Why Humans Will Never Conquer Space

My first experience of the exhilaration—and peril—of human space travel came in 1982. I sat with my family on folding chairs on a cool, sunny desert day on the flight line of Edwards Air Force Base. Along with a crowd of other invited guests, we waited for the Space Shuttle Columbia to land on the sprawling expanse of the dry lake bed.

Periodically, a terse announcement of the Shuttle’s distance from touchdown would come over the loudspeaker. As the distance counted down, we eagerly scanned the blue sky for any sign of the spacecraft. But we saw nothing.

Earthbound astronaut

Then, with a pair of deep sonic booms, the Shuttle materialized, plummeting toward Earth at an alarming angle. But it leveled out and to the cheers of the audience touched down, throwing up puffs of dust, deploying its drogue chute. It coasted to a stop, and a convoy of support vehicles—an odd collection of trucks sprouting cranes and other paraphernalia— rolled out to meet it.

Given that the Shuttle’s maneuvering engines still held toxic hydrazine, we were directed to move away to the other side of a hangar to the reviewing stand, where we would greet the returning astronauts.

However, I wanted a closer look at the Shuttle, so I ducked through an open door in the hangar with my family. We found ourselves in a long hallway that ran the length of the hangar. In a stroke of luck, we discovered it ended in a windowed door that looked out on the flight line. As we stood there, the Shuttle was towed right past the door, to the scaffold where it would be mounted on a 747 to be flown back to Florida.

That Shuttle was not the pristine craft depicted in NASA photos, but its surface scorched with the searing heat of reentry. I’m sure our companion who had also sneaked into the hallway for a better look was also amazed. It was Buzz Aldrin! I resisted the urge to talk to him, letting him enjoy this mesmerizing moment, as we were.

Most people celebrate the stunning, dramatic launches of such spacecraft, but it was this landing that I found most significant. It marked the completion of a human space mission, in which the dedication and ingenuity of huge numbers of scientists and engineers had yielded success.

But the scorched reality of that Shuttle told of an environment that could threaten the craft’s destruction. And for the Columbia, so triumphant that day, that threat would become a tragic reality with its disintegration on reentry years later.

As I researched this book, I realized that, as great a challenge as was the Shuttle program, the challenge of human deep space travel was vastly greater. Space Shuttles had only touched the edges of space. They had not probed into the far more hazardous reaches of deep space.

Around the time of that landing, I got my first inkling that human deep space travel was problematical, if not impossible—in the form of two revelatory events. One was a seminar I attended when I was director of the news bureau at Caltech in the 1980s. The speaker as I recall was a NASA engineer, and the topic was the thermal protection system for the planned Space Shuttle. After delivering a discourse on the development of the porous silica tiles, he showed one, and we were invited to come up afterward and handle it. I recall marveling at how incredibly light the tile was.

Then I dropped it, and a corner chipped off. My first reaction was embarrassment at my clumsiness. My second and more telling reaction was “How could a massive spacecraft meant to undergo the violence of a launch and reentry possibly depend on such a fragile protective covering?”

While the destruction of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia did not have anything to do with these silica tiles, the lesson remains that the Shuttle was a fundamentally precarious system—as discussed in detail later.

Both accidents occurred because of such structural engineering flaws. The Challenger disintegrated because of a burn-through of a solid rocket booster and the Columbia because a piece of foam insulation shattered a carbon-fiber tile on the wing.

Which brings me to the second revelatory event. During development of the Space Shuttle, then-Caltech-economist Roger Noll published a paper on the politically generated flaws in the structure such large-scale engineering projects as the Shuttle.

I wrote a news release on Noll’s paper. But it was killed by the Caltech administration, certainly because Caltech operates NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the administrators feared the political fallout from such a critical assessment.

So, when I first got the idea for this book, I was acutely aware as a result of such experiences of both the political and engineering defects in the past human space program. And as the book evolved, I became acutely aware that nobody had produced a truly detailed, independent, critical account of the human space program. A central reason, as discussed later, was the overwhelming influence of a cadre of “cosmic cheerleaders” whose blind boosterism has been basically unchallenged. The space program has been driven by these propagandists and promoters, rather than by realists.

This belief in the pervasiveness of such boosterism was strengthened when I explored more deeply NASA’s own internal reports on the medical and other challenges of human deep space travel. For example, as you’ll read later, NASA’s own Inspector General minces no words in its assessment of the profound barriers to deep space travel.

In my research for this book—which involved attending NASA scientific meetings and conferences—I also found that NASA-funded scientists did express their doubts about the viability of human space travels—but only to one another and only sotto voce. Such reticence is understandable, given that abandonment of the human space program would have profound implications for their funding and careers.

Finally, I should emphasize that nothing in this book is meant to cast any aspersions on the talented, dedicated scientists and engineers at NASA, and those researchers funded by NASA. They have faced the massive political, economic, scientific, and technological challenges of space travel and have done productive, ingenious research. I have personally witnessed their efforts as a science writer at Caltech and other institutions that house space research.

Nor does this book minimize the talent, dedication, and courage of the many astronauts who have faced the challenge of space travel, some even giving their lives for the mission.

I am in fact a proud space fan, eagerly following the progress and scientific knowledge from the stunningly successful planetary missions and space telescopes.

For example, my signature was included among the many thousands carried along on the Cassini mission to Saturn. To commemorate our daughter’s wedding, the wedding party all signed postcards that were digitized and carried aboard a disk on the spacecraft.

Nevertheless, this book will show how the medical, political, economic, and technological barriers—many of which are synergistic—of human deep space travel make it untenable, and in fact unethical.

This book aims to persuade decision-makers to avoid a massively expensive—and in the end inevitably tragic—human deep space program. In its place I advocate a sensible space program based on the more realistic, productive, and cost-effective use of sophisticated, artificially intelligent robotic space probes as the technological and sensory extensions of humans.