Late last year, the Government of India sanctioned Rs 10,000 crore for the countrys first human spaceflight programme, to be fulfilled by 2022. Under this project, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to send three Indian astronauts to low-Earth orbit for a little less than a week and return them safely.
Colloquially called Gaganyaan, the project is part of Indias efforts to portray itself as a global space power or at least place itself at par with China.
Politicians that typically balk when asked to invest in climate-change mitigation or fundamental research jump at the chance to release the purse strings for spaceflight even if they are of dubious relevance. Case in point: the space command, which India, China and the US are currently setting up. Indeed, as a result of such showmanship and megalomania, the leaders of these countries are militarising space in earnest. If taken to its logical conclusion, this will further wreck a world already divided along religious, racial, class and caste lines.
Such space projects are useful when demagogues are looking for something to blow their trumpets over, at the expense of asking whether there are any real science outcomes. This is why especially when governments announce new space initiatives we need to raise uncomfortable questions about their overall guiding logic and benefits.
One such question is of priorities: is it worth investing in a programme that may not be able to produce any concrete social benefits?
Any large technological programme with massive investment is highly likely to produce marginal benefits, sometimes called spin-offs. Oft-quoted examples include the development of the World Wide Web and the synchrotron both at CERN, the European lab for research in nuclear physics. Satellite-based space missions have gone beyond that, however, having changed the way we communicate and observe the natural universe in revolutionary ways. ISRO has also made commendable contributions, particularly in light of its humble yet entrepreneurial beginnings in Thumba, a small hamlet near Thiruvananthapuram, in 1963.
Also read:ISRO Doesnt Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
But the potential benefits that could accrue from human spaceflight are not very clear, at least not immediately. Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA, wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year:
NASA remains one of the most revered and valuable brands in the world, and the agency is at its best when given a purpose. But the public doesnt understand the purpose of spending massive amounts of money to send a few astronauts to the moon or Mars. Are we in another race, and if so, is this the most valuable display of our scientific and technological leadership? If science is the rationale, we can send robots for pennies on the dollar.
The celebrated physicist Steven Weinberg is also a well-known science communicator. His latest book, Third Thoughts (2018), includes an article he wrote in 2013 in the journal Space Policy. In the article, he rebuts a paper entitled The essential role of human space flight published in the same journal. The paper reads:
should the US and nations at large pursue a human spaceflight program (and if so, why)? I offer an unwavering positive answer Space exploration is a human activity that is intrinsically forward-looking, and as such, has positive potential. Both national and international space programs can galvanize the population, inspire the youth, foster job-creation, and motivate the existing workforce. The nature of the enterprises involvedtheir scale, novelty, and complexityrequires a steady and continuous upward progression toward greater societal, scientific and technological development. That is, in order to overcome the challenges of human spaceflight, progress is required. More to the point, the survival of humanity depends on expanding beyond the confines of our planet. Human spaceflight, in short, presents us with an opportunity to significantly advance the nation and the global community.
In his article, Weinberg refutes the key arguments in favour of human spaceflight, saying that space-based observatories like the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have broadened our understanding of the universe. More recent breakthroughs on the origin and evolution of the universe have all been derived from data generated by these observatories.
The Hubble space telescope also belongs in this league, and its mantle as the most significant space-based observatory will soon be passed on to the James Webb Space Telescope. Additionally, robotic missions like the Curiosity rover on Mars, the Yutu rover on the Moon, JUNO around Jupiter and the Hayabusa 2 probe at the Ryugu asteroid (not his examples but just as relevant) are expanding our horizons. Weinberg then asks the same question of human spaceflight: What are its benefits?
Some have said that astronauts experiences can inspire others and generates a certain potential for greatness for the present and future generations. But Weinberg is dismissive of this aspect: Manned spaceflight is a spectator sport, which can be exciting for spectators, but this is not the sort of excitement that seems to lead to anything serious.
The question about benefits is not asked rhetorically but as an instance of holding missions concerned with sending humans to space up to the same scrutiny reserved for other, often less prestigious, expeditions.
In addition, we must also ask what the priorities of our publicly funded space science and technology initiatives are. Sending humans to space without an overarching vision that answers such questions will cost us dearly as a nation.
Consider the US National Academy of Sciences decadal strategyfor Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS). Such peer-reviewed surveys are notable for sampling the aspirations of the scientific community, enabling larger bodies to build a prioritised programme of science goals that can play a major role in the US. For example, ESAS 2017 declared that NASA should prioritise the study of the global hydrological cycle; the distribution and movement of mass between oceans, ice sheets, groundwater and the atmosphere; and changes in surface biology and geology.
Also read:If Chandrayaan 2 Was a 90-95% Success Is the Answer, Whats the Question?
India already has satellites that assist monitor Earth dynamics, including earthquakes, landslides, large-scale groundwater extraction, atmospheric moisture and winds, sea conditions, and its scientists collaborate with agencies that use satellites to study ice-sheets and glaciers. Such observations provide inputs to develop hazard mitigation programmes.
ISRO should focus on such applications, and the science thereof, in a more purposeful manner and fix targets to develop comprehensive Earth observation systems; and on building linkages to higher education centres in the country that could then conduct research based on the data obtained from Earth and planetary observation systems. And it should locate these projects within a list of priorities and a broader scientific agenda that has been justified to the government. It makes more sense to leave human spaceflight, at least when we know a mission-critical part of the 21st century is just beginning, to those with fewer goals on their hands.
C.P. Rajendranis a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.
See original here:
- Successful launch continues deployment of SpaceX's Starlink network - Spaceflight Now - November 11th, 2019
- What it takes to be a space pilot - Astronomy Magazine - November 11th, 2019
- Spaceflight alters heart cells but they quickly recover back on Earth - New Scientist News - November 11th, 2019
- 4 Things to Know About New Space Company Virgin Galactic - Motley Fool - November 11th, 2019
- Mercury is making a rare 'transit' across the sun. Here's how to watch. - NBCNews.com - November 11th, 2019
- Japanese 'Shooting-Star' Satellite to Launch on Landmark Rocket Lab Flight This Month - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- The Importance of Spacecraft Abort Tests - Forbes - November 11th, 2019
- Buy Virgin Galactic stock because space tourism will be safer than you think, analyst says - CNBC - November 11th, 2019
- New bill aims to grow South Mississippis space industry - WLOX - November 11th, 2019
- Now in space, a cutting-edge satellite the size of a shoebox, and UW students built it - Seattle Times - November 11th, 2019
- Human Heart Cells Transform in Space; Return to Normal on Earth: Study - The Weather Channel - November 11th, 2019
- NASA Marshall expands ties with UA to advance in-space manufacturing - Made In Alabama - November 11th, 2019
- Can We Genetically Engineer Humans to Survive Missions to Mars? - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- NASA's SOFIA Observatory: The Flying Telescope - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- Massive Space Explosion Releases as Much Energy in 20 Seconds as Sun Does in 10 Days - The Weather Channel - November 11th, 2019
- Airstream Enjoys Return to U.S. Space Program in Partnership with Boeing - Chief Executive Group - November 11th, 2019
- Yes, the 'Von Braun' Space Hotel Idea Is Wild. But Could We Build It by 2025? - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- Record-Setting X-Ray Burst From Massive Thermonuclear Blast Detected From Space Station - SciTechDaily - November 11th, 2019
- Student Networks with Astronauts, Space Experts at International Meeting - Tennessee Today - November 11th, 2019
- 'Star Trek,' Space Travel and Teleportation with Tig Notaro - Space.com - November 11th, 2019
- Space station receives spacewalking gear, new baking oven - Spaceflight Now - November 6th, 2019
- Buy Virgin Galactic stock because space tourism will be safer than you think, analyst says - CNBC - November 6th, 2019
- A Journey to Mars Starts on the Space Station - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- Historic space flight artifacts donated by legendary cosmonaut displayed at space museum in Weatherford - KFOR Oklahoma City - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic: From Space To The Stock Market - Forbes - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic's high-risk space adventure will likely pay off - Space Daily - November 6th, 2019
- 'Star Trek,' Space Travel and Teleportation with Tig Notaro - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- Yes, the 'Von Braun' Space Hotel Idea Is Wild. But Could We Build It by 2025? - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- SAIC and Sinequa Align to Deliver an Intelligent Search Experience to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center SAIC and Sinequa Align to Deliver an... - November 6th, 2019
- Mars Society Founder Makes Case for 'Mars Direct' Path to the Red Planet - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- Are there any realistic spaceflight technologies from Star Wars? - MIT Technology Review - November 6th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic Stock Finds Its First Fan on Wall Street - Motley Fool - November 6th, 2019
- NASA's Voyager Spacecraft May Have 5 Years Left to Explore Interstellar Space - Space.com - November 6th, 2019
- The White House puts a price on the SLS rocketand it's a lot - Ars Technica - November 6th, 2019
- NASA Has a New Method For Cooling Down Electronics Crammed Together in a Spacecraft - Universe Today - November 6th, 2019
- Bezos says space industry stalwarts will help Blue Origin build moon lander - Spaceflight Now - October 24th, 2019
- Army astronaut to military medical students: You will solve the health issues of extended space flight - ArmyTimes.com - October 24th, 2019
- Virgin Galactic is set to trade on the NYSE on Monday as the first space tourism stock - CNBC - October 24th, 2019
- Now You Can Buy The Worlds First Spaceship Stock - Forbes - October 24th, 2019
- Rocket Lab Aims for the Moon and Beyond with New Photon Satellite Platform - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- Here's What China's Yutu 2 Rover Found on the Far Side of the Moon (Photos) - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- China Releases a New Photo of The Mystery Substance They Found on The Moon - ScienceAlert - October 24th, 2019
- DLR pursues international cooperation and future technologies for spaceflight - Space Daily - October 24th, 2019
- Finally, a Clear Look at the Weird Substance China Found on the Moon - VICE - October 24th, 2019
- Suborbital spacefliers will get pinned by the Association of Space Explorers - GeekWire - October 24th, 2019
- The space powers have gathered. Wheres China? - Quartz - October 24th, 2019
- NASA Needs to Get With the Times When It Comes to Planetary Protection, Report Finds - Space.com - October 24th, 2019
- NASA names new chief of human space operations - Spaceflight Now - October 16th, 2019
- Live coverage: Rocket Lab set for fifth Electron launch of the year - Spaceflight Now - October 16th, 2019
- These are the Under Armour-designed suits for Virgin Galactics space tourists - TechCrunch - October 16th, 2019
- NASA's 1st SLS Megarocket Launch to the Moon Could Be Delayed to 2021 - Space.com - October 16th, 2019
- NASA Chief: First SpaceX (or Boeing) Crewed Space Mission Is Less Than 5 Months Away - Observer - October 16th, 2019
- Boeing Aims to Launch Unpiloted Starliner Test Flight to Space Station in December - Space.com - October 16th, 2019
- Moon VIPER: NASA Wants to Send a Water-Sniffing Rover to the Lunar South Pole in 2022 - Space.com - October 16th, 2019
- Dream Chaser Space Plane Begins Full Assembly Ahead Of First NASA Mission In 2021 - Forbes - October 16th, 2019
- 11 of the biggest innovations shaping the future of spaceflight today - Business Insider - October 16th, 2019
- SpaceX news: Elon Musk is the Thomas Edison of the 21st century, claims veteran astronaut - Express.co.uk - October 16th, 2019
- This is the 1st Photo of China's Mars Explorer Launching in 2020 - Space.com - October 16th, 2019
- ISRO's Space Shuttle-like Reusable Launch Vehicle will attempt its first landing in Karnataka - Firstpost - October 16th, 2019
- NASA scientist creates engine concept that can reach 'close to the speed of light' - Fox News - October 16th, 2019
- Space Innovations So Incredible, They Just Might Work - The Planetary Society - October 16th, 2019
- Elon Musk wants to move fast with SpaceX's Starship - Spaceflight Now - October 1st, 2019
- Photos: SpaceX's first full-size Starship prototype Spaceflight Now - Spaceflight Now - October 1st, 2019
- HTV delivers batteries and experiments to space station - Spaceflight Now - October 1st, 2019
- Today's the Last Chance to Send Your Name to Mars on NASA's 2020 Rover - Space.com - October 1st, 2019
- LRO's view of Chandrayaan 2 landing site obscured by shadows - Spaceflight Now - October 1st, 2019
- Fresh batteries, experiments on the way to the International Space Station - Spaceflight Now - October 1st, 2019
- NASA's 61st birthday: 15 best spacewalk photos, space selfies and other incredible moments in spaceflight - Firstpost - October 1st, 2019
- Ad Astra predicts the future of commercial space flight, and it's a $125 blanket - SYFY WIRE - October 1st, 2019
- 321 Launch: The space news you might have missed - Florida Today - October 1st, 2019
- He almost died near Lenox. Now he wants to find the duo who saved him. - WSB Atlanta - October 1st, 2019
- Meir's journey to space will inspire other Mainers to take flight - Bangor Daily News - October 1st, 2019
- Rocket Lab crows about launch, SpaceX zipwires, and a monster mock-up arrives at Kennedy - The Register - October 1st, 2019
- Sharing a storied career of space flight | News | avpress.com - Antelope Valley Press - September 19th, 2019
- Is the Overhead Space Above Your Plane Seat Yours to Claim? - Lifehacker - September 19th, 2019
- Watch SpaceX's Crew Dragon Fire Its Abort Engines in Amazing Video Compilation - Space.com - September 19th, 2019
- Bigelow's B330 - an autonomous, expandable independent exploration space station - NASASpaceflight.com - September 19th, 2019
- NASA, SpaceX Coverage of 1st Crew Dragon Test Flight Wins Emmy - Space.com - September 19th, 2019
- China's Lunar Rover Scopes Out Weird Substance on Far Side of the Moon (Photos) - Space.com - September 19th, 2019
- If It Works, This Will Be the First Rocket Launched From Mars - Air & Space Magazine - September 19th, 2019