James A. van Allen
Space.com  /  Space.com
James A. van Allen, center, holds a model of the U.S. Explorer 1 along with William H. Pickering, left, former director of JPL, and Wernher von Braun, right, leader of the Army's Redstone Arsenal team.
By Senior space writer
updated 7/26/2004 8:48:10 PM ET 2004-07-27T00:48:10

A leading space scientist has called to question the validity of human spaceflight, suggesting that sending astronauts outward from Earth is outdated, too costly, and the science returned is trivial.

The human spaceflight critic is no stranger to space -- in fact he’s a pioneer in the space science arena from the premier days of satellites orbiting Earth.

James van Allen, Regent Distinguished Professor at the University of Iowa, is the noted discoverer of radiation belts encircling Earth. His seminal finding -- labeled the Van Allen radiation belts -- stemmed from the scientist’s experiment that flew on Explorer 1, America’s first satellite to successfully orbit the Earth back on January 31, 1958.

Van Allen’s appraisal of manned space missions -- “Is Human Spaceflight Obsolete?” -- is carried within the pages of the Summer 2004 volume of Issues in Science and Technology.

The quarterly policy journal is published by the Cecil and Ida Green Center for the Study of Science and Society at the University of Texas at Dallas in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

High time for calm debate
“My position is that it is high time for a calm debate on more fundamental questions. Does human spaceflight continue to serve a compelling cultural purpose and/or our national interest? Or does human spaceflight simply have a life of its own, without a realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its costs? Or, indeed, is human spaceflight now obsolete?” van Allen writes.

Van Allen’s call for discussion is prompted in part by NASA’s grounding of the remaining space shuttle fleet following the Columbia accident, while the agency takes steps to improve their safety. Also, the scientist notes that President Bush has put on the table “a far more costly and far more hazardous program” to return humans back to the Moon and for sending astronauts to Mars and worlds beyond.

Supporters of human spaceflight “defy reality and struggle to recapture the level of public support that was induced temporarily by the Cold War,” van Allen charges.

“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 on missions to the distant planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune,” van Allen writes. Similarly, robotic exploration of comets and asteroids “has truly revolutionized our knowledge of the solar system,” he adds.

Insignificant science: shuttle and station
Casting an eye on the space shuttle’s contribution to science, van Allen suggests they have been modest, “and its contribution to utilitarian applications of space technology has been insignificant.”

The still only partly put together International Space Station, van Allen points out, has already garnered a price tag of some $30 billion. “If it is actually completed by 2010, after a total lapse of 26 years, the cumulative cost will be at least $80 billion, and the exuberant hopes for its important commercial and scientific achievements will have been all but abandoned,” he argues.

For those holding onto the promise of a “spacefaring world”, van Allen notes that such a vision is now muted, “represented by a total of two persons in space -- both in the partially assembled International Space Station -- who have barely enough time to manage the station, never mind conduct any significant research.”

Surviving motivation
Van Allen comments that “the only surviving motivation for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure.”

At the end of the day, van Allen concludes: “I ask myself whether the huge national commitment of technical talent to human spaceflight and the ever-present potential for the loss of precious human life are really justifiable.”

“Let us not obfuscate the issue with false analogies to Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, or with visions of establishing a pleasant tourist resort on the planet Mars,” van Allen suggests.

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