THE BLOG
10/09/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's Time to Take the Science Out of Space

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2014-10-09-FinalFrontier.jpgWhen I began writing Final Frontier, my recent book on spaceflight past, present and future, I had a clear picture of the financial and practical realities. Manned flights (and the International Space Station, or ISS) have almost no scientific value. We should stop wasting our science budgets immediately and focus on the space science work that really does deliver -- unmanned satellites and probes. I knew exactly what I was going to say. And yet by the time I had finished the book, my opinion had reversed.

In part it was a reawakening of memories. Revisiting that wonderful time in the late '60s when, as a young person, I witnessed the most amazing thing anyone had ever seen. A human being walking on the Moon. I had been brought up on Doctor Who and Star Trek. This was the ultimate in making dreams come true. But also my shift in viewpoint was the result of thinking through a head versus heart argument.

This debate is typified by the views of two scientists, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg and the astronomer-turned-science-popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Weinberg, the "head" in the debate, points out that a major science project, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was abandoned because the funds went instead to the ISS. The SSC would have been significantly more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and would have achieved results a good ten years earlier, argues Weinberg. This would have been a major step in fundamental science research.

By comparison, the ISS has cost the U.S. government more than ten times the SSC budget and has yielded nothing of scientific value. All the useful space science, Weinberg points out, has been done using unmanned satellites. "In the days of the Cold War," Weinberg commented, "perhaps it really was important to America to be the first country to put a man on the Moon and not let it be Russia, but today I think that really is irrelevant ... Any argument of national prestige that could have been valid in the 1960s is certainly not valid fifty 50 years later."

By contrast Tyson, the "heart" in the debate, argues passionately for manned exploration of space. Tyson points out that manned missions are essential to raise public interest -- and without that interest, the funding for science in general fails to follow. When dollars are hard to come by the public can easily say, "Why should we waste our tax on obscure research?" Tyson argues for a human presence in space as a massive PR exercise. And he also sees a patriotic benefit is supporting "our" astronauts. In essence, Tyson underlines the link between the human exploration of space and national pride.

Like many defenders of space programs, Tyson's final argument is to point out the spin-off benefits. You know the kind of thing. We might spend a lot on getting people into space, but as a result we've got things like Teflon and Velcro. (As it happens, neither of these frequently used examples came out of the space program, but you know what I mean.) This is a fruitless argument. If we spent a tiny fraction of the space budget on blue skies R&D we would get many more new and interesting products.

In reality, both Weinberg and Tyson only see a small part of the picture. What the virtual debate between the two comes down to is establishing the priorities of the science budget. This will inevitably be bad for space exploration. There is no doubt that Weinberg is right in terms of science spending. There are far more bangs per buck to be had from unmanned space expeditions, or earthbound science, than manned missions. It is pretty well impossible to justify the risk and cost of putting humans into space for scientific purposes.

However, there is something else, something bigger, that comes through in Tyson's passion. Going into space is not really a scientific endeavor at all. It may be done for any or all of political, commercial, sociological -- even spiritual -- purposes, but it isn't too much about science. We need to separate our thinking here. Spaceflight is related closer to defense spending than science -- it is about doing something that is at the heart of keeping our civilization safe. By making it thriving and fresh.

Much as I love science, I have come to realize how little it has to do with space exploration. Scientists inevitably overvalue the scientific component of any activity, but in reality there is more to life -- and in the case of manned space exploration, there is more to making life worth living.

Opening up the new frontier, exploring space, is a fundamental requirement for the future if we are not to see humanity settle into an asset-poor senescence, with fewer and fewer resources and no drive or energy. If we want the human race to thrive and grow, then we need to reach out. These are going to be missions on a scale that go beyond Tyson's nationalism, but it does not mean that the United States (or Europe, or China...) lacks a huge role to play, nor does it prevent space exploration being a goal that can unite a nation and give it a new drive and hope in the triumphs of its astronauts and missions within the framework of an international program.

The old Star Trek introduction may be corny, but space truly is the final frontier, and we should be out there.

Brian Clegg is author, most recently, of Final Frontier, published by St Martins Press. For more information about this and Brian's other books, visit www.brianclegg.net