The University of Texas at Austin
  • A crossroads in outer space: Two perspectives

    Published: March 4, 2010

    In light of recent announcements about NASA’s future, two aerospace engineering professors, Drs. Robert Bishop and Wallace Fowler, offer their outlook for space exploration.

    Robert BishopProfessor Robert Bishop:
    Cutting manned space flight is wrong for the human experience.
    In most ways, humans are now more sophisticated than those that came before us. Unlike the early earth-bound explorers, we are capable of leaving the cradle of civilization and living in space. Yet, 50 years after the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, we seem to be interminably stuck going in circles around the Earth. Indeed, the second brightest object in our night sky — the International Space Station — has been traveling in a near-circular orbit for years. Why is America so timid? Where is our spirit to explore and create new opportunities? Continue reading below.

    Wallace FowlerProfessor Wallace Fowler:
    The future U.S. space program will be shared with private adventurers.

    We are at a crossroads in the U.S. civilian space program. NASA has launched its four Great Observatories (Hubble, Compton, Chandra and Spitzer) and is preparing the follow-on James Webb Space Telescope. Messenger is still on its way to Mercury, Cassini is still working at Saturn, New Horizons is on the way to Pluto, and the two Mars rovers are still working, although one is stuck in the sand. On the human spaceflight front, the Shuttle will soon be retired as the final elements of the International Space Station (ISS) are delivered and attached. Continue reading below.

    Cutting manned space flight is wrong for the human experience

    By Professor Robert Bishop

    On a clear night you can look into the sky and see the wonders of the universe in much the same way as our ancestors. Night sky gazing is a bridge to our past. If we search circumspectly, the night sky and all it contains also offers a vision of our future.

    In most ways, humans are now more sophisticated than those who came before us. Unlike the early earth-bound explorers, we are capable of leaving the cradle of civilization and living in space. Yet, 50 years after the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, we seem to be interminably stuck going in circles around the Earth. Indeed, the second brightest object in our night sky — the International Space Station — has been traveling in a near-circular orbit for years. Why is America so timid? Where is our spirit to explore and create new opportunities?

    Our elected leaders have decided that ending the human exploration of space is a battle worth fighting. There are those in the science community that applaud this move, saying that now science will move to the forefront. Let’s be clear, exploration is not about science, it’s about the human experience, our continued shared journey as a society searching for meaning. The great tragedy is that we are debating robotic exploration versus human exploration, rather than working together to expand exploration in all areas of space.

    Landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth was undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of humankind. The drive to the moon was a national priority driven by the Cold War. It focused our efforts in science and engineering and propelled the United States to dominate the world’s high-tech markets. Having a concerted effort to solve such complicated problems as making smaller and faster computers, creating lighter and stronger materials, and building better, smaller, and faster guidance systems allowed the United States to pull ahead of the other nations and gave us a technological advantage. President Kennedy’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon inspired a whole generation of students and encouraged them to pursue careers in the fields of math, science and engineering. We did these things because we saw the power and hope of humankind through the eyes of the astronauts, those real-life super-heroes that kids wanted to emulate, to follow into space.

    Read more from Professor Bishop on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.

    The future U.S. space program will be shared with private adventurers

    By Professor Wallace Fowler

    We are at a crossroads in the U.S. civilian space program. NASA has launched its four Great Observatories (Hubble, Compton, Chandra, and Spitzer) and is preparing the follow-on James Webb Space Telescope. Messenger is still on its way to its orbit around Mercury, Cassini is still working at Saturn, New Horizons is on the way to Pluto, and the two Mars rovers are still working, although one is stuck in the sand. On the human spaceflight front, the Shuttle will soon be retired as the final elements of the International Space Station (ISS) are delivered and attached.

    Recently, the President announced that he plans to cancel the Constellation program which was designed as our next step in the human flight area, focusing on a return to the moon. His goal is to move NASA away from its current role as a space transportation provider and allow it to again become a research and development organization. This will leave NASA without the capability to send humans to orbit.

    Tomorrow’s NASA space program will be different. Human space flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), beyond Earth’s natural radiation shields (the Van Allen belts), is dangerous. Currently, a human being outside the Van Allen belts could receive the NASA defined “lifetime dose” of galactic cosmic radiation within 200 days. If the Sun spews out a coronal jet of radiation in a solar storm in the direction of the spacecraft, a lethal dose can be received in a few hours. Mars does not have the equivalent of the shielding Van Allen belts, so a Mars base would also need shielding. Until we develop appropriate shielding, probably an intense magnetic field around the spacecraft, human travel, even to the moon, will likely be limited.

    Robotic missions, in the short term, will be limited to the inner solar system. In the inner solar system (within the orbit of Mars), the solar cells can be used to power spacecraft. Beyond Mars, spacecraft power systems rely on radioactive means to create electricity, and we do not currently have a supply source for the needed material. There is a very short supply of Plutonium 238, the radioactive element used to provide electricity for spacecraft going to Jupiter and beyond. We have exhausted the U.S. supply and have been buying it from the Russians. Now they are in short supply and other sources are not currently available.

    Read more from Professor Fowler on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.

    Related article: Professor Steven Weinberg shares his perspectives in “Opinion: Obama gets space funding right.”

    • Quote 2
      radio said on Jan. 17, 2011 at 10:42 a.m.
      Good idea. I like this idea.
    • Quote 2
      M.A said on Dec. 26, 2010 at 9:37 p.m.
      It would be a good idea that the U.S stops throwing money away with all its wars and start investing more in something with real value like space exploration.
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