Space flights have a deeper meaning for life on earth

When governments announce space initiatives we need to raise uncomfortable questions about their guiding logic, benefits.

By C. P. Rajendran (Space Odyssey)

Published: Sat 5 Oct 2019, 10:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 6 Oct 2019, 12:45 AM

Late last year, the Government of India sanctioned Rs100 billion for the country's 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 India's 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.
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 in the world, and the agency is at its best when given a purpose. But the public doesn't 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, 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 programme (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 programmes can galvanise the population, inspire the youth, foster job-creation, and motivate the existing workforce. The nature of the enterprises involved - their scale, novelty, and complexity - requires 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 presents us with an opportunity to significantly advance the nation and the global community."
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. We must 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 dearly.
C.P. Rajendran is a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru

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