats”.
We try to humanise our robotic missions, and we all had a special place in our hearts for Viking, Voyager, MSL, Spirit,Cassini… even down to the silly “cartoonification” (sic) of the Rosetta mission, but the public engagement of a human mission can never be matched by a robotic one. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface in 1969, most of the planet watched. In an era before the Internet, we were all glued to our black and white televisions, staring at grainy images, and hoping that all was well. Imagine the impact a human mission to Mars would have now?
The element of fear and disaster is often cited as one reason why we get excited about human missions. The reaction to Philae bouncing off the surface of a comet and getting lost, whilst emotional for some, was nothing compared to the outpouring of grief when the Apollo 1 fire, Challenger and Columbia disasters occurred (and that is not to forget the lives lost by the USSR). Gus Grissom was one of the most accomplished pilots NASA ever had, Ed White, the first American in space, and Roger Chaffee all gave the ultimate sacrifice for their pursuit of a dream. That is the true cost of human spaceflight, not monetary, but the possibility that people simply may not survive. But should you ask any astronaut if they think it’s worth it, and they all say yes. It was Gus Grissom himself who said ”The conquest of space is worth the risk of life”.
When NASA tried to cancel the last Hubble servicing mission, again, there was a public outcry. One of the most prolific scientific instruments in history was about to have its “life” cut short, but then the astronauts who had loved and serviced it before, stepped in, and boldly said they would be prepared to risk their lives to fix it.
In an era with so much political and “pseudo” religious (I say that as no religion should or would condone the killing of other people) strife on Earth. Human exploration, time and again shows we can work as a species, not just as a nation or collection of nations, but as a planet. The ISS may not be Apollo, but it’s what we have right now to inspire the children, who one day we hope will grow up to become the engineers and astronauts of tomorrow.
Flight Director Gene Kranz once said that the loss of life was the cost of the pursuit of the goal of going to the Moon. His speech, copied here, is legendary, and shows what true greatness and leadership means:
“Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.
From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
So in response to Lord Rees, we say that Astronomers, with the greatest of respect, should really stick to astronomy, and leave the true exploration to those who want to make it happen… both on the ground and in the skies, for without exploration, we will languish on our “Pale Blue Dot” for all eternity, never venturing far from our front door…