Monday, July 27, 2009

The Stuff That’s Not Right

A gusher of quasi-religious human spaceflight advocacy has erupted in predictable response to the 40th anniversary of the first human Moon landing (July 20, 1969). The commonest tack has been to bemoan our lack of progress and call for renewed dedication to human flight to the Moon and Mars. I didn’t even try to dip my cup in the torrent of exhortation, reading time being a finite resource and the arguments all much of a muchness, but a friend drew my attention to the essay by Thomas Wolfe in the New York Times ( Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff (1979), is a major pop historian of space flight, and therefore worth looking at.

In characteristically peppy prose, Wolfe recaps the history of the race to the Moon and argues that NASA must make an impassioned, big-values case for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit so that it can stop dorking around and get back to its real business of building “a bridge to the stars.”

His argument isn't explicitly religious, but he does throw in god-language in the second paragraph, irony-coated for easy swallowing: “The American space program [was] the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add ‘godlike’? — quest in the history of the world. . . ” Sure it’s OK, Tom, because it’s honest. Robotic exploration of the Solar System is about satisfying curiosity, expanding scientific knowledge, harvesting visions of strange beauty for all to see: human spaceflight is about our jones for the “godlike.” So let’s just put that out there for the Universe.

Except Wolfe feels the need to make some kind of
argument for spaceflight, and so offers a form of the standard case: colonizing other planets is needed to guarantee long-term racial survival. Admiringly paraphrasing Nazi slave-driver Werner von Braun [], he argues that “The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe.” This is an uncommonly silly version of the prudential argument for space colonization, which usually cites asteroid impacts as the likeliest race-ender: the Sun is due to last for several billion years more. Its inevitable demise in the distant cosmic future is no reason at all for upping NASA’s budget in fiscal year 2011.

But that’s how Wolfe handles mere fact throughout this whole essay. One wonders if his access to the Internet was impaired. For example, his explanation of why orbital nukes were not deployed by the US and USSR in the 1960s is complete bosh. The “three-body problem” was irrelevant, as 2 minutes of online research would have told him, as were the technical difficulties arising from the complex relative velocities of satellite, warhead, and target (which he also cites). The re-entry targeting problem must be solved for
any ballistic missile: all such are lobbed into space before descending toward their targets. That’s what makes them “ballistic.” The problem cannot be essentially harder for an object in an orbital trajectory rather than a parabolic one. The first real reason there are no space nukes is that they would have to be stored in plain sight in a highly vulnerable, continuously observable location—i.e., orbit. Submarines, in contrast, can hit their targets almost as quickly, quicker in some cases, from shifty, hard-to-detect, un-first-strikeable starting points, and land-based ICBMs deployed deep inside home territory are easy to maintain and can be launched before attacking missiles can get at them. Second and more importantly, the US and USSR both feared (sensibly) that each power might attempt to co-orbit nuclear mines with their enemy's space missiles—a countermeasure impossible with land-based or sea-based weapons—leading to a hellishly unstable, thousand-sided Mexican standoff. Hence the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Wolfe tirelessly compares astronauts to warriors engaged in “single combat.” The analogy is too pat. First, there was if anything a rather collegial feeling between the rival space programs, not a militant oppositional one. International standards for assisting distressed astronauts were agreed on in 1967 and 1968 (Treaty on Rescue and Return). Second, the astronauts competed at performing stunts, not clobbering each other. The superpower rivalry for Olympic medals in swimming, figure skating, and gymnastics would be a much closer parallel. These unusual people—athletes, astronauts—were put forth, however foolishly, as existence proofs of what each rival system could accomplish. They were trophy humans. Their whole point was that they were non-military, that they supposedly proved each country's ability to create or achieve or build something up, not merely to blow stuff to kingdom come.

One wonders if Wolfe—or the
Times—fact-checks anything. Well, he gets it right when he says that a Russian dog was the first animal in orbit, but then he goes on to claim the Shuttle was originally “supposed to appeal to the public by offering orbital tourist rides.” I'm pretty sure he's just making this up. I have never read any such thing and doubt that such a frivolous goal would have been floated in the days when NASA was trying to convince Congress to fund the Shuttle's development. There was indeed optimistic talk of the Shuttle eventually paying for itself, but through orbital industrial activity, not joyride tickets.

Finally, his breezy dismissal of the basic “why not send robots” question—citing von Braun again, this time to the effect that “there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor”—is childish. Human brains are indeed more powerful than microchips, no duh. But they are in fact more expensive to raise and educate than computers are to build, quips about unskilled procreation to the side. When it comes to space flight, computers do not require life-support systems hundreds or thousands of times more massive than themselves and do not need to be brought home alive. They can therefore be sent out in relatively large numbers on very risky, comparatively cheap, usually one-way missions to collect data while the humans stay right here on Earth and analyze it—which is exactly how and why the Solar System, including Mars, has been explored so extremely well since the 1970s. Sciencewise, the entire wealth of Earth would barely have sufficed to achieve using astronauts what NASA has achieved using robots on a fraction of its annual budget. True, geologists pick up better rocks than robots do—unless the robots are being remotely controlled by geologists. Which they always are.

There is simply no astronaut/robot rivalry to seriously
discuss when it comes to science for the dollar. The true reasons for manned spaceflight, whatever their merits, are entirely nonscientific. Hubble telescope notwithstanding, yes: even adjusting for inflation, the Hubble could have been re-built and re-launched several times over for the cost of the five Shuttle repair missions at ~$1G each. And it was a skinny baby to begin with because of the vampire suction of the Shuttle development budget.

Colorful-essayist disease: Wolfe has it bad. The striking phrase is preferred over the complex fact every time.