Samuel de Kare Silver
Virgin Galactic “should stop, give up. Go away and do something they might be good at like selling mobile phones. They should stay out of the space business,” These are the words of Carolynne Campbell-Knight, a rocket propulsion expert at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) , following the catastrophic failure of SpaceShipTwo at the end of October, in which one of its two pilots was killed.
While the tragic event of the VSS Enterprise unfolded 9 miles above the Mojave Desert, , another Earth-originated mission was on the cusp of execution, 350 million miles away . The Rosetta spacecraft was orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the European Space Agency (ESA) was preparing to detach Rosetta’s lander Philae and achieve the first-ever controlled touchdown on a comet’s nucleus .
There are questions to ask about these non-terrestrial events. What was their purpose? Why is it important? What is it that cannot be done here? Why are we in space to begin with?
The missions seem easy to attack. Both suffered years of setbacks and delays [5, 6] and cost enormous amounts of money [7, 8]. Virgin’s ventures have cost around $500 million, almost all from private investment. From individuals looking to seek return. However Rosetta is publicly funded, and has cost more than three times that of SpaceShipTwo.
Thousands of scientists and €4 billion go into the ESA and around $18 billion goes into NASA each year [9, 10]. It begs the question; why we are pouring so much money into space? This money (and effort) could be used to fund education and raise global standards of living, or improve infrastructure and ease our ability to travel and communicate. We could advance research into stopping disease, ending suffering for millions. Or invest into better food production and agriculture, ending world hunger. Or invest in robotics and artificial intelligence systems, relieving people from dangerous or mundane work, fund research into alternative energies, lessening our impact on the Earth, so that future generations can live in clean, sustainable environments. The list is endless. .
Space lacks two things which every other industry I mentioned provides: a direct economic incentive, or direct increase in our quality of life. The perception of astrophysics is similar to that of the perception of particle physics, in that they do not appear to contribute to the enhancement of our lives [11, 12].
Space travel is also horrifically dangerous [13, 14]. It has given us very public accidents, such as the Colombia and Challenger Space Shuttle disasters. There are also numerous health hazards associated with space travel including radiation, intolerance to extreme changes in g-force, motion sickness, and muscle and skeletal degeneration to name a few. This is why astronauts are limited to spending a maximum of six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) . Humans also pose a danger to space. There are more than 21,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm orbiting our planet . The threat our space junk poses is small, but accidents do happen. In February 2009 two communications satellites, one US and one Russian, collided and destroyed each other creating more debris, only increasing the risk of such collisions . There are strict rules in place to protect celestial bodies against interplanetary contamination (not including humans) [18, 19]. The scientific community takes very seriously the preservation of the untouched natural state of other worlds, particularly Mars, and the icy satellites of Europa, Enceladus, and Ganymede.
There is another, more morbid side to space exploration. Mars One is a private organisation that aims to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025 . They aim to be funded privately, through selling rights to produce a reality television programme following the astronauts, through sponsorship, merchandise and licensing intellectual property it develops. It also receives donations; by February 2014 it had raised over $300,000 through crowd funding . The morbid side is that its plans are one-way. The intrepid explorers would not be able to return to earth, no matter how perilous their situation becomes. Making such a choice is considered so suicidal by some Islamic scholars that they issued a fatwa, an Islamic decree, which effectively bans involvement by Muslims in the one-way mission . Suicidal or not, more than 200,000 people from 140 countries applied to join the mission . Is allowing private organisations to sacrifice willing participants ‘for the sake of science’ not morally equivalent to euthanasia?
We are faced with a number of issues relating to funding, danger and ethics.
Let us tackle the danger first. We are willing to accept (very low) fatality rates in many publicly funded projects, so why not in space? In recent years, 27 construction workers died building the various Olympic parks (none in London 2012) . Over 1200 workers have died building the 2022 Qatar World Cup stadiums !. However I will mention it, because neither a national Football Association has pulled out on ethical grounds, nor a government of any country has done much to stop the deaths, so it is a relevant example as there is an underlying tolerance. Regarding the space debris issue, while it is an ever-growing issue, the trajectories of large space debris are analysed and the ISS only faces a 1 in 10000 risk of impact once a year .
As for the funding, we could argue endlessly on where this money could be better spent, so why space? It is important to realise that space exploration does profit us (and by ‘us’ I mean ‘humanity’). The profit may neither be financial nor immediate, but it exists. Funding NASA, ESA and other public space programs should not be thought of as expenditure, but an investment. The return on investment comes in the form of innovation and technological advancement . Some technologies were only invented to solve issues specific to space exploration. Space agencies have pioneered laser technology, solar cell technology, imaging software, positioning systems, and even baby formulas .
What about the indirect benefits of having so many great minds working together solving problems on the frontier of our knowledge? Well NASA has produced so many spin-off innovations that they compile them altogether and fills a book called Spin-Offs it publishes every year ! The gain comes not just from being able to use them in everyday life, but the direct economic impact of having a groundbreaking new device to produce and consume. Over the years NASA has produced marvels such as scratch resistance lenses, memory foam, ear thermometers, joy-stick controllers and water filters (to name a few) . So important are these indirect benefits or spin-offs that come out of scientists working in close-quarters, that it actually forms part of Sir Paul Nurse’s vision for the Francis Crick Institute .
Return to the Comparison of the Virgin Galactic Crash and the Comet Landing
Richard Branson’s venture is about taking tourists into the orbital space around our planet for commercial profit, while ESA’s mission is to explore distant comets. Philae is there to answer some of the fundamental questions of how our solar system formed, why the planets evolved as they did, and perhaps more fundamentally, how we came to be here. The similarities between these two missions appear to almost cease after noting space, expense and setbacks.
However I believe they are linked by one thing. Wealthy individuals have paid in excess of $200,000 to fly with Virgin Galactic for the same reason that we publically fund space exploration. It is about purpose. The human race has moved on from a world where we survived just long enough to raise offspring. We search for meaning and excitement in our lives. Humans possess a high aspiration and yearning of adversity. Space exploration is about expanding frontiers and ‘going where no man has gone before’. Carolynne Campbell-Knight, whose words I quoted in the beginning of this article, has also said this: “This rush into space is reminiscent of the opening up of the American West. At first, a few adventurers dared to explore and cross the vast deserts and mountain ranges. They established trails and passes that were followed by young men in search of fortune .”
So should we be in space?
To borrow a quote from Interstellar (released between the two events mentioned above), “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. ”