NASA and the space community have had a remarkable week. The New Horizons interplanetary space probe finished its nearly 10-year journey to the dwarf planet of Pluto, producing images of unprecedented clarity. Yet NASA's planetary space budget is being scrutinized as Washington works to partially privatize the U.S. space industry — a task perhaps made easier by the culmination of the New Horizons mission, which has captivated scientists and space enthusiasts worldwide.
When considering the geopolitical importance of the world's space programs there is a tendency to focus on the tangible and most immediate applications. We look at China, which has developed its own navigational satellite system to reduce its military's reliance on and exposure to foreign navigational satellites. And we look at the commercial implications of communications satellites in the digital world. For all the science, research missions projected into space have long-term importance at the foundational level, which this particular endeavor highlights. The exploration of foundational science takes years to produce results. Yet its importance to countries with the ambition to continually advance technology and human knowledge is exemplified by New Horizons' journey, and more important, the information it will send back.
When analyzing space missions, more should be considered than the end goal. The breakthrough discoveries made in the process of achieving a mission are often just as important as the goal itself. Manned and unmanned space missions have different complexities and outcomes, but both have the potential to kick-start advancements that can be utilized at home. Ultimately, in order to advance, space missions with clear aims must be conducted to define existing problems and resolve them under deadline.
Currently, unmanned missions are easier to stage because they avoid the myriad issues associated with human space travel. An unmanned rover will likely be drilling through Europa's ice before any human colony is established on Mars. In fact, the very prospect of off-world colonization highlights the difficulties of transiting people through space and establishing them elsewhere. Things we take for granted on earth become much more complicated. How would you wash your clothes on Mars, for instance? While this may seem like a tertiary question at first, it highlights the scope of research sometimes needed to undertake groundbreaking missions.
A mission to Mars — or any other lengthy manned mission outside the Earth-Moon system — would need to be self-sufficient in every aspect, down to the tiny details of doing the laundry. Every gram of the initial payload is precious and must satisfy almost all of the resource needs of the mission. A hypothetical self-contained manned endeavor would also need redundancies in place for every conceivable eventuality, adding even more constraints to the initial supplies. This explains NASA's focus on perfecting modular systems and constructing parts in space through additive manufacturing, using the same source materials.
Another more immediate and practical constraint for conducting a lengthy manned mission would be its medical requirements. Simply protecting travelers from radiation outside of the magnetosphere is a challenge. Astronauts who traveled to the moon, a relatively short distance from Earth compared to Mars, were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Health problems regularly arise in space, and a lengthy mission would need something — probably robotic — to perform a wide array of surgeries and other medical operations for the crew. There are also pharmaceutical considerations based off the uncertainty around what medication and intermittent resupply a hypothetical crew would need.
The Genesis of Technology
Planetary and interplanetary research missions have often been the genesis of more practical technologies. For example, the furthest manmade object from Earth, the Voyager 1 space probe, is traveling in interstellar space and required the development of more sophisticated and reliable communications, which has contributed to developments in GPS technology and satellite phones.
The study of other bodies of mass like Pluto or Europa is also important for understanding the way that the Earth works.
Learning about the mantle, crust or core of other solid body objects can teach us a great deal about the Earth's own mechanisms.
The same can be said about the study of other planets' atmospheres: Understanding carbon dioxide on Venus has important implications for climate change research on Earth. It is conceivable that research in areas such as terraforming could help provide solutions for mitigating climate change at home.
One of NASA's best-known efforts to promote space science missions is its Discovery program. The Discovery program has funded such projects as the Dawn mission to study Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt. Going forward, NASA will launch the OSIRIS mission in 2016 to bring back regolith samples from an asteroid. Both of these studies will contribute to our knowledge about the formation of the solar system and also to a greater understanding of near-Earth objects.
Space programs have also been at the cutting edge of computer science and other technologies that are under development primarily for commercial, military or other purposes. For instance, NASA has taken a keen interest in the applications of quantum mechanics in areas such as communication and, perhaps most important, quantum computing. Quantum computing has the potential to better simulate and mimic almost everything in nature than classical computers but is an area of study in its infancy. NASA is also taking great interest in quantum computing applications in artificial intelligence and has a program dedicated to it, known as QuAIL. Artificial intelligence itself has numerous applications in space science that would allow a space probe, rover or orbiter more autonomy in its own operations. Rover technology developed for Mars is already being looked at by the oil and gas industry for its potential to facilitate transportation through dangerous environments.
Finding the Money
State financing of space budgets, especially in the United States and Europe, has come under increased scrutiny following the end of the space race, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and most recently the global financial crisis. Dwindling financing for high-profile missions will undoubtedly lead NASA and other Western state-led space programs to scale back or limit their activity. China, on the other hand, has made a more concerted effort to expand its space science programs in conjunction with more immediate commercial and military applications.
There is ample room for the private sector to help. Increased development of the space launch market, both for small and large payloads, will drive down the cost of launching objects into space. It is possible companies such as SpaceX will eventually launch space science missions out of the Earth-Moon system — an obvious requirement if SpaceX wants to fulfill its goal of launching missions to Mars. Lowering the cost of access to space could also make financing from more traditional academic sources, such as grants from corporations and non-profits, more effective. However, it will be decades before a non-government institution is able to finance a major space mission like a flyby of Pluto. In the meantime astronomers will be tasked with identifying the aspects of their missions that will achieve concrete applications back home, and then communicating those to investors. There is still room for compartmentalized innovation though: Some private companies, even start-ups, have already begun testing spacesuits for commercial sale, for example.
Small-scale research missions will increasingly be conducted alongside larger missions. Such activities are enabled by the development and advancement of nanosatellites or cubesats — essentially very, very small satellites — that can tag along with other launches, assuming there is space alongside the main payload. These advances have both in-space and on-Earth applications. One such experiment developed by NASA researchers used cheap cubesats to test a space tether, which was fixed between two objects to develop a space net of sorts to capture space debris. Small-scale satellites also have a significantly lower mass than conventional space probes, which makes them cheaper to launch. Once in orbit many are able to use early solar sail technology for propulsion, another advantage over traditional orbital vehicles and satellites.
While its initial applications on Earth are not immediately evident, New Horizons' successful mission to Pluto is an awe-inspiring reminder that space science missions are important to the advancement of science and technology back on Earth. As the United States, and really the entire West, loses its competitive edge in STEM-related subject areas, there is nonetheless a fantastic opportunity to captivate the minds of younger generations and lead them to mathematics and the sciences. Even if those students do not eventually end up reaching for the stars, they will still help the West maintain a leading edge in science and technology research, advancement and application.