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The Battle Over Manned Spaceflight

By Mihir Patel | Inquiry Essay

Rhetorical Situation

Beginning with John F. Kennedy’s historic goal of sending a man to the Moon, the United States began a rigorous space program in the formation of NASA. On July 20, 1969, the world watched anxiously as astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first human step on the Moon, fulfilling Kennedy’s fated words. Ever since, both the field of space exploration and humans’ understanding of the universe have expanded greatly. Movies like Apollo 13 give accurate and riveting depictions of the thrilling nature of human spaceflight, while movies like Star Trek represent what the future of space travel may be. The thought that there are a myriad of galaxies in the universe left to explore is unfathomable. However, the space program in the United States has become one of the last priorities of the federal government today, and NASA receives nowhere near enough funding. Specifically, manned spaceflight is playing less and less of a role as robotic satellites and other unmanned spacecraft are launched into orbit. The government is at a standstill as politicians debate over the future of human spaceflight with respect to cost, policy, and technical challenges. The audience includes public policy experts (specifically those who analyze space policy) and space exploration historians. Space-related public policy experts have extensive knowledge on the operations of NASA and other government-funded space research firms, and they are aware of the procedures that lobbyists conduct in order to acquire funding. Space exploration historians study the contexts and circumstances in which previous space-related discoveries were made.

At one point, every child dreams of becoming an astronaut. Whether the thought arrives upon seeing the news broadcast of a space shuttle launch or during a field trip to the National Air and Space Museum, a child’s excitement and enthusiasm for the prospect of going to space are unmatched. My first inclinations of becoming an astronaut originated from watching the movie Apollo 13, an adaptation of Lost Moon. Written by one of the astronauts on the voyage, James Lovell, the novel is a first-person account of the events that transpired before, during, and after that fateful third mission to the moon which was in many ways a failure and a success (Howard). Although many aspects of the mission were significantly dramatized in the film, the technical aspects were surprisingly accurate. An excellent film, Apollo 13’s incredible story-telling intrigued me as I learned of the struggles and obstacles three lone astronauts had to endure and overcome as their spacecraft hurtled through the void of outer space. Most of all, the idyllic scenes of the astronauts gazing out the tiny porthole of the spacecraft at the enormous blue marble that is the planet Earth allowed my imagination to wander as I fantasized what the experience would be like in person. Specifically, the highlight of such an experience would be the first recognition of the color outside the porthole changing from blue to black and observing the curvature of the planet.

Another captivating element of Apollo 13—in effect, of the actual events themselves—was the strength and resolve that the astronauts displayed in their exceptionally dire situation. Numerous technical problems plagued the spacecraft as breathing oxygen ran low and the thrusters went haywire, yet the astronauts successfully surpassed these difficulties and returned to Earth. Obviously, this was no easy task, as the astronauts had to possess complete trust in the aerospace engineers giving them instructions from Mission Control. In addition, the astronauts had to exercise extreme caution in ensuring that all their actions were exactly correct and that not a single parameter was changed unknowingly. These characteristics established and, in some respect, differentiated astronauts as the ultimate role models, which inspired me to excel in whatever initiatives I undertook. Of course, some of these realizations only dawned upon me after multiple viewings, but the truth is that I never tired of watching this film—I always noticed or learned something new every time I watched it. In my mind, Apollo 13 has always stood apart as a monument to the perseverance of astronauts and, overall, the United States space program itself.

Ever since the Wright brothers flew the first airplane at the start of the 20th century, the field of aerospace has experienced great strides and moments with events as famous as Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon and the successful return of Apollo 13. However, the initial boom of the space industry has undeniably failed to sustain its vigor since the spirited days of the Apollo program. As the international relations of the United States worsened, its priority towards spaceflight decreased, and administration after administration steadily dumped money into wars overseas. Ever since, Congress has sharply pulled back funding towards NASA, and as a result, the space shuttle program is coming to an early close—the entire future of manned spaceflight is at jeopardy. In fact, many space-related initiatives are headed towards private companies funded either individually or through government contracts, but the question of the feasibility of human spaceflight still remains. While some experts claim that human spaceflight is completely out of the question, others state that the venture is one of great value, and although the future of this issue is up for debate, there is no doubt that the endeavor is one that the United States must continuously pursue.

Opponents to the continuation of human spaceflight have strong views and valid opinions regarding the complete uselessness of sending humans to space. They cite several examples, including the facts that the process is too complex and that robotic spacecraft are much more efficient. One popular proposed venture is a human-led mission to Mars. Research professor Robert L. Park in the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland claims that “[the astronauts] would be far less capable as explorers than the telerobotic Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that preceded them” (Billitteri 877). Here, Park refers to the advanced computational abilities that the Mars rovers possess which outmatch the immediate impressions that humans would draw from landing on the Martian surface. In addition, the safety procedures involved with placing a human onto the Martian surface, let alone putting a human in space, limit the astronaut’s functionality. In this case, a robotic, autonomous device is cheaper and more efficient to send to space than a human. According to James Van Allen, Regent Distinguished Professor at the University of Iowa, “Almost all of the space program’s important advances in scientific knowledge have been accomplished by hundreds of robotic spacecraft in orbit about Earth and missions to other distant planets…” (39). This is one of the many reasons that Van Allen believes why the United States has no “compelling rationale for such an undertaking” (39). He emphasizes that current direction of space technology points directly to the utilization of robotic spacecraft and satellites as opposed to humans. He reiterates that the cost of such endeavors is way too high for federal government to consider their execution (40).

Another less common but equally valid argument is that of the public support for United States space-related initiatives over the years. A commonly held perception is that the Apollo space program held widespread support throughout the public, but “assuming a generally rosy public acceptance of it is at best a simplistic and ultimately unsatisfactory conclusion” (Launius, “Public Opinion” 166). Roger D. Launius in the Division of Space History at National Air and Space Museum cites in his study on public opinion that the public has remained consistently sensitive about the space budget allocated by Congress, and justifiably so (166). For the average layman, there are perhaps many more pressing matters that need funding, and the American people made this apparent throughout the years. In addition, Maurizio Belingheri, from the ESA (European Space Agency) Directorate of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity, simply states that “Astronauts are a precious resource to every space agency.” In many cases, sending astronauts to space is much more financially demanding than sending robots due to various regulatory procedures that are associated with preparing the astronauts for spaceflight. Ultimately, all experts in opposition to this issue come to the same conclusion that the United States has no reason to continue manned spaceflight.

On the contrary, supporters of human space exploration argue against the detractors with equally sound reasoning by referring to the cultural phenomenon of human spaceflight. On the issue of sending humans to Mars, Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society, claims that the robotic exploration missions only “assure that scientific progress will support the human explorers” (Billitteri 877). He claims that the success of these previous robotic missions prove that humans should be sent to Mars. According to Friedman, “searching for life is what compels us to explore space… Any lesser goal may not be worth the risk…and might be better served by robots” (877). He relies purely on the great potential of the concept that new forms of life could be found on the Martian surface. In reality, a discovery of this magnitude would be much more shocking and significant if carried out by humans rather than robots. The presence of astronauts for such a discovery would allow for an active correspondence with mission control and a sense of security knowing that the observations being made were intuitive and not simply procedural as with robots. In this sense, the results of a mission carried about by astronauts could be much more valuable than one carried about by robots. In addition, the astronauts’ “human touch” would allow the entire world to appreciate the enormity of such a discovery.

In fact, one major difference between sending humans to space instead of robots is the cultural impact. Professor Carl Friedrich Gethmann from Germany outlines this contrast: “If one were only to give utilitarian reasons a chance in the debate concerning technical achievement, there would be no justified cultural options in the history of mankind” (251). In other words, consideration only of non-human involvement in space exploration indicates that the impact of mankind from a cultural standpoint is much less than it would be if humans were to explore space. Along the lines of American culture, Launius points to the association of human space exploration with the desire for a utopian society: “Those who argue for an aggressive spaceflight program always base their cases at a fundamental level on the positive social changes that result from the effort” (“Underlying Assumptions” 346). Indeed, the success of humans in space invigorates the public with fervor and excitement in the realization that the human race is learning more and more about the universe. With this knowledge, the very boundaries of the definition of “society” become limitless, and Americans’ imaginations run wild as to what innovations are possible in terms of modern spaceflight. This passion is the entity that drives proponents of human spaceflight to keep pushing for its continuation.

Experts argue that the future of spaceflight in the United States is bleak. Their predictions usually depend on issues such as funding availability, space policy changes, federal and private involvement, and more. Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University John Logsdon analyzes the events that led to breakthroughs in space exploration. When space was a completely new concept to Americans, “Kennedy’s proposal to send Americans to the moon was not motivated by a belief in the long-term importance of space exploration. Rather, it was a politically driven response…as the Soviet Union gathered international acclaim by putting the first human into orbit while the new administration appeared weak as it wavered in its support of an invasion of Cuba” (Logsdon 32). The entire U.S. space program itself originated in an arguably unpredictable manner. If the Soviet Union had not experienced such success in sending humans to space, Kennedy likely would not have set the goal of sending Americans to the Moon. This one request from Kennedy brought years of revolutionary space technology. In this sense, experts have trouble accurately predicting what humans’ future in space will be, just as people in 1960 had no idea that one of their own would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In an attempt to revamp the country’s space program, President George H. W. Bush tried to pull off a feat similar to that of Kennedy’s—“he proposed…‘a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars’”—but immediately got shot down by Democrats in Congress and NASA too (Logsdon 33). Logsdon claims that the circumstances surrounding this second attempt by Bush during the closing of the Cold War did not create a “sustainable rationale” as Kennedy’s had during the emergence of the Cold War (31). Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of human spaceflight for the United States, not even robotic spacecraft can be sent to space without proper funding.

The first step in revamping the space industry would have to involve a proper allocation of funding to NASA—federally funded research is more effective than privately funded research. The federal government always acquires the best of the best for its research, especially if the purpose is related to national security, as it was during the Cold War. Legislative policy changes go hand in hand with funding. For example, astronaut Bill Nelson was a payload specialist on the space shuttle Columbia and became increasingly involved in representing the interests of the space community as a member of Congress soon after his career as an astronaut ended. In 1991, Nelson described the events of that time that led to a reduction in funding for NASA as the “Space Science and Applications Subcommitee in the House attempted to lead the way to multi-year authorization” (144). However, the committee was only composed of two representatives who were eager to approve NASA’s plans. As a result, “Stiff-armed rejection of the concept by the Senate authorization committee and the House and Senate appropriations committees halted the effort” (Nelson 144). Events such as these lead the space community to believe that other legislation takes precedence to NASA’s initiatives, and, more often than not, for good reason. Whether it is war, the economy, or some other pressing issue, the focus of the government is firm yet ever-changing. In fact, the government’s focus is a reflection of the general public’s concerns to some extent. For this reason, large-scale organizations like the National Space Society and The Planetary Society consistently lobby for policies that further space exploration and also work to reach the general public about such issues. Educating the public is essential—if state representatives know that their constituents are concerned of the current vision for space exploration, they will certainly act. Nevertheless, this task is a difficult one, as the average American couldn’t care less about putting men in space when he or she is simply looking for a job in order to put food on the dinner table. Even so, in this sense the necessity to educate Americans on the benefits of space exploration becomes more apparent. NASA’s missions to the International Space Station and the Moon allowed for many great inventions, including practical materials like Velcro, for example. Continuation of such missions should not be a mere thought, but rather a priority to the U.S. government. If the public realized these types of practical applications of human spaceflight, its motivation to voice concerns would definitely increase. As such, an appropriate alternative, albeit passive and less direct, course of action is to begin initiatives to educate the public about the practical applications of human spaceflight.

The White House and Congress must cooperate and agree on a single vision for the future of space for the country. In addition to the alignment of these two factors, the aerospace industry itself must feel ready to take on such momentous tasks as sending humans to Mars or something tantamount. In reality, visions of this category may not be realistic notions based on the technology available today, but NASA’s ongoing research will undoubtedly contribute to helping innovate for such missions in the future. Moreover, the research by engineers like Maurizio Belingheri of the European Space Agency in optimizing the International Space Station—and the research of others as well—is the key to convincing legislators of the true legitimacy behind manned spaceflight. Last, space advocacy organizations must ramp up efforts to educate the public about the importance of manned space exploration regarding the technological and scientific benefits of such endeavors. Hopefully, this will lead to some sort of response through Congress. However, the government and society of today are preoccupied with troubles that have nothing whatsoever to do with space exploration or its proliferation, so the near future of space does indeed seem gloomy, but the events that led to the Moon landing indicate that anything is possible.

The pursuit of human spaceflight has been a contested issue for years as the United States has fallen deeper and deeper into an economic slump. Proponents argue for the cultural impact of humans in space while opponents argue the practicality of sending humans as opposed to robots. The outcome of this debate, if resolved soon, could have a resounding influence on the future of space technology in the decades to come. All the same, a resolution does not seem near as NASA scrounges for remnants of funding and private companies begin to take on the responsibility to innovate. Now, the task of rebuilding humans’ future in space lies in the hands of the federal government. As beautifully expressed by Wendell Mendell of the NASA Johnson Space Center, “In the USA (and elsewhere) a new space vision has been articulated… This space vision is embryonic and politically vulnerable and may not be the exact roadmap to the future. Only one thing is sure: humans will continue to dream, and space is the destination” (10).

Works Cited


Belingheri, Maurizio, and C. Mirra. “The Challenges and Opportunities of a Commercial Human Spaceflight Mission to the ISS.” Acta Astronautica 53 (2003): 651-57. ScienceDirect. 7 Apr. 2011.

Billitteri, Thomas. “Human Spaceflight.” CQ Researcher. 16 Oct. 2009: 861-884. Gethmann, Carl Friedrich. “Manned Space Travel as a Cultural Mission.” Poesis & Praxis 4.4 (2006): 239-52. Springer Standard. 7 Apr. 2011.

Howard, Ron, dir. Apollo 13. Universal Pictures, 1995. Film. Launius, Roger. “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of US Human Spaceflight.” Space Policy 19.3 (2003): 163-75. ScienceDirect. 7 Apr. 2011. ---. “Underlying Assumptions of Human Spaceflight in the United States.” Acta Astronautica 62 (2008): 341-56. ScienceDirect. 7 Apr. 2011.

Logsdon, John M. “A Sustainable Rationale for Human Spaceflight.” Issues in Science & Technology 20.2 (2003): 31-34. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 7 Apr. 2011.

Mendell, Wendell. “The Vision of Human Spaceflight.” Space Policy 21.1 (2005): 7-10. ScienceDirect. 7 Apr. 2011.

Nelson, Bill. “Mid-Course Correction.” Scientific American 264.2 (1991): 144.

Van Allen, James A. “Is Human Spaceflight Obsolete?” Issues in Science & Technology 20.4 (2004): 38-40. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 7 Apr. 2011.