Why Support Human Spaceflight?

7 01 2013

NASA plans to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in low-Earth orbit in 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

It seems that an eternal question plagues conversations about the future of commercial or governmental spaceflight: “To man (a spacecraft), or not to man?”

-This query is one I am often posed when I reveal my own spaceflight ambitions.  Many wonder why we bother with the incredible expense of sending humans off-world when critics argue that 1) the same or better work could be performed with robotic spacecraft; 2) laboratory experiments in space add little value to what we can achieve here on Earth; or 3) that in the context of state-supported spaceflight these activities divert crucial funds from other social needs.

Well, as it would turn out, former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr. Joan Vernikos has answers.

Defending Human Spaceflight

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

In a sweeping article she authored back in 2008 for the medical journal Hippokratia entitled, “Human Exploration of Space: why, where, what for?”, Vernikos exposes the many failings of these criticisms while highlighting a spectrum of commercial and societal applications for human space research.

  • For starters, she points out that the repair and upgrades of the Hubble Space Telescope – universally hailed as not only the most important telescope in history but also as one of humanity’s most successful scientific endeavors – was only possible via the use of skilled and trained astronauts.
  • Expressing a fair amount of foresight, Vernikos then goes on to point out that commercial space travel providers (see: SpaceX) will rely on the knowledge gained from human spaceflight to support a safe and secure experience both for researchers and adventurers.
  • There’s the classic and no-less-relevant argument that human explorers have capabilities for innovation, troubleshooting, creative problem-solving, and adaptation simple unavailable to robotic counterparts.  This is particularly useful when utilizing very sensitive instrumentation and performing research with many unknowns or variables.

But these points, suitable defenses on their own, pale in comparison to Vernikos’s description of the commercial enterprise that grew out of the Shuttle-era…

Exploring the Space Applications Market

The reality of trickle-down consumer technology and products that were originally developed for human spaceflight applications is breathtaking.  It truly seems that anyone who downplays the commercial and social trickle-down benefits of tackling the challenges of human spaceflight simply hasn’t done their homework.  For example, Vernikos (here emphasizing her medical background) describes in detail that space exploration is directly responsible for:

  • The ubiquitous reflective, anti-UV, anti-glare coating on eyeglasses
  • Small-scale blood-testing (requiring drops instead of vials)
  • The entire field of telemedicine
  • In-utero fetal monitoring
  • Genetic pathogen-detection sensors
  • Telemetry computing for the civil and environmental industries
  • Enhanced breast cancer diagnostics using the Hubble Telescope digital imaging system
  • Tissue engineering
  • Enhanced antibiotics generation
  • Bed-rest countermeasures

-And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In this way, Vernikos promotes redirecting attention to the idea of the “Space Applications Market,” which is the name she gives to the commercial arena where these NASA-driven technological and knowledge advances are incorporated into commercial and societal applications.

Instead of the microgravity-tended orbital commercial manufacturing or power-generation facilities that many assumed would be the means by which commercial enterprise would capitalize on human space exploration, it’s been the smaller-scale technological innovations and applications that make a (if not somewhat obscured) powerful impact both on the economy as well as on our daily lives.  Just look at the above list of advances in health technology and medical know-how.

-And new research suggesting a possible link between exposure to ionizing radiation in space and neurodegeneration – an accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s Disease – means that the greatest medical advances as a result of human spaceflight may yet be ahead of us.

All it will take is support for human spaceflight.


Telepresence, Androids, and Space Exploration

13 06 2012

Our culture is replete with examples of androids and humanoid robots in space.  From David in Ridley Scott’s brand-new film, Prometheus, to the iconic C-3PO in George Lucas’s Star Wars, androids and humanoid robots are often portrayed as our trusted servants and protectors, capable of tasks we ourselves cannot or will not perform. 

Further, the related idea of a person using a surrogate, technological body to survive harsh environments is nearly as old, most recently exemplified by the title character’s lab-grown hybrid body in James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

These notions are sensible ones for three primary reasons:

  1. Space travel and planetary exploration of any significant distance or duration presents a harsh environment from multiple fronts – psychological, physiological, temporal. 
  2. Maintaining a human form-factor means that these androids will be able to use the same equipment and vehicles as has been designed to accommodate the rest of the crew, a clearly efficient attribute. 
  3. It has been shown that human beings interact more comfortably in may cases with anthropomorphized machines – easing crew comfort.

Well, it appears that reality is finally catching up to these sci-fi archtypes (or, arguably, proving that by defining our expectations science-fiction often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roscosmos’s SAR-400

Russian telepresence android SAR-400 at a workstation. (Credit: RSK)

As detailed in a story from The Voice of Russia here, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has long been developing the SAR-400, a telepresence robot they term an “android.”  (Note: The definition of what qualifies as an android is still a little loose.)  SAR-400 is designed to act as an astronaut surrogate whenever possible, particularly during spacewalks, to reduce safety risks to the humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

While no plans to send a SAR-400 to space have been announced, this project is extremely similar to a beleagured NASA project of parallel design and scope that is already aboard the ISS.

NASA’s Robonaut-2

Robotics Industry Association President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA telepresence android “Robonaut 2.” (Credit: RIA)

The NASA Robonaut project, with a lengthy history dating back to conceptual work performed in 1997, is a telepresence robot sharing a nearly identical design with the SAR-400 that is intended to perform work in space and on planetary exploration missions.  (On an interesting side note, during the early 2000s Robonaut’s cosmetic “head” bore an uncanny resemblance to the highly-recognizeable Jango/Boba Fett costume helmet of Star Wars fame.) 

This culminated in 2011 with the launch of a test Robonaut-2 (R2) to the International Space Station.  While the robot has been configured to integrate with the station systems, the robot has seen little real use due heat-dissipation and other technical difficulties.  However, limited tests are proving favorable and increasing the likelihood that that future semi-autonomous telepresence robots will be considered part of the crew.

Robonaut project manager Roin Diftler is quoted as saying that their final objective is “…relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

Implications for human space exploration

In a very direct way, this technology reopens the classic debate about whether or not the future of space exploration involves astronaut human beings at all.

Opponents to human-based space exploration cite costs and logistical complications, while proponents note that human beings still exhibit unique learnining, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities necessary for frontier work that are far beyond the ability of modern artificial intelligences. 

Bishop (341-B), a benevolent android and space crewmember from the film “Aliens.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps, instead of replacing humans on the frontier, the future will be a hybrid approach as has been the case so far.  As R2’s program manager implied above, perhaps the ultimate solution is to cater to our strengths – in androids, an unblinking sentinel, able to perform repetitive or tedious tasks without tiring and work in dangerous environments without suffering the effects of stress; in humans – creative problem-solvers and pioneering explorers with the ability to innovate, and perhaps more importantly, to inspire.

In this light I’m strongly reminded of Bishop, the “synthetic person” artificial intelligence from the James Cameron film, Aliens.  A good guy strictly governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Bishop is shown to accompany space crews into unknown territory, operate equipment, pilot vehicles, perform analyses, reduce data, and save the day on multiple occasions. 

Might Robonaut-2 and the SAR-400 be the equivalent of a real-life Bishop’s distant ancestors?  Time will tell.  

However, in this character, science fiction has erected a sensible guidepost for what future android integration into space crews for the purpose of enabling human space exploration would look like.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”

18 04 2012

Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Trial. (Credit: US Library of Congress)

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but it makes an important point.  Just because many people believe, assert, or convey something does not immediately graduate whatever they report to become scientifically-reliable or even scientifically-useful.

This is actually symptomatic of a larger cultural issue here in the US.  Frankly, the dichotomy of what people choose to believe when it comes to personal testimony versus hard, scientific data in our society amazes me.  -And not in a good way.

There are numerous instances where hard-and-fast data hasn’t convinced a jury (or social group) of the reality the data demonstrates, and conversely, there are numerous examples of personal testimony that would easily have a jury condemn a suspect to death that would never stand up under scientific peer-review.

The simple reality is that people at-large simply seem to trust one-another more than (or in spite of the lack of) the presence of verifiable, hard data.  With, in many instances, grave consequences.

So, how have we arrived here?

Science as the most successful “reality tool” ever invented

How can this be?  How, in a world so clearly affected, governed, and reliant on the fact that scientific inquiry is the most reliable means to establish what is real and what is not, is there so much skepticism toward data, science, and scientists?

  • Don’t believe me about the success of science?  Look at everything, from the performance of the thousands of controlled explosions under the hood of your car to the molecular processing running the electronics of the iPhone in your pocket.  From landing probes on other worlds to controlling nuclear reactions with finesse to generate power.  From predicting the behavior of atoms in a lab to predicting the astronomical curvature of light halfway across the universe – the simple fact is that science is the best tool to understand reality – discriminate what is real from what is not – ever conceived by humankind.  If scientific data or the scientific process were inherently unreliable, then these achievements would be plainly impossible.  We would simply not be able to master reality in the way that we have using the scientific method if it didn’t always work.  (Left to ourselves and our naturally-unscientific methods of investigating the world, we can come to believe that dances influence the weather.  That earthquakes are a result of hedonism.  That illness is a result of possession by evil spirits.  You see the point.)

To many, it seems that “data” is a mysterious, possibly corruptible thing; that magician-scientists are able to distort it to “prove” anything.  That’s not the worst of it.  It also seems that scientists themselves are often placed in a different camp from the rest: Unconvinced by tearful assertions or compelling testimony, they are seen as aloof, cold… inhuman, even.

This conception of the scientist is something I’d like to explore, and I think it all begins with a single statement:  None of us likes to believe that we, as humans, are as fallible as we are.  So, what makes a scientist different?

Scientists recognize that we, humans, are terrible scientific instruments.

We are.  We’re awful.  Primarily, our data-recording mechanism (memory) is inherently flawed, governed by perception, emotion, expectation, bias, and it changes over time.  Further, there’s no way to do a direct download from memory to verify what a person is saying is an accurate description of their memories… or worse, if what they say is even true at all.  We also make connections that simply aren’t there, unable to discriminate coincidence from cause-and-effect.

This is why scientists rely on instruments that are not corrupted by feelings, fear, or excitement.  The colder and more calculating the instrument, the better the data it collects and records.  Even with these technically “unbiased” instruments, scientists subject to these flaws are still in the loop, which is why all ultimately-respectable data and analysis is brought before a group of other scientists to review (peer-review) to help ensure that the scientist has not unwittingly corrupted his own data.

All this because humans are terrible scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, despite these rather damning flaws, non-scientists seem to believe that they (and other people) are, in effect, excellent scientific instruments.  Human testimony is amongst the most effective tools to convince a jury of peers.  With all respect, putting a hand on a holy book and conveying a sense of sincerity (even if manufactured) has a way of graduating the “data” a human being reports to a plateau above actual data that can be scientifically verified, ignoring the fact that memories can be wrong(!).

Further, the validity of scientific data is often secondary to whether or not the scientist delivering the data “seems” credible, ignoring the fact that the data and data collection process can be assessed on its own merits.

Quite a disconnect.

What can we do to rectify the disconnect?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a while, and aside from training everyone in society to be a scientist, (which not everyone wants to become,) the only solution I see is to improve public relations.  Science is essentially failing a PR war, one waged both intentionally and unintentionally by those unsettled by a purely clinical view of the universe.

We need help to convince people that scientists are specialists in understanding how to collect good data and how to effectively wield data to construct a reliable, useful view of the universe.

  • NOTE: We can choose to believe any view of the universe we please, but choosing for instance to believe that offering a sacrifice to Zeus every spring will keep floods at bay is not a reliable view of the universe.  It will still flood no matter if I make an offering or not.  I may, in turn, assert that Zeus is fickle as an explanation, but then my view becomes neither a reliable nor particularly useful one.

We need more scientist heroes in our social dialogue.  Instead of having scientists always be the “dangerous ones who have gone too far” in our films and television shows, they should be portrayed as they are – venturing into the unknown that terrifies many of us in order to help us all better understand and (ultimately) prosper in our universe.

Having “mad” scientists all-too-frequently portrayed as antagonists – heedless, obsessive, or impious –  breeds a deep-seated distrust of science that is propagating through the entire social mind.

The truth is, I believe the sooner people understand that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” – that even if millions of people believe in or even attest to something, (whether it be a flat Earth, astrology, UFOs-as-aliens, miracles, or that vaccines cause autism,) their cumulative belief doesn’t make their claims scientifically true or even scientifically useful – the sooner scientists will find the support they need for doing all the things we want to do: Cure cancer, create clean, powerful sources of energy, travel between stars, etc.

Food for thought!

Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…

Yuri’s Semi-Centennial… and other milestones

12 04 2011

Monument of Yuri Gagarin on Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow. (Credit: Anatoly Terentiev)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of human exploration off-world.  Coincidentally, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Now is a time of transition in many respects; it’s a time of remembrance and of guarded (and sometimes not-so-guarded) excitement.  The Space Shuttle is retiring, the International Space Station is complete, the first commercial orbital transportation ventures have successfully flown and recovered spacecraft, and an armada of suborbital spacecraft are on deck to begin getting us off the rock.

So, with many celebrations occurring worldwide, I raise my glass in kind:

Here’s to those that have shown us the way and to what is yet to come.

May the wind be at our backs.

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