Compelling Rationales for Spaceflight?

Launch of the Space Shuttle "Atlantis."

From the defining event of Sputnik in 1957, I would contend that there have been five major themes—and only these five—that have been effective in justifying a large-scale spaceflight agenda:

  1. Scientific Discovery and Understanding
  2. National Security and military applications
  3. Economic Competitiveness and commercial applications
  4. Human Destiny/Survival of the Species
  5. National Prestige/Geopolitics

Specific aspects of these five rationales have fluctuated over time but remain the only reasons for the endeavor that have any saliency whatsoever.

The first and most common rationale for spaceflight is that an integral part of human nature is a desire for discovery and understanding. At one level, there exists the ideal of the pursuit of abstract scientific knowledge—learning more about the universe to expand the human mind—and pure science and exploration of the unknown will remain an important aspect of spaceflight well into the foreseeable future. This goal clearly motivates the scientific probes sent to all of the planets of the Solar System save Pluto. It propels a wide range of efforts to explore Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn projected for the twenty-first century. It energized such efforts as the Hubble Space Telescope, which has revolutionized knowledge of the universe since its deployment in 1990.

From the beginning, science has been a critical goal in spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA stated that its mandate included “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” This idea has continually drawn verbal and fiscal support, but it has proven less important than the pursuit of knowledge that enables some practical social or economic payoff.

Artist's conception of the reentry of a military spaceplane, the X-37.

A second rationale of national defense and military space activity has also proved useful for spaceflight advocates. From the beginning, national leaders sought to use space to ensure U.S. security from nuclear holocaust. For instance, in 1952 a popular conception of the U.S.-occupied space station showed it as a platform from which to observe the Soviet Union and the rest of the globe in the interest of national security. The human spaceflight enterprise also gained energy from Cold War rivalries in the 1950s and 1960s as international prestige, translated into American support from non-aligned nations, found an important place in the space policy agenda. Human spaceflight also had a strong military nature during the 1980s when astronauts from the military services deployed reconnaissance satellites into Earth orbit from the Space Shuttle.

The third rationale of economic competitiveness and commercial applications also represent a useful role that the public accepts for spaceflight. Space technologies, especially the complex human spaceflight component, demand a skilled and well-trained work force whose talents are disseminated to the larger technological and economic base of the nation. The Apollo program, for example, served explicitly as an economic engine fueling the southern states’ economic growth. In recent years, the economic rationale has become stronger and even more explicit as space applications, especially communications satellites, become increasingly central for maintaining United States global economic competitiveness.

The proposed flight profile of "SpaceShipTwo."

One of the key initiatives in this effort for human spaceflight is tourism, a major aspect that envisages hotels in Earth orbit and lunar vacation packages. While this has yet to find realization, it remains a tantalizing possibility for the twenty-first century.

The fourth imperative for spaceflight has revolved around human destiny. With the Earth so well known, advocates argue, exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars is the next logical step in human exploration. Humans must question and explore and discover or die, advocates for this position insist. There is also a terrifying aspect to this rationale; humanity will not survive if it does not become multi-planetary. 

Finally, national prestige and concern for geopolitical relations has dominated so many of the spaceflight decisions that it sometimes seems trite to suggest that it has been an impressive rationale over the years. Yet, there is more to it than that, for while all recognize that prestige sparked and sustained the space race of the 1960s we too often fail to recognize that it continues to motivate support for NASA’s programs. The United States went to Moon for prestige purposes, but it also built the Space Shuttle and embarked on the space station for prestige purposes as well.

Prestige may well ensure that no matter how difficult the challenges and overbearing the obstacles, the United States will continue to fly in space indefinitely. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, when it appeared that all reason for human spaceflight should be questioned, no one seriously considered ending the program. Instead, support for the effort came from all quarters.

Are these sufficient rationales to sustain spaceflight indefinitely? While Americans want the endeavor’s fruits too many are unwilling to invest in it. The rationales, as real as they might be, do not seem compelling enough to sustain an expansive program indefinitely and the effort has been stumbling. What compelling rationales do you see?

This entry was posted in Apollo, Applications Satellites, Cold War Competition, Earth Science, History, International Space Station, Lunar Exploration, Space, Space Shuttle and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Compelling Rationales for Spaceflight?

  1. Roger:

    I think you summarize the rationales very well. Just a couple of comments – do you need a rationale that focuses on domestic political considerations? This is part of several of the rationales already, but may deserve to stand on its own. For example, there’s the Republican tendency to announce big space initiatives at the beginning of election years with the aim of ensuring that aerospace workers will vote for them. The most explicit example of this is Nixon in January 1972 announcing Shuttle in California, a state hit by an “aerospace depression,” and playing up the aerospace jobs it would create. Reagan did it again in January 1984 (Space Station) and Bush II did in 20 years on (the Vision). Bush I broke with this pattern when he announced SEI in July 1989.

    There’s also another rationale I’ve noticed that I’m not sure you cover – nostalgia. The John Glenn flight on the Shuttle wasn’t very significant in terms of real results, NASA’s protestations re: the science of aging notwithstanding, but it really struck a chord with people. For a time it was the only Shuttle mission anyone who wasn’t a space fan could readily name. Warm feelings about the early days of spaceflight carry over to the present.



  2. Gary K says:

    I did a similar series of essays and we made a booklet out of them:
    I think the human destiny and the idea of survival of the species is the overriding reason. It is raison d’tere for the the long term while all the others are short-term gratifications. Take a look at the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and how devastating those are to so many, and yet the threat from space is several factors greater. It should be reason enough impel humanity to continue to develop the capability to expand humanity beyond the earth. Which then brings up another reason and that is continued technological development in order to make it easier to travel to space and in space. For that reason, Shuttle should not have been abandoned but instead the people who as you explain so well develop that capability and expertise should be evolving to support even better capabilities.


    • Hiram Sweet says:

      The idea that the most compelling rationale for human spaceflight is species preservation is, in my view, a good one. There are no robotic efforts that can accomplish this. I’m not really sure, however, what “human destiny” means, if not species preservation, or why such destiny should drive federal expenditures. But the big trouble, you know, is that this compelling rationale isn’t part of the Space Act that defines NASA. So the most compelling rationale for human spaceflight is not, one has to admit, why NASA does it. In fact, to the extent that this is about species preservation, it isn’t clear how one gets away from assigning international responsibility to it. Why should U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for species preservation?

      So, if we’re supposed to be deciding on compelling rationales for human space flight, where exactly are we, on a federal footing, if the agency that has adopted human space flight (no, not even human space flight is really conspicuous in the Space Act) isn’t guided by that rationale? Even the Vision for Space Exploration, which was a noble attempt to set some goals for human space exploration, wasn’t guided by that rationale.


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