Why do we travel in space?

March 7, 2003

Dear Cecil:

During coverage of the recent Columbia space shuttle tragedy, the subject of the importance of conducting medical experiments in space came up. How does performing experiments in zero gravity aid in scientific and medical research?

Good question. But in light of the Columbia disaster, we should broaden it a bit: Why the hell are we in space?

People have been asking that since the Eisenhower administration. The answer has varied with the times. In the 1960s it was simple: We wanted to get to the moon first to prove we were more worthy than the Russians, who'd scared everybody with Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, and Yury Gagarin, the first human in orbit.

Since the end of the Apollo moon-launch program in 1972, the answer's gotten vaguer. Depending on who you ask, the rationale might be: (1) Because the space program provides technological spin-offs valuable for terrestrial applications. (2) Because manned space flight advances scientific knowledge. (3) Because it will help us colonize the stars. (4) Because it's cool. Reasons one, two, and three are dubious, to say the least. You'll have to be the judge of number four. Here's the rundown:

(1) Spin-offs. Few and far between. As reported in 1993 by space skeptic Bob Park, who writes a weekly news digest for the American Physical Society, an internal NASA study admitted, "To much of the public, NASA's technology transfer reputation is based on some famous examples, including Velcro, Tang and Teflon. Contrary to popular belief, NASA created none of these. . . . There have not been very many technology transfer successes compared to the potential." Park added, "In 1991, during a Senate debate on an amendment to slash funding for Space Station Freedom, Sen. [Howell] Heflin (D-AL) produced a NASA list of 74 'space spinoffs'--everything from synthetic teats for piglets to portable ice rinks. [I] challenged anyone to document that a single item on the list actually owed its existence to the space program. There were no takers."

(2) Research. This is what you're asking about. One of the original arguments for the manned space program was that in microgravity astronauts would be able to grow purer crystals and such. Many scientists now doubt the effort is worth the trouble. In 1998 the American Society for Cell Biology declared, "Most of [NASA's space-based life science research] is driven by the need to make use of the engineering temple called the International Space Station (ISS)"--that is, NASA didn't develop the ISS to do experiments, it dreamed up the experiments to justify the ISS. Space is an extremely difficult environment in which to do research, the ASCB said. Space studies to date have shown that biological processes are largely unaffected by microgravity. Most biological research can be conducted more effectively on the ground. "Areas of research such as protein crystallization, drug design, and basic animal and plant cell and developmental biology can not be used to justify a space mission," the ASCB concluded.

(3) Space colonies. Critics note that many space experiments are designed to examine the long-term effects of a low-gravity environment on astronauts. In other words, the purpose of the manned space program is to study the manned space program. The none-too-secret long-term agenda: To boldly go where no one has gone before and colonize the galaxy, just like in Star Trek.

Except that space colonization is a romantic illusion. The best explication of this comes from a charming article written in the aftermath of the last space shuttle disaster by my fellow truth seeker Joel Achenbach and published in his Why Things Are: Answers to Every Essential Question in Life (1991). Short version: It's unlikely we'll ever be able to colonize other solar systems--they're too far away. Using next-generation propulsion systems it'd take 5,000 years to reach the nearest star. We'll probably never go much faster because of the physical limitations of the cosmos--you can't reach the speed of light (or even get remotely close to it) with any technology now on the horizon due to the vast amount of energy required. Talk of hyperdrives and such is just Hollywood fantasy. We could colonize our own solar system, but who'd want to go? The other planets are inhospitable rock piles, toxic cauldrons, or frigid balls of gas. Some say: Surely one day we'll figure out a way to sidestep the basic laws of the universe. I reply: Never say never. But it won't involve a bunch of creaky space buckets with loose tiles.

(4) Coolness. Our trips to the moon were a blast--I'm sure most Americans would vote for another one in a second. The question is whether, in the absence of a plausible new mission, the coolness of manned space flight justifies its enormous expense. Many scientists complain that the manned space program sucks up scarce funds that could be more usefully spent on robot probes and earth-based research. There's little in the solar system that seems to merit a personal visit (unless such a mission could demonstrate that life did, does, or could exist on Mars--I'd give that one a go). But I'd be hard put to say we should send people into space just because it's fun.

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