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What Space Needs: The Human Touch

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What Space Needs: the Human Touch


NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space enterprise tackles one of the toughest and most redeeming problems of all: sending humans into space.


Marshall Space Flight Center

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see captionMay 30, 2001 -- When Apollo astronauts were traveling to the Moon, they occasionally saw flashes of light inside their eyes. It was a sign that high-energy cosmic rays were coursing through their bodies. Fortunately, the dose of such radiation during a round trip to the Moon was not enough to cause health problems. No one was harmed.

But the first astronauts couldn't have known that's how it would turn out. Blasting off for the Moon was a risky venture.

Right: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969.

Why did they do it? The Moon is surely beautiful, but it's also daunting. The Moon has no air to breath or water to drink, and no atmosphere to protect its surface from scorching solar radiation. Without their bulky spacesuits, astronauts wouldn't survive on the lunar surface for more than a few seconds.

Nevertheless, they went.

President Kennedy made sense of it in 1962. Addressing a crowd at Rice University, he exclaimed, "We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and our skills ... we do not know what benefits await us ... [but] space is there and we are going to climb it."



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Kennedy didn't mention unmanned probes or robots. Sending machines into space was hard, he realized, but not hard enough to accomplish his purpose.

"We advance when smart people try to solve tough problems, and there's no tougher problem than human exploration of space," explains John Mankins, the manager of NASA's Advanced Concepts program in Washington, DC.

Conveying people safely to alien worlds through a hail of cosmic radiation and meteoroids, living in cramped quarters with limited air and water --simply walking without the familiar pull of gravity -- it's difficult stuff! And exactly what President Kennedy had in mind.

In return for such difficult work, space exploration has given us communications and weather satellites, miniaturized electronics, smart robots, practical photovoltaic power, technology to monitor and manage pollution on Earth ... and it promises more. For example, says Mankins, "astronauts who spend much time in low gravity suffer bone loss similar to osteoporosis. We have to solve that problem for long space voyages." In the United States more than 10 million people have osteoporosis and 18 million more are at risk. Every one of them stands to benefit from a medical breakthrough for astronauts.

see captionLeft: Satellite images like these save lives by warning us when deadly storms threaten. President Lyndon Johnson felt that reconnaissance and telecommunications satellites alone justified every penny spent on space. [more]

Spinoffs aside, critics argue that sending humans into space is costly and fraught with peril. Couldn't we explore more economically using robots, they ask? For every one human that lands safely on Mars, we could afford dozens of remotely-operated Mars rovers -- smart as grasshoppers and bristling with sensors.

But it's just not the same, says Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the elder Jacques Cousteau. Jean-Michel, recently named an Environmental Hero by the US government, directs the Ocean Futures Society. He is an impassioned advocate for human exploration of our planet's oceans and of space.

"As we explore the ocean --like we explore space-- the human presence is a must," says Cousteau. "No matter how well we program a machine we cannot give it a heart. It's what makes us humans unique."

"You see, exploration isn't merely about finding things, it's about being moved [spiritually and emotionally], it's about making connections between things that, to a machine, might seem to have no relation at all!"

"That's why the International Space Station is so important. How many times have astronauts been up there in orbit and looked down on our planet, seeing things that were not an original part of their program? Humans see the big picture. We dream. We can make decisions that advance science faster than a machine ever could."

For Cousteau, there is no true exploration without humans -- only remote sensing.

Kathy Clark, chief scientist for NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) enterprise, agrees: "There's no substitute for the human experience."

see caption"Imagine winning a trip to Paris. You're filled with excitement, anticipating the food, the wine, the city's ambiance. Then, just as you're packing your bags, you get this brown envelope in the mail. It's filled with pictures of mouth-watering cuisine, of people talking and lights glistening from the Eiffel Tower. This is your prize! They didn't send you to Paris. Oh no, they sent a robot with a camera instead."

Right: Sunset in Paris. Copyright, all rights reserved.

Is it possible to experience the City of Lights, to truly learn what Paris is, by looking at a stack of photos? "I'll skip that vacation," says Clark.

In fact, says Mankins, we can learn a great deal from remote sensing and telerobotics, but humans accelerate the pace of discovery.

"Consider the Pathfinder mission to Mars [in 1996]," recalls Clark. "It really pushed the envelope on several fronts -- how to land a rover on Mars, how to control one from a distance... and watching Sojourner scoot around on an alien world, it was spellbinding!"

"Now consider this," she continued. "Sojourner spent two weeks analyzing half a dozen Mars rocks. A human geologist could have done that same work in 30 minutes -- then turned the rocks over to see what was hiding underneath."

Mankins added: "One of the unexpected problems Sojourner encountered was dust and grit: the rocks were covered with it and they all looked much the same. A human would have jury-rigged something to dust them off and make the appropriate discovery."

"But the real issue here isn't man vs. machine," he cautioned. "We need machines working together with humans." Imagine such a pair striding across the Red Planet. An astronaut surveying the scene, seeing connections, barking instructions to a rover that scurries off to analyze a rock or, perhaps, a curious patch of green.

"Machines are important," agrees Cousteau, "but they are there to serve us. They can't replace our imagination and our innate ability to make connections.

see caption"Humans have a rare gift," he added. "Our sense of adventure. We are hunters, gatherers, adventurers by nature."

And, as every parent knows, there's no better example of human nature in all its forms than children. "I spend a lot of time talking to kids," says Mankins. "No 4th-grader is wildly inspired to write financial software. But if you mention humans in space or, say, writing software for robot helpers -- presto, instant enthusiasm for math and science."

Above: One day students who score well on math and science might get to do this: four wheeling on another planet just like Apollo 17's Gene Cernan. But it will only happen if we maintain a vigorous program of human space exploration!

Transforming math anxiety into math enthusiasm? That accomplishment alone makes human spaceflight worth the effort. It's no coincidence that President Kennedy delivered his vision for the Apollo program to a crowd of students.

"We don't know what benefits await us..." he said. "But space is there and we are going to climb it!"

The galvanized crowd roared their approval like a Saturn rocket. Their hearts, their minds, perhaps even their DNA agreed: Space is for humans ... not because it's easy, but because it's hard.





Web Links

Human Exploration and Development of Space - The goal of NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) Enterprise is to open the space frontier by exploring, using and enabling the development of space. -- NASA's home page for human spaceflight.

John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at Rice UniversityPresident John Kennedy's 1962 address at Rice University - Listen to the speech or read the transcript at this web site hosted by the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library.

NASA Research and Technology Helps Understand and Treat Osteoporosis - One of the physical changes experienced by astronauts during space flight is loss of bone density. This is similar to osteoporosis, a brittle bone condition that affects many older people on Earth.

Ocean Futures - Ocean Futures is a non-profit organization resulting from a merger of the Jean-Michel-Cousteau Institute and the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.

APOLLO Light Flash Investigations - Crewmembers of the Apollo 11 mission were the first astronauts to describe an unusual visual phenomenon associated with space flight. During transearth coast, both the Commander and the Lunar Module Pilot reported seeing faint spots or flashes of light when the cabin was dark and they had become dark-adapted.

Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible --Learn how space exploration launched modern telecommunications, reconnaissance, and weather forecasting. Form NASA's History Office.

NASA Spinoffs, Bringing Space down to Earth -- Most of us don't know it, but we're surrounded by everyday examples of space technology spinoffs that make our lives better. Visit this site for a partial yet impressive list.

If you think space exploration is boring, read the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal! These transcripts describe astronaut's real-life adventures on the Moon. Highlights include troubles with a Moon rover, the discovery of orange soil near Shorty Crater, and of course the rescue of Apollo 13.

A New Martian Frontier: Recapturing the Soul of America -- Dr. Robert Zubrin (National Space Society) explains why he thinks we should seek out new frontiers on other planets, beginning with Mars.


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