"Our Nearest Neighbor" Source: NASA
Judging the prospects for human settlement beyond Earth requires assessment of elements such as; the rationale for, the technical, biological and social readiness for, the political will for, and the funding resources available, for doing so. I focus here primarily on the rationale for and technical and biological capabilities for human settlement. Even that is a large topic. Also, I fully acknowledge the advisability of using, as possible, advanced robotics with the “virtual presence” and remote manipulation they can provide to assist in all aspects of human settlement. It is envisioned that they will be the initial explorers and risk analysis agents that preceed humans. Subsequently, when teamed with humans, they can help create the infrastructure to support people and robots in a very challenging environment and greatly facilitate space commercialization opportunities and applications. However, robotics will have to be addressed later.
A common view within space advocacy groups and the human exploration elements of NASA is that “spacefaring” on a space platform traveling for months beyond Earth, a large asteroid or another planet like the Moon would logically occur in stages which can help us operationally define this vague term. The first would be “sortie” or short visits to demonstrate the feasibility of getting there, briefly living and working there, and coming back. We did that long ago during Apollo. The second would be to establish an “outpost” with imported facilities and supplies sufficient to stay longer and test the limits of people and systems to operate together safely and efficiently. Apollo did none of that except to provide a sporty “lunar buggy” that extended human travel distances for exploration. The third stage would be to establish a permanently occupied “settlement” of facilities, resources and people who would stay for fixed periods and then be replaced as we do now on the International Space Station (ISS). The fourth stage could be called “frontier” where people move to their new home assuming it will have sufficient resources, with ongoing related processing efforts, to provide mostly local “life support” for themselves, and perhaps in the future for a growing population that might start with plants and animals in artificial ecosystems.
This staging when applied to spacefaring on the Moon provides a useful view of the “precursor” phase that has recently begun (remote exploration with lunar orbiters, crash-landing “excavators”, water "scouts", and lots of strategic analyses) and the R&D necessary to allow us to perhaps permanently inhabit the planet “next-door”. Much work would be required, with significant involvement by the entrepreneurial space sector in partnership with the government, to make the Moon habitable for short periods gradually extending in length. Many argue that spacefaring development work must be done in part on the ISS and then the Moon to make the costs and risks even close to being acceptable. There is an emerging view that considering the significant climate, energy, resource and Near-Earth Object (NEO) threats to our planet, the future of the human race may mandate off-Earth settlements. These might function as an alternate artificial ecosystem for humans and hopefully, also as a resource “base” for Earth-focused research, energy production, rare mineral extraction, and more. Along with potential commercial profits from development, this is the basic rationale for spacefaring, and Stephen Hawing and many of the NewSpace entrepreneurs are strong advocates for this view.
While attending the recent NewSpace 2009 Conference sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, I experienced a real surprise during a presentation focused on our readiness for human spacefaring.. It was as if a fresh breeze blew away the chronic fog and exposed a hidden reality. The clearer view was represented by James S. Logan, MD, currently an Aerospace & Occupational Medical Officer, at NASA JSC. Reality emerged with his frank assessment of the accumulated biomedical evidence associated with the health risks of long-duration human exposure to spaceflight the space environment on other planets, but his focus was the Moon.
The evidence presented (link is to a very similar presentation by Logan) was not new to me since I’ve been involved in space life sciences research and reporting of mission results for many years. What was truly new for me however, was that this highly-experienced NASA flight surgeon, currently employed by NASA, and a strong advocate for the value of human spaceflight, told the story about what he called, “The Elephant in the Room”. In this case the “elephant” was the infrequently discussed integrated biomedical evidence indicating that the combined dangers of microgravity (or perhaps 1/6th lunar gravity) and radiation exposure during long-duration habitation on a planet like the Moon or Mars, is so dangerous that it would be unethical to expose people to it with our current systems.
In talking with Logan after his presentation he reiterated that he was not speaking for NASA or the government, but only himself as a long-term specialist in this area (Board Certified in Aerospace Medicine, former Chief of Flight Medicine and Crew Surgeon at JSC for many Space Shuttle missions). His motivation is to put the evidence on the table so it can be better understood, discussed, and shared more openly in a constructive manner. He is clearly not trying to cause problems but does feel strongly that these major challenges need to be dealt with effectively. Indeed, for several years he has had a consulting company on the side, Space Medicine Associates, Inc. staffed by a team with human biomedical and healthcare backgrounds. Their current tagline is “ Dedicated to the Health and Safety of the Personal Space Traveler”, so apparently they are also focused on commercial human spaceflight safety.
The obvious question, of course, is why isn’t this story being told by other NASA experts in this field too? After all, “spacefaring” leading to long-term human habitation on other worlds, is the implied, if not often-stated rationale for NASA’s human spaceflight program - is it not?. I expect we can all appreciate that Logan’s frank and open biomedical risk assessment and sharing of that story publically might be discouraged by some in NASA upper-level management. A few might even consider it “career limiting”. It’s my view that NASA can no longer avoid such discussions and expect to maintain its credibility with the space biomedical research community and the informed public. Whatever the astronaut opinions are on this issue they must be highly-constrained since they are in a classic conflict of interest situation. But they surely expect NASA to conttinue focusing on their long-term health and well-being. Logan is an excellent spokesperson and good “bridge-builder” advocating responsible human spacefaring combined with more focus on the research, technical development, and collaborative action that needs to be done.
Logan was asked what he thought was a great question by a listener, during a July 15, 2008 David Livingston interview on “The Space Show”. The listener wanted to know about what enthusiasts for spacefaring could do that would be both responsible and helpful to their cause. Logan indicated that they should face the reality of the large body of biomedical evidence to date and encourage others to become informed too. He thinks that is the first step toward then encouraging NASA to develop appropriate space exploration and development strategies based on what we know. He suggested that it is essential to conduct ongoing biomedical research with animals, plants and humans to better understand countermeasures such as the use of artificial gravity and water and/or lunar regolith shielding from radiation hazards.
A recent article by Jeff Foust on The Space Review with the choice title, “Found Art” highlights the tendency of some spacefaring enthusiasts to blithely ignore these issues to the detriment of all. After the Mars Society recently testified to the Augustine Committee about the importance to the future of spacefaring of sending humans to Mars, one of several signs saying “Mars Direct: Cowards Return to the Moon” was found in a nearby restroom, presumably left behind by an advocate. An equally choice comment on this story was provided by one Malcolm Peterson…"Perhaps the advocates for human trips to Mars should afix an asterisk to their statements such as,...the Surgeon General has determined that human travelers to Mars should assume that they will not survive to return to Earth." Logan is not alone.
The prospects for true spacefaring do not look good right now, but fortunately we have several R&D paths opening up that may help improve them. A new capability to conduct microgravity and/or radiation-related research is emerging on suborbital space planes (4 min micro-g duration), low-cost microsats such as TubeSats, CubeSats, GeneSats are available (weeks in duration), a large free-flyer like the SpaceX Dragon Lab is being developed (controlled variable duration and return of payloads), and the ISS National Lab is receiving much-needed attention from White House and NASA review teams (weeks in duration with access to international research facilities and sufficient crew to do more research). Opportunities for helping humans to eventually live off-Earth are increasing and we need to use them wisely if we hope to truly become more spacefaring.