The Future Cities project

challenging risk-aversion and the precautionary principle

FROM THE FUTURE CITIES ARCHIVE

Lost in Space’ by Greg Klerkx: A review by Martin Earnshaw

Neil Armstrong, who died last month, encapsulated humanity’s desire for exploration and discovery, and is believed to have been dismayed at NASA’s diminished ambitions. Here Martin Earnshaw assesses Klerkx’s claim that NASA is the main barrier to realising a human future in space. 

‘Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age’ by Greg Klerkx;  Secker & Warburg, 2004. 400pp

Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw | June 2003

Do we need NASA anymore? According to Greg Klerkx, NASA is the main barrier to realising the potential of a human future in space.
Conceived during the Cold War as a means of defeating the Soviets in space, the agency has since evolved into a timid bureaucracy, jealous of its monopoly on space activities and afraid of innovation. Klerkx documents how the agency, determined to defend jobs and funding for its main programmes, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, has strangled independent attempts to create commercial opportunities in space.

Klerkx considers the commercialisation of space as the logical next step for the humans-in-space programme. A historical precedent is the growth of civil aviation, which started out being largely developed by government, but which only really took off thanks to private initiative. The government-driven agenda of NASA however, has prompted a stand-off with those who advocate an independent approach. The collection of visionaries, scientists, free-marketers, and ex-NASA employees who constitute the ‘alternative space community’ certainly have ideas and energy. This is in stark contrast to NASA.

NASA’s manned space programme uses essentially the same technology that was developed 20-30 years ago. A case in point is the Space Shuttle. As a means of sending men and materials into space, the shuttle has always been inefficient compared to what could be built, but NASA has been reluctant to replace the aging shuttle fleet with something better.

Post-Columbia developments have exacerbated the Shuttle’s problems. Klerkx points out that the Shuttle is the most accident prone of space vehicles and thinks that it should have been retired years ago. Indeed NASA is now scheduled to retire the shuttle by 2010, but that it was safety that finally decided the Shuttle’s fate is telling. There is enough of a compelling argument for replacing the Shuttle based on its obsolescence. Cheaper and more efficient reusable space vehicles are technologically possible and in one case has been successfully tested. If NASA was too afraid to replace the shuttle in the past, it is now too frightened to fly it. The number of flights are to be reduced and a vital mission to repair the Hubble Telescope has been cancelled on safety grounds.

Lost in Space is a useful survey of both the institutional forces blocking the future development of human space flight and the groups who wish to rekindle the space age. Klerkx perceives that if the manned space programme does not get out of its current impasse, major achievements like the moon landings will be consigned to history and eventually forgotten. Klerkx also argues that it is only human, rather than robotic, space exploration that can inspire people to get excited about space. This is a profound insight because the fortunes of the space age have influenced our view of progress. Far from man conquering the stars, the legacy of the space age is seen by many as a reminder of our limitations.

Since Lost in Space was written President Bush has announced plans to send humans to the moon and Mars. Bush’s speech is a collection of familiar phrases that jars with the reality of the sorry state of the US manned space programme. Indeed, NASA announced its intention to cancel the Hubble repair mission in the same week that the President unveiled his initiative. A more fundamental reason why the Bush initiative lacks substance is because there is no meaningful political framework through which an ambitious manned programme to explore space can make sense. The ideological background to the space age may have been the myopia of the Cold War, but it had a positive element in that it identified American pre-eminence with the progress of mankind. Space was a frontier where the best people and the best technology were pushed to the limits. For those who are still interested in trying to reach the stars, that remains the fundamental appeal of space travel.

The problem is that a frontier cannot be set up in a vacuum. A new space age would not amount to much in a society that is otherwise stagnant. It is not just the space age that has been still-born. A pervasive cultural consensus that says that humanity should not try to overcome its limits has proved to be a barrier to technological innovations ranging from nuclear power to biotech. In this intellectual climate, conquering the stars cannot have a cultural resonance but is instead condemned as too risky or tantamount to imperialism.

This point can be drawn out by looking at the agendas of the most ambitious advocates of space travel today, the alternative space community who Klerkx identifies as the best hope for re-energising human space flight. These groups exhibit either lowered horizons (like the free-marketeers who are hostile to ambitious government funded projects) or utopianism (like the Mars Society). The Mars Society are especially interesting because even though they recognise that society has lost its way, they hold that the solution to this problem lies away from this planet, in setting up a colony on Mars that will raise humanity’s horizons. This, in its own way, is giving up on progress. Ultimately space travel will only come back onto the agenda when we start believing in progress on this planet. Klerkx – excellent, engaging, thoroughly researched and challenging though his book is - broadly misses this point, focusing his fire on entrenched interests and the inertia of institutions.