More on science and technology from The Atlantic Monthly.


From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Into Orbit—and Beyond" (November 5, 1998)
How did The Atlantic report on John Glenn's first flight into orbit? A look at how far we've come since the earliest days of the space program.

Flashbacks: "Our Place in Space" (July 23, 1997)
A look back at Atlantic articles tracing our long preoccupation with the extraterrestrial.



Flashbacks
 
Money Into the Void

March 3, 2004
 
n the early morning hours of January 3, 2004, Mars Exploration Rover #1, better known as Spirit, entered the Martian atmosphere approximately 660 feet from its planned entry point, after a journey of 300 million miles. It was the most accurate navigation of a spacecraft in the history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Exactly three weeks later, on January 24, Spirit's sister rover, Opportunity, landed on the opposite side of the Red Planet. Both probes, identical in construction, are attempting to discover the role water played in the early geological history of the planet, and to answer the question of whether any past conditions on the planet were conducive to creating life. Though the arrivals on Mars of Spirit and Opportunity were separated by only twenty-one days, the prospects of the institution that launched them dramatically changed in the interim.

On January 14, President Bush, in a speech at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., introduced the most sweeping overhauls of the space program since President Kennedy's 1961 proclamation that the United States would land on the moon before the end of the decade. The Bush plan calls for a re-dedication to the robotic and human exploration of the solar system, especially the Moon and Mars, construction of a replacement for the aging Space Shuttle, and completion of remaining work on the International Space Station.

Arguments both for and against space travel have been eloquently debated in the pages of The Atlantic since the beginning of the twentieth century—and many writers have weighed the financial costs of the space program against the benefits of scientific progress and research. Just over a year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Donald Menzel's "The Astronomer's Stake in Outer Space" (November 1958) argued for the advantages of space exploration conducted purely for the sake of scientific research. Menzel presciently outlined an exploration program composed of "tele-robots" that would extensively explore any planets before sending human explorers. "Man needs to know more about the atmosphere and the general character of the surfaces of these planets," he explained, "before venturing there himself."

Such an approach, Menzel suggested, would be cost-effective and safe, and would allow the basic research necessary for scientific progress. Although he recognized that such elementary research would not pay dividends until far into the future, he argued that the investment ultimately would be worth it.
It takes vision and courage to put money into basic research, which often represents long-term investment. And yet most of our great industries owe their existence to discoveries in the field of pure science. Radio, television, electrical power, atomic power, electronics, plastics, even automobiles could not exist without basic research. I cannot think of a single major industrial field which does not have a beginning in contributions from pure science.
By 1963, the Space Race was in full swing and the American space program was still lagging behind its Soviet counterpart. The Atlantic published a special section in its August issue entitled "Our Gamble in Space," in which several authors debated the merits of the program, and assessed its future prospects.

In "The Costs and the Choices," Franklin A. Lindsay criticized what he considered to be the government's frivolous expenditures on space exploration, arguing that the money would be better spent closer to Earth. The space race, he conceded, might—like the assault on Mt. Everest or the race to the North and South Poles—serve as a source of great national pride for a country otherwise weighed down with difficult domestic and foreign-policy issues. But he argued that manpower and resources would be better channeled to less glorious causes, such as educational investment, environmental protection, and health-care innovation.
Clearly, NASA should not be expected to solve the integration problem, or the school problem, or the balance-of-payments problem, or the urban-renewal problem. Nevertheless, some argue that since most of the dollars going into the NASA moon program will be for construction, test equipment, and fuels and engines, much of the human and material resources could be used on other programs. The construction industry could just as well be used to build new schools and new university research buildings. The vast array of computers and their programmers could be of great value if employed to support economists in a deep analysis of the complexities of our economy and its lagging growth. The physicians, physicists, and engineers building the equipment to support human life in a space capsule could also be employed in finding solutions to pressing medical and air-pollution problems on earth.
In "Why Land on the Moon?," also in the August 1963 issue, Robert Jastrow and Homer E. Newell took the opposite view, lauding the space program as necessary for scientific and human advancement despite its high costs. The space program, they pointed out, had yielded valuable scientific information in weather forecasting and global communications, which were already "economically important applications."

Jastrow and Newell also emphasized that even bringing the space program to a screeching halt would not necessarily guarantee that funds would instead be channeled toward other, allegedly more worthy, purposes. Government funds, they explained, are often not as easily transferable as the space program's opponents would like to believe.
The reduction of support for one national program does not carry a guarantee of increased support for other projects. President Kennedy remarked recently, "Some people say we should take the money we are putting into space and put it into housing or education... My judgment is that what would happen would be that they would cut the space program and you would not get additional funds for education."
Given the controversy over dedicating public funds to space exploration, and the fact that traveling beyond Earth is barely more cost efficient than it was forty years ago, some outside the government have begun to consider alternative approaches. In "Long Shot" (May 2003) contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook suggested eschewing public space funding in favor of private investment. After all, airplane travel, he pointed out, had once been largely government subsidized and exorbitantly expensive. The revolution in air travel began only when private companies made the new technology economically feasible.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "A Century of Flight" (December 17, 2003)
A collection of articles—including letters from the Wright brothers—reflects the evolution of air travel and how we perceive it.
"Could space flight undergo a similar progression," he asked, "morphing from a rarefied, expensive, and government-dominated activity into a mundane, affordable and mostly private one?" In fact, he explained, such a transformation has already begun. For nearly a decade now, an independent company called Sea Launch has sent rockets, carrying private cargo (such as communications satellites), into orbit from a barge near the equator. Since Sea Launch cannot depend on lucrative government contracts, it must keep costs down and offer real discounts to those looking to put material into space. As a result, Sea Launch is in high demand, and now has begun to face competition from similar companies in the private space-launch market.
Start-up firms have spent considerable money in the past decade trying to develop cheap rockets, reusable rockets, space planes that are towed or catapulted into the sky, and even a rocket-powered helicopter that rotors up into orbit.
"So far," Easterbrook writes, "every new idea except Sea Launch's has failed." But he emphasizes that this should not necessarily be taken to mean that private enterprise in space is not the way of the future. It's true, he writes, that space will largely remain "far off and expensive for most people." But it is quite possible that—depending in part on the fate of companies like Sea Launch—"private access to space [may] someday be a part of everyday life."

Though the future of space travel is unpredictable, one thing that remains certain is that the debate over its costs and merits will not soon fade. Meanwhile, on a planet millions of miles from the budgetary battles on Capitol Hill, two "tele-robots" will continue their work, probing deep into Mars's chemical and geological history.

Mars, wrote the astronomer Percival Lowell over a century ago in the May 1895 Atlantic, is the planet that may finally teach us something "beyond celestial mechanics, beyond even celestial chemistry; something in answer to the mute query that man instinctively makes as he gazes at the stars, whether there be life in worlds other than his own." To some, such knowledge may be worth more than any earth-bound price tag.

—Joseph Rauch


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Joseph Rauch is a new media intern for The Atlantic Monthly.

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