And what they tell us about scientific progress
"The solar system is not a friendly place," warned Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit on Tuesday. In an October 1957 Atlantic article, Hartley E. Howe agreed, writing of the challenges posed by carbon-dioxide disposal, temperature control, and even companionship when "keeping house in outer space." Although it would be four years until Russia successfully launched the first man into orbit, Howe had already detailed the logistical challenges facing future missions, detailing, for example, how algae might be used to improve the oxygen supply for astronauts in space:
Every crewman will require 500 liters of oxygen every 24 hours -- too much to be carried on any but the shortest trips. Since plants release oxygen, one answer might be to carry along a batch of the tiny water-borne plants called algae: 2.3 kilograms of Alga Chlorella pyrenoidosa produce enough oxygen to supply one man. Plants require light energy for carrying out their metabolic processes, however; so artificial sources of radiant energy will have to be carried aboard the vehicle for flights outside the solar system. This presumably will increase the demand on the vehicle's power plant.
Scientists actually did research the type of algae-supported respiration that Howe proposed. One 1959 study by Boeing concluded that this kind of closed ecological system might be able to support astronauts during future missions in space. But, looking forward 50 years to today's International Space Station, we can see that this kind of technology only remained at the level of basic research, and Howe's musings on the "vital problem" of companionship and social interactions in space seem adorably outdated.
Given this example, how can one defend funding basic research into the "figments of scientists' imaginations," as Caltech Professor Fiona Harrison put it at Tuesday's summit? As the Director of NASA's NuStar Mission, which uses telescopes to explore the scope of black holes and massive stars, Harrison relies on this kind of funding, which could be jeopardized in upcoming budget cuts.