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Humans In Space

by Rudy Baum,
May 25, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 21

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

NO MATTER WHAT one thinks about the overall direction of the U.S. space flight program, it has been difficult not to be awed by the recent shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. In the course of five extended space walks, shuttle astronauts did far more than "service" Hubble; they effectively reinvented the telescope and extended its lifetime by at least five years.

This was the fifth and last shuttle mission to Hubble. The first such mission, in 1993, installed corrective optics to repair a flaw in the telescope's mirror. Subsequent missions installed new, more powerful instruments and replaced components of the telescope that had failed, such as gyroscopes.

During the mission that ended last Friday, astronauts replaced one camera, repaired another one, installed a new spectrograph, and carried out a variety of other maintenance and repair functions. Instruments that were not designed to have maintenance performed on them were opened, had components replaced, and resealed.

Some of the stories I read about the mission were gripping. Bolts wouldn't budge under the maximum amount of torque engineers had decided could safely be used, and permission was given to exceed that maximum and risk shearing off the bolt. In every instance, human ingenuity and perseverance prevailed.

Photographs like the one on this page of mission specialists Andrew J. Feustel (upper left, with feet tethered to the shuttle's robotic arm) and John M. Grunsfeld working in space on the Hubble are breathtaking. That humans are capable of creating the Hubble Space Telescope, placing it in orbit, and sending servicing missions to it over a period of two decades is, if you stop to think about it, mind-boggling.

I have at times on this page been critical of NASA's focus on putting humans in space. I have yet to learn, for example, of any significant scientific results from the International Space Station. I still think robots are better suited than humans for exploring the moon and other planets.

Yet there is something inspirational about this shuttle mission. The problem we face is that such missions cannot be carried out in isolation. If humans are going to be able to function successfully and safely in space, it must be an ongoing endeavor. Perhaps that's justification enough for the space station—it maintains our collective capacity to access space.

Despite the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, NASA has generally received generous support from Republican and Democratic Administrations. NASA has for many years worked on a program to develop a launch vehicle to replace the shuttle. Former president George W. Bush committed NASA to an ambitious program that would establish a permanent human presence on the moon and lead to eventual manned exploration of Mars.

NASA's R&D budget is one element of the federal 2010 R&D budget that C&EN's Government & Policy Department staff examines in this week's issue (see page 26). President Barack Obama has requested a 5% boost in NASA's budget; the agency also has $1 billion in additional funds to work with from the stimulus package passed earlier this year.

Earlier this month, John P. Holdren, the President's science adviser, announced an independent review of U.S. human space flight activities. Holdren made clear in announcing the review, however, that Obama strongly supports these activities. "President Obama recognizes the important role that NASA's human space flight programs play in advancing scientific discovery, technological innovation, economic strength, and international leadership," Holdren said in a statement released by the Office of Science & Technology Policy.

Despite my reservations about the value of many human excursions into space, it does seem like we need to know how to go up there. It just feels right.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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