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The case for public funding of astronauts weakens as robots improve


4 min read

I’m old enough to remember the Apollo program – and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” in 1969, just 12 years after the first Sputnik and eight years after Yuri Gagarin’s flight. I remember thinking, naively, that it might be only another decade or two before there were footprints on Mars.

Maybe there would have been if political momentum had been maintained. But once the race to the Moon was won, there was no motivation for continuing the political rivalry with the USSR. In the 1960s, NASA absorbed up to four per cent of the United States federal budget; today it’s around 0.6 per cent.

Rockets and humans haven’t changed much in the half-century since the Apollo era, but of course microelectronics and AI have been utterly transformative and space technology has burgeoned. We depend routinely on thousands of orbiting satellites for communication, satnav, environmental monitoring, surveillance, and weather forecasting. 

It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems

During this century, the entire Solar System – planets, moons and asteroids – will be explored by flotillas of tiny robotic craft. 

So, will there be a role for humans? There’s no denying that NASA’s Perseverance Rover and its Chinese counterpart, trundling across Martian craters, may miss startling discoveries that no human geologist could overlook. But machine learning is advancing fast, as is sensor technology. In contrast, the cost gap between manned and unmanned missions remains huge.  

The practical case for manned spaceflight gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation. 

NASA’s human spaceflight program, ever since Apollo, has been financially constrained, and impeded by public and political pressure into being exceedingly risk-averse. The Space Shuttle crashed twice in 135 launches. Astronauts or test pilots would willingly accept this level of risk – less than two percent – but the Shuttle had, unwisely, been promoted as a safe vehicle for civilians. Each failure caused a national trauma and was followed by a hiatus while costly efforts were made (with very limited effect) to reduce the risk still further.

Because of this safety culture NASA will continue to face political obstacles, but nonetheless its Artemis program, with the aim of sending humans to the moon this decade, is a step towards (it is claimed) sending humans to Mars (and back) by the 2040s.

Leaving aside the Chinese, I think the future of human spaceflight lies with privately funded adventurers. 

These private ventures – bringing a Silicon Valley culture into a domain long-dominated by NASA and a few aerospace conglomerates – have innovated and improved rocketry far faster than NASA or ESA. 

Were I an American taxpayer, I would not support NASA’s human spaceflight program. Arguably, human missions beyond low-earth orbit – if done at all – should be private-enterprise ventures. Inspirationally-led private companies like Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin could operate a cut-price program far riskier than Western nations. There would still be many volunteers – some perhaps even accepting “one-way tickets” – driven by the same motives as early explorers, mountaineers, and the like. 

By 2100 intrepid thrill-seekers may have established “bases” on Mars. Elon Musk himself says he wants to die there – just not on impact. But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth – either to Mars or to the massive space habitats envisaged by Jeff Bezos. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. Nowhere in our Solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic, the ocean bed, or the top of Everest. There’s no “Planet B” for ordinary risk-averse people. 

These pioneer space adventurers will be ill-adapted to their new habitat and incentivised to redesign themselves, likely harnessing yet-to-be-developed, super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies. This might even be the first step towards divergence into a new species: post-humans with powers that today we can’t possibly imagine. 


Lord Rees, crossbench peer and Astronomer Royal

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