We asked Alex Roland, professor emeritus of history at Duke University, to put the current Mars Curiosity mission in a perspective. Roland is a former NASA historian.
Q: What are the benefits of unmanned space exploration, such as the Mars Curiosity?
One question has driven all current space exploration: Was there ever, or is there now, life on Mars? It’s likely if there were, it’s disappeared, but we might find evidence. That would have enormous implications for the space program and for the human race and condition. It would suggest we’re not unique in the universe.
Such a discovery would increase NASA’s emphasis on getting the country to agree to a manned Mars mission. NASA sees itself as having had a golden age with the Apollo program. Ever since, it has tried to find something else to capture public imagination to justify a large increase in our space activity spending. Curiosity plays an interesting role because if it finds evidence, NASA can increase its manned mission push. But Curiosity is such a capable exploration vehicle, and it’s so much cheaper and less dangerous than a manned mission, that many of us believe we should invest in more Curiosities.
Q: What’s the advantage of unmanned missions?
Whenever you send people to space, the expedition’s purpose changes. To explore Mars, we can send up as many remotely controlled vehicles as necessary. They’re uniquely designed for exploration. A manned mission must get people there and back safely. That trumps all else, and it limits exploration. Humans can only do safe exploration. Their exploration time is limited because they must return to Earth soon. It also limits the equipment sent up because astronauts need a lot of life support. For exploration, we’re better off sending custom-designed, remotely controlled, automated spacecraft. There’s nothing humans can do on Mars that a machine can’t. Sending people increases risk and diverts the mission’s goal.
Q: Are there potential technological gains from the Curiosity mission?
Investing in science and technology, especially research and development, always produces spin-off. Second-order consequences and unanticipated technological applications can be useful in other fields. But that comes from any R&D. NASA’s spinoff record isn’t great. They claim the dollars they’ve invested produced more spinoff technology, but that mostly isn’t true. There’s nothing specific NASA does that makes R&D any more productive.
Q: Could this Mars mission be seen as a re-launch of space exploration?
Whenever I hear of manned Mars missions, my first question is, “Why?” What will we do? Will it be like Apollo where we send humans there and bring them home safely, and that’s the end?
NASA maintains manned Mars missions will be part of a permanent space colonization program. That begs the question of why colonize Mars? Sending humans there to take pictures, scoop soil, and return safely will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. An initial colonization mission would cost probably around $1 trillion just to get started.
So, it’s reasonable to ask the purpose and benefit of having people on Mars. A good comparison is the International Space Station. We paid more than $100 billion to put it up there and never found a good use for it. Within a decade, we’ll likely abandon it, let it decay in orbit, and burn up in the atmosphere. If we can’t find a good use for the space station that’s comparatively close and safe – even though we’ve lost two space shuttles and crews going there and back – how do we think we’ll find a good use for humans on Mars?
Q: What continues to drive NASA toward manned exploration? Are we still searching for our place or role in the universe?
That’s exactly it. When NASA sent the first crew to the space station, they stressed this reflected both the agency’s and our country’s place in history. They emphasized this was the beginning of permanent human space habitation. They believed from then on humans would be in space and people would look back and remember America, NASA, and the space program. But there’s no commitment to fund the space station very far into the future. It’s too expensive to maintain, and it’s not doing anything useful.
NASA will argue strenuously to maintain a space presence. We all love NASA. We love what they do and think they’re good and capable. But, the public has a right to ask what we’re getting for our investments, especially when budgets are stressed.
Q: In the last decade, space exploration has shifted from government-funded enterprise to the private sector. Will this continue?
I’ve long been skeptical that private companies without government subsidy can make money flying in space. There isn’t that much money to be made. It’s a big business, but it’s not what most private venture firms are motivated by. Often, it’s idealistic, very wealthy people with lots of money to invest.
They grew up in the space age. They want the same permanent space presence NASA wants, and they’re going to help make it happen. I think we’re seeing evidence they can build launch vehicles and operate them more cheaply than NASA. But do they have a business model for sustainable programs and making money? None will reveal how much they’ve spent, and without long-term, sustainable business models, venture capital isn’t attracted. It’s unclear how many companies will make money.
NASA’s trying to help them because if companies assume routine activities, like launching satellites or resupplying the space station, then NASA can divert funding to futuristic enterprise, including manned Mars missions. Perhaps NASA has enough business to keep them going for a while, but not enough for long-term profit. One strange peculiarity of modern technology is the satellites we launch now are so big and powerful we don’t need as many of them as we used to.
Q: What can NASA do to reignite or reinvent itself?
What many at NASA only say privately is the public often doesn’t appreciate NASA’s unmanned spacecraft magnificence. They’ve transformed how we understand the universe and presented research possibilities, but NASA’s believed its public and congressional support and budget depend on manned space exploration.
NASA has believed people don’t care about space science, communication, and weather satellites. But these technologies give us today’s world. Manned space flight has been little more than circus or stunt. Astronauts go up, float around, and return without accomplishing much.
Curiosity exemplifies how exciting unmanned space activity is, and how interested the public can be if NASA educates them.