All Hail Science! Unless There Is a (Heroic) Astronaut Involved

As much as we play up the importance of scientific research, President Obama's NASA budget shows that it's the risky human side of the space program that draws attention and funding for the nation's space program.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's Friendship 7 space flight--the third in NASA's Mercury space program and the first of those flights to successfully orbit the Earth. Coming as it does, only a week after President Obama released his 2013 budget priorities for NASA, the milestone anniversary, with all its triumphant photos and memories, provides a reminder of why the new NASA budget is skewed the way it is. It also says something, for better or for worse, about what most of us prefer, when it comes to great undertakings.

Since its inception in 1958, the space side of NASA has had a dual personality, in more ways than one. The biggest duality has been the obvious split between "manned" and "unmanned" missions, which paralleled to a large degree a second split between science and engineering.

Even scientific satellites require engineering know-how to actually reach space or perform experiments there. But the "manned" efforts (or "human spaceflight" missions, as they are now generally called) have always been primarily engineering challenges. My uncle's former father-in-law worked for the rocket manufacturer Rocketdyne during NASA's glory days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. And one of his favorite phrases, in fact, was, "there is no such thing as a rocket scientist."


Aside from the obvious human element, the difference between scientific and "manned" missions, is the end result. Successful scientific missions bring back, or enable, discoveries: greater knowledge about science, the universe, and the planet we call home. In contrast, the success of human spaceflight missions has been counted primarily in human achievements: the first man off the planet, to orbit the Earth, to orbit the moon, or to land on the moon and return safely to Earth. We proved we could build and successfully operate (with a couple of glaring exceptions) reusable spacecraft that landed on a runway. We set endurance records for humans living in space. We proved we could build something in space.

Scientific satellites are also engineering achievements, of course. But we don't sell planetary probes as a way of proving our human greatness. We sell them as a way to discover more about Mars, or Jupiter's moons, and about whether life ever existed there. The emphasis of the scientific missions, in other words, is on the intrinsic value of knowledge they produce, which is to say, on something other than us.


And therein lies the crux of the problem with scientific missions. Or, at least, the problem when it comes to getting public funding and support.

President Obama's proposed 2013 budget trims NASA's overall budget, but only by a small amount. The noticeable shift is that it reduces funding for scientific planetary missions by 20 percent, while almost doubling the budget for continued work on future human spaceflight missions. Almost $3 billion is being allocated to further development of a heavy-lift booster rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Another $3 billion is slated for continued support of the space station, even though that project has received enormous criticism for how little return on investment it has produced, overall. Story Musgrave, one of NASA's most experienced veteran astronauts, even called it little more than a "jobs program" and a "$100 billion mistake."

Planetary science missions, done remotely with spacecraft and robots, are far less costly. Yet, at the same time as the budget for human spaceflight is increasing, the 2013 budget calls for a reduction in planetary science mission funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. Why?

One could argue, of course, that discovering water, or traces of microscopic life, on Jupiter's moon, Europa, will not transform our understanding of life or the universe. And that might very well be true. But if the standard for funding was missions that they offer transformative knowledge of life or the universe, flying astronauts back to the Moon or to Mars (as opposed to highly capable robots) wouldn't pass the bar, either. What those human missions do provide are athlete-heroes to cheer.

Looking at the news photos of John Glenn, riding in a ticker-tape parade with President Kennedy after his successful orbital flight, it's easy to see why human spaceflight gets so much more funding and support. "In the winter of 1962," the opening line in a New York Times article about the anniversary began, "the nation needed a hero."


For as much as we try to play up the science fair whiz kids who create robots and technology, we're still very attached to the explorer/athlete/star champion model of hero. Designing a robot to explore Mars is a kind of "team personality" achievement: an effort by a team player and builder who works in concert with others to put something or someone else forward (in this case, a robot or satellite) to get the glory. And we still get much more satisfaction in cheering on the star who actually does the glorious deed themselves. Especially if the deed involves physical feats or physical risks to self. We idolize the quarterback, not the lineman who makes it possible for the quarterback to make that play. The race driver, not the crew. The player who scores the basket, not the guard who makes the assist. The brave astronaut who repairs the Hubble Space Telescope in space, rather than the guy who designed the fix in the first place.

In the case of robotic or satellite missions in space, the human achievement is primarily mental, and takes place on the ground, in a lab, with lots of career and project risk, but little physical danger. And the big end prize that comes out of the process is the esoteric reward of knowledge. That doesn't quite match the thrill of our hero winning an Olympic Gold Medal or our team winning the Super Bowl or the World Series.

In the 1980s, the television show Cheers, which revolved around a neighborhood bar in Boston, opened with a series of vintage photos from real local watering holes. The image I remember best shows a beaming bartender holding up a newspaper with a 4-inch banner headline across the top proclaiming, "WE WIN!!!!!" Imagine a similar headline proclaiming,instead, "WE LEARN!!!!!!" Right. You can't. And that's the point.

Discovery is about expanding our understanding of something else. Achievement is a much more satisfying ego stroke about ourselves. Our heroes are the stand-ins for ourselves; for what we get to see we are capable of doing. And physical achievements--for whatever reasons we still prize the physical so highly--get us more excited than academic ones. Perhaps physical achievements are easier to get our hands and minds around. Or perhaps it's the competitive element that many of those physical achievements contain. We beat the Russians, or we bested Nature, or we bested ... well, something. Whatever the reason, the truth remains ...we may give academic achievers prizes for enabling discoveries, but we don't give them 4-inch banner headlines or ticker-tape parades.


Keeping a human alive in space is far more costly and complex than sending a robot on the same mission. There is, to be sure, an argument that in the process of designing the life systems to sustain a human crew all the way to Mars and back, for example, we will further technology to a point where we can then figure out how to make a more distant step possible. On the other hand, there's a pretty strong argument to be made for pushing the boundaries first robotically--both to develop the physics, propulsion and materials technology to make deep space travel possible at a much more reasonable cost, and also to explore what parts or objects in space might be worth following up on with a human mission.

There are other factors in the decision, of course. The human spaceflight side of NASA creates a lot of jobs, in a lot of states. So shelving it for the foreseeable future would have serious political and economic ramifications, which no politician wants to face. But it would also require us to readjust our notions of what's worth a 4-inch headline. And I'm not sure we're there, yet.

Could we change that? Maybe. But it's not simply a rational issue of the best investment of funds for NASA. It goes much deeper than that. The fact that we get more excited about competitive endeavors that have a human at the center of them, and entail real, physical risks and consequences, might make us slightly egotistic, or self-centered, or even primitive in some way. But it is also an inclination that is, for better or worse, very human--and goes back in history a very long time.


Images: NASA.