Where Does Manned Space Flight Stand Now?
WHEN the first astronauts stepped onto the moon in 1969, hundreds of millions of persons all over the world were thrilled. Many millions actually watched the event on their television screens.
The mood has changed since that time. Public interest in space ventures has decreased. Many people are now questioning the wisdom of spending so much time and money for so little return when there are so many critical problems on earth.
Manned space flight has unquestionably brought benefits, however. For one thing, a great wealth of basic knowledge has been added concerning the earth, the moon, other planets and space itself. Humans obviously are more flexible than machines, and their observations in space are of great value. Also, there have been other benefits, such as improved communications and better computers resulting from the need to build smaller and more durable instruments for space travel.
Yet, what many, including some scientists themselves, have begun to say is that there are too many dangers involved for men in space and that their use is far too costly. They believe that adequate results can be obtained much cheaper by using instruments instead of men.
Space scientist Dr. Thomas Gold of Cornell brought the matter into focus by saying: “The high costs of manned programs and the great risks that we understand from the Apollo 13 flight, which avoided disaster by a narrow margin, and from the recent death of the three Soviet cosmonauts now raise the question of whether manned space flight is necessary at the present time.”
What, then, of these objections? Do the dangers and costs outweigh the benefits that come from manned space flight? Could instruments do a good enough job?
Problem of Weightlessness
As experience has been gained in space flight, the dangers have become more apparent. One is the effect of prolonged weightlessness, a condition produced when humans are beyond the influence of earth’s gravity.
The longer men remain in a weightless condition, the more severe their problems become. Weightlessness has resulted in a deconditioning of the veins and muscles, and a decalcification of the bones. It has also caused a substantial decrease in the volume of blood, risking damage to internal organs and tending to dehydrate the body.
America’s Apollo 15 crew, which made the fourth moon landing, stayed away from earth’s gravity for twelve days in July of 1971. The two men who landed on the moon suffered irregular, or double, heartbeats because of extreme fatigue. On their return to earth, the crew took longer to readapt themselves than did others whose flights were not as long.
Soviet cosmonauts in Soyuz 9 spent eighteen days in earth orbit in June of 1970. Soviet scientist A. Nikolayev acknowledged that prolonged weightlessness produced a general weakening and disorientation of these spacemen. He described their condition as “very serious.” Their muscles were so out of condition that they had difficulty walking and lifting things. It was even reported that they were unable to stand or walk after their return and had to be carried. It took three weeks for them to recover.
Another medical problem arose on the Apollo 12 moon mission of November 1969. The interior of the spacecraft and all three men were infected with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. It was on their skin and in their nasal passages. This could be serious on long space trips.
Another danger is exposure to cosmic rays. On journeys away from earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, there is the danger of being struck by heavy primary cosmic-ray particles. On several flights the astronauts reported flashes of light in their eyes. This was experienced even when their eyes were closed, or when the cabin was dark and their eyes were open. It is thought that this effect may have been produced by cosmic rays.
In a report from Universal Science News, Dr. Leonard Reiffel said: “It looks like nature has made long space voyages more dangerous than we thought. . . . [cosmic rays] are almost like needles entering human flesh. They can destroy a whole column of cells as they penetrate the body.” He also stated: “Following the Apollo 8 and 12 missions, tests were made on pieces of plastic taken from the helmets worn by the astronauts. It was found that little needle-like holes developed wherever heavy primaries had struck the men.”
Other evidence, although not confirmed, suggests possible brain damage. Dr. George Margolis, professor of pathology at Dartmouth Medical School, said: “On a visit to the laboratory of a scientist who was studying the brains of animals subjected to extended flights in space, I was shown a pattern of lesions which may be related to this phenomenon. . . . These were interpreted as the result of the destructive effect of spent cosmic ray particles. If this interpretation were confirmed, these lesions would have the highest significance, for they would eliminate the possibility of extended manned space flights.”
Also very real is the danger of accidents. In January 1967 three American astronauts were burned to death in a ground test inside an Apollo capsule. About three months later a Soviet cosmonaut was killed when his Soyuz 1 spaceship got tangled in its reentry parachute and crashed to earth.
Then in June of 1971 three Russians who spent twenty-four days in space were found dead in their Soyuz 11 capsule after it landed. The faulty sealing of a hatch allowed the air to escape from the spaceship, killing them in seconds. Since the ship showed no structural failures, a suspicion existed that the crew may have been so weakened by prolonged weightlessness that they made a mistake in the critical reentry procedures.
Of course, many people are killed in necessary daily activities, and few suggest abandoning these activities. But it is questioned whether man in space is a necessity, especially since public tax money is used without the taxpayer having a choice.
Worth the Cost?
Aside from potential dangers to astronauts, a source of great irritation to many is the enormous cost of manned space flights.
With grave problems on earth begging for money and attention, people question spending so much money on space ventures which produce so few benefits that the average person can see. They feel that the few benefits, such as better communications or increased knowledge, could be obtained with far less cost by applying the money directly to those areas.
Science News of July 24, 1971, wryly remarked: “The dropping of $200 million Saturn boosters into the Atlantic Ocean every time the United States launches men into space is not generally regarded as the most frugal sort of action.”
The Apollo 15 moon landing alone cost $445 million. When a television program referred to a unique rock the astronauts brought back, a viewer telephoned the station and suggested that a name for it be picked from the Internal Revenue Service’s list of taxpayers. This was a somewhat sarcastic reference to the fact that the taxpayer must eventually pay the huge cost of men in space.
Some people would have preferred that the energies and money spent on that mission be spent, for example, on better housing. The $445 million could have built 44,500 homes each costing $10,000. And the cost of the entire moon program so far, about $25 thousand million, could have built 2,500,000 such homes. That would house a large portion of the country’s poor families. The Soviet Union’s spending on men in space could be viewed similarly, since not all of that country’s people have adequate housing either.
Because of rising opposition, the United States program of manned flights to the moon has been cut back. Yet, beyond moon landings, there is the proposed development of an earth-orbiting space station. ‘Space shuttles’ from the earth would take astronauts to and from this station.
On one occasion four senators and two leading space scientists argued that this kind of program would develop to the point where from $50 to $100 thousand million would be spent on a manned flight to Mars. They argued that manned flight in space was becoming increasingly costly and unnecessary, and that problems on earth had a much higher priority on tax money.
Cornell’s Dr. Gold stated: “What is the promise of the large manned stations? Are they needed for scientific investigations or for applications that have economic benefits? . . . Much effort has been put into finding ways that the manned stations can be useful. The results have been very disappointing. . . . its much larger cost can certainly not be justified in scientific or economic terms.”
Dr. Gold warned that if “the tremendously costly and unnecessary space station is built, it will be the focal point of anti-science and anti-intellectualism which is very much in predominance today.”
Among the arguments the scientific community often uses to try to justify manned space flight is that it contributes to knowledge about the evolution of heavenly bodies such as the moon and Mars, as well as to knowledge about the evolution of life.
For instance, note the following report: “The crowning scientific achievement of the [Apollo 15] mission, according to officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, may turn out to be discovery of crystalized rocks that could have formed at the time of the moon’s birth.”—U.S. News & World Report, August 16, 1971.
Many people would not agree that finding a few rocks is a ‘crowning achievement’ when it costs $445 million and has to be paid for by public tax money. For the same reason they are not particularly impressed by words such as those of Dr. John Wood of the Smithsonian Institution when he said: “By the time the Apollo program ends, we’ll have a pretty good framework of the moon’s evolution.”
A proposed large expenditure of tax money on an unmanned ‘Viking’ spacecraft to be sent to Mars has a similar objective. Program Director Walter Jakobowski says: “A major objective is obtaining information about the evolution of life on another planet. . . . As far as finding life, we’re really trying to determine what stage Mars is at in evolution.”
Commenting on this, Electronics magazine states: “To be sure, program officials carefully play down Viking’s search for life—past, present, or future—because they fear a sense of failure if it is not found. But this is obviously the most exciting part of the $800 million program.”
Yet, the Christian, particularly, knows that even a million landings on the moon or Mars will reveal no evolution of life. Both life and intricately designed living creatures came from the Creator, as he clearly tells us in his Word. To spend money with a stated major objective of verifying the myth of evolution is folly indeed. The money would be much better spent, not trying to verify an erroneous scientific theory about the origin of life, but on the life already here.
What Some Suggest
Some scientists, and many other people, see the lack of practical wisdom in spending a fortune on manned space flight. While they do not object to exploring the universe, they favor a carefully planned program of modest size involving unmanned space vehicles.
Dr. James Van Allen, discoverer of the earth’s radiation belts, suggested devoting two thirds of available space funds on direct practical applications of what has been learned. This would include communications and meteorology, as well as making surveys for the benefit of fishing and forestry. He advocated spending the remainder in exploring the solar system.
Dr. Gold also proposed that only unmanned vehicles be used for space exploration, including remote-control devices. These could land on other planets, be controlled from the earth, and send back information at a fraction of the cost of manned flights.
The practicality of such devices has already been demonstrated. Late in 1970 the Russians sent to the moon their unmanned Luna 16, which picked up soil samples and returned to earth. The estimated cost was as low as one fiftieth that of a manned flight.
Two months later Russia’s unmanned Luna 17 put on the moon an eight-wheeled vehicle called Lunokhod (moon rover), automatically controlled from the earth. It crawls around for many months, getting television pictures and gathering other scientific information and sends them back to Soviet scientists on earth.
Whether those who have a more moderate view of space travel will prevail remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain. Scientists will increasingly be confronted with the following Biblical truth regarding manned space travel: “As regards the heavens, to Jehovah the heavens belong, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.”—Ps. 115:16.