Commentary | Tears in Rain: The Case For Manned Space Travel

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“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

— Roy Batty, “Blade Runner”

 

Neil Armstrong is dead. The space shuttle program is no more. The Constellation program has been canceled, and the main spacecraft is a wheezy 50-year-old Soyuz. Our cosmic escapades feel distant. All those memories of daring men and women of “The Right Stuff” will soon be lost in time, like tears in rain, unless as a species we recognize the urgent need to venture to the stars. 

On Jan. 31, NASA honored all the members of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia who perished while “furthering the cause of exploration and discovery.” Surely they would be devastated that their bravery and sacrifice might have been in vain as the great American pioneer flame gutters in the winds of political expediency. 

Manned space travel is essential to both inspire and safeguard humanity. The challenge to cross the void between worlds is monumental. If we fail to accept this obstacle, mankind will wither, first in spirit and then in body, for in the long run, as former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, “a single-planet species will not survive.”

The imperative for manned space is simultaneously offensive and defensive. Offensive because of humanity’s need to grow, explore and be inspired. Defensive because “Earth is too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in,” as Robert A. Heinlein said.

We are defined by our constant restless urge to keep looking beyond the horizon and through the clouds. It was this which took our ancestors out from the plains of Africa to the wolf-haunted forests of Northern Europe. It was this which drove Magellan around the globe, took Zheng He to the straits of Hormuz and Shackleton to the ice fortresses of the Antarctic. It is this which should drive us, in the words of Euripides, “on through the dark till the dim stars wane.” It is a thirst, a hunger and a deep longing. It is the “clear call that cannot be denied,” as the poet John Masefield wrote of the sea. 

Manned space travel has the capability of uniting people across a world fractured by economic inequality and religious divide. The Americans and the Russians did it successfully at the height of the Cold War. The response to a United Nations space program to Mars or Titan would be immensely profound. Each country could play its part. Imagine if we were to reignite the Islamic world to the glories of its “Golden Age” leadership in space research and astronomy. Imagine a mankind looking only forward, unified in hope and high adventure. Astronauts voyaging as emissaries of the human race. 

In truth we have little choice. Our craved resources are finite. Our population is booming. We may escape the Malthusian trap by growing affluence. We may not. Why take the risk? Manned space is insurance against both Earth-bound and existential unpredictability. After all, as Larry Niven said, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.”

The counterargument to manned space travel is predicated on three elements: cost, risk and utility. 

At a time of crippling austerity and welfare cuts, democratic governments find the cost of manned space travel difficult to justify to a recession-weary electorate. An analysis of the numbers, however, tells a surprisingly different story. In 2006, when the shuttle program was still operating, the U.S. spent $7 billion on human spaceflight. In the same year, Americans bought more than $154 billion worth of alcohol! 

It is also estimated that for every dollar spent on manned space, the U.S. economy earns about $8 worth of economic benefit. NASA does not receive any royalties for its technological breakthroughs, for example, in microcomputers. Instead, the U.S. Treasury is the beneficiary of the patents and licenses that develop from NASA innovations. 

In contrast, the total amount spent on manned space is dwarfed by the amount taxpayers have had to delve to bail out failed financial institutions since 2008. Would it not be better for the renowned mathematical minds of Wall Street and the City of London to be diverted to solving the issues involving space travel and thereby secure the survival of the human race rather than creating even more complex “financial instruments of mass destruction,” as Warren Buffett labeled derivatives?   

Following the Columbia and Challenger disasters, risk is clear and present. Space travel is probably the most dangerous activity mankind can currently undertake. The universe is a hostile environment. However, exploration has always come at a cost. All strange environments are hostile to mankind, until we develop the unparalleled experience and equipment to overcome them. If risk were the deciding factor in man’s development we would not have left the cave, let alone reached the Moon. Risk cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed providing there is the political will to accept risk in the first place. 

The last counterargument is utility, especially human vs. robotic exploration. The utility of robots is somewhat harder to address empirically. Robotic space programs are cheaper, less risky and currently can go farther. To answer it, we must return to the core argument for manned space travel: to inflame the imagination, to unite the people of the world in a common purpose and ultimately to secure the future of mankind.

If we choose to abandon manned space travel, we take the easy road to eventual stagnation. We must choose the hard road because, as President John F. Kennedy said, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Let us choose the hard road or risk our achievements being lost in time, like tears in rain. 

 

Harry Corlett is a 15-year-old student at Winchester College in the U.K.