Op-ed | Mars mania is completely rational


This commentary originally appeared in the May 22, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In April, NASA’s robotic probe Cassini attracted widespread media coverage as it neared the end of its expedition of Saturn and its moons. While NASA celebrates the remarkable success of Cassini, it is hard not to look towards the future and ask, ‘what’s next?’

For the White House, the answer remains Mars. Recently, President Donald Trump showed his enthusiastic support for NASA’s mission to the red planet during a call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, boldly declaring, “we want to try and do it during my first term.” But, beyond the impossibility of such a near-term goal, is there sufficient motivation for a manned mission to Mars? Or is our nation’s money better spent on more affordable, reliable, and safer robotic missions like Cassini?

Before answering these questions, it is important to understand the common rationales behind manned space exploration. As determined by the National Academies’ government-funded Committee on Human Spaceflight in their 2014 investigation, “Pathways to Exploration,” these rationales can be broken up into two categories: “pragmatic” and “aspirational.”

Pragmatic rationales represent the practical reasons such as economic benefits, scientific discovery, or technological advancement. Aspirational rationales, on the other hand, are more intangible reasons like a shared human destiny to explore or the survival of the human race.

In researching these two categories, the committee determined human space exploration is rationalized only by a combination of both pragmatic and aspirational justifications. They conclude, “the aspirational rationales, when supplemented by the practical benefits associated with the pragmatic rationales, do … argue for a continuation of our nation’s human spaceflight program.” Ultimately, their conclusion relies on our ability to see evidence of the practical benefits and to prove the legitimacy of the aspirational ones.

When searching for evidence of practical technological and economic benefits, it is common practice for NASA and its proponents to point towards so-called spin-off technologies. Created through commercial licensing of NASA inventions, these spin-offs include, among many other common household technologies, quartz-crystal clocks, MRIs, cordless power tools and solar panels.

Cassini is in the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, with 22 close approaches planned before the mission ends with a dive into the planet’s atmosphere in September. Credit: NASA
Cassini is in the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, with 22 close approaches planned before the mission ends with a dive into the planet’s atmosphere in September. Credit: NASA

Obviously, spin-offs play an important role in our modern society, but it is unclear whether their development is dependent on manned missions. To the committee and other experts in the field, it seems that similar technological advancements could be stimulated through inexpensive robotic missions or other government-funded programs on Earth.

The fate of human space exploration, therefore, rests more in our ability to demonstrate the validity of the aspirational rationales. The philosophical and emotional aspects of these rationales, however, make them nearly impossible to prove universally true. Alternatively, public opinion polls seem to illustrate strong support of NASA and human space exploration in the United States, suggesting the actuality of the aspirational rationales.

Support for previous human spaceflight missions are approaching unanimous. Since 1979, when fewer than 50 percent of U.S adults reported the moon landing was “worth it,” support has risen, reaching 71 percent in 2009. This support also extends to NASA’s Mars endeavors. A Boeing-sponsored poll in 2013 found that “75% of Americans Strongly Agree or Agree that it is worthwhile to increase NASA’s percentage of the federal budget to 1 percent to fund a mission to Mars.” And, 67 percent of Americans agreed “the United States should send both humans and robots to Mars.”

Given this apparent mandate that space exploration should include humans, experts have offered their alternatives to traditional manned missions. Sociologist William Bainbridge proposes that we transport human personalities through space embodied in information systems. But it is unlikely this idea will hold the same emotional value with the populace.

For now at least, it seems that with the practical and aspirational benefits, NASA should continue to fund manned exploration of deep space. After all, exploration is a human endeavor and, therefore, should include humans. As for Cassini, if anything, it showed the world that there are plenty of interesting places for humans to visit and study.

Micah Roschelle is an engineering student and space enthusiast at Columbia University.