Must we choose between space science and human space exploration?
One of the venerable conflicts over the budget for public space agencies is that between funding for science missions, almost all robotic probes, and funding for human space exploration, which is extremely expensive but tends to engage with the public to a greater degree and to provide a source of national prestige.
This conflict has been centrally important to space exploration, because up until very recently only nation-states possessed the resources to have access to space. As the spending priorities of nation-states inevitably involve political conflict, the funding rivalry between space science and human missions into space has become a politically fraught battle, with emotionally-charged arguments being made on both sides of the divide.
Because science can be done much more cheaply and effectively by robotic probes than by human beings, there are those who have argued that human space missions are an anthropocentric waste of time, and it would be better to concentrate what scarce resources are available on space science, to the exclusion of human missions into space if need be.
The response to this conflict to date has been that of compromise: there have been both spectacular space science missions by automated probes, as well as spectacular human missions into space. The Space Race was dominated by human achievements in space, primarily historic firsts in space, but parallel to this human focus of the Space Race, all along there has been a robust program of robotic exploration of the solar system to destinations not yet within the scope of human missions.
There is no question but that space science has been worth the investment. As I wrote in my Centauri Dreams post Synchrony in Outer Space:
“ It is often said that these Space Race levels of expenditure were ruinous, but I am not aware of any studies that show that even extravagant expenditures on space exploration have negatively impacted terrestrial events, while numerous studies have shown the spinoff benefits of the space program for terrestrial civilization.”
And in an earlier Centauri Dreams post, Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization, I wrote:
“…even if we have done very little in the past forty years in terms of human space exploration and extraterrestrial settlement, and we are still accessing earth orbit with disposable chemical rockets, space science has made enormous progress during this period of time, and this knowledge has transformed our understanding of our universe and our place within it. This growth of our knowledge of the universe has made the universe a little less uncertain and a little more predictable for us, suggesting clear paths for the management and mitigation of existential risk.”
This particular conflict over funding, however, must be understood in its historical context, which historical context is the high cost of access to space during the earliest part of the Space Age (and continuing high costs today). These particular conditions have defined the early Space Age, but they will not always define the human relationship to space. Indeed, this relationship is already beginning to change; the age of reusable rockets is upon us, and private-sector reusable space planes may soon follow.
With this in mind, then, it was with great interest that I read the following passage from Elon Musk’s path to Mars begins with Red Dragon — but what science will it do? by Sid Perkins:
“Although the first Red Dragon mission would largely be a technology demonstration, there has been great interest from scientists about what sorts of experiments might piggyback on the mission — or, more likely, on its follow-ons in 2020 and beyond, says James Reuter, a deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at the space agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.”
If a technology demonstrator can pique “great interest from scientists,” imagine what a fully functioning space transportation infrastructure would do for science. Low cost human access to space will not come at the expense of space science, it will be a boon to space science.
I have already touched on this in an article I wrote with Dr. Jacob Shively, “Adventure Science Enters the Space Age,” in which we argued that the paradigm of “big science” will once again temporarily cede its place to “adventure science” when access to space becomes less expensive and human beings can roam freely in the solar system. The presence of human beings throughout the solar system will mean that any human being going to some location for the first time may make an unprecedented discovery, and once again there will be low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge to be plucked, but this time by human beings rather than machines.
Civilization will eventually catch up to this development, and big science will re-emerge, bigger than ever, scaled to the size of a system-wide civilization, but that will follow upon the maturity of spacefaring civilization, which is some time yet in the offing. The infancy of spacefaring civilization, by contrast, belongs to individuals engaged in adventure science.
Science follows were human beings go. The space science that follows from the possibilities of a spacefaring civilization will dwarf the space science performed during the earliest stages of the Space Age, though the earliest space science has already plucked the low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge, much of it never even suspected before the use of robotic probes. Our knowledge has been permanently expanded by this earliest stage of the Space Age. It will be expanded again by the adventure science of the early stages of spacefaring civilization, and yet again when spacefaring civilization allows us to pursue “big science” beyond Earth, each in their turn.
Robotic probes will continue to play a major role in future space science, as they precede human beings on our journey into the cosmos. Perhaps the same debate will emerge once again when it is argued whether it is better to send robotic probes to the stars, or to send more expensive and less specifically scientific missions to other worlds. Certainly, early probes to other stars and their exoplanets will once again pluck the low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge, and, once again, when individual human beings arrive at these exoplanets there will be another new age of adventure science.