Scientists and Engineers at War

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Public and political support is growing for President George W. Bush’s ambitious plan for space exploration, but at least one scientific organization has cast doubts about Bush’s vision — although whether those doubts carry any weight or have much validity is debatable.

On Nov. 22, less than three weeks after Bush’s convincing victory in the presidential election, the American Physical Society published an analysis of the administration’s proposal to refocus the U.S. space program away from the space shuttle and International Space Station and toward a return to the moon and further human exploration of the solar system.

The APS report was bluntly skeptical of Bush’s initiative and feared its impact on science research funding.

“The scope of the moon-Mars initiative has not been well-defined, its long-term cost has not been adequately addressed, and no budgetary mechanisms have been established to avoid causing irreparable damage to (NASA)’s scientific program,” the report said.

APS also questioned the basic practicality or usefulness of sending humans to either the moon or Mars.

“Astronauts on Mars might achieve greater scientific returns than robotic missions, but at such a high cost and technical challenge that one could not expect to justify their presence on scientific grounds alone.”

The report then concluded, “Before the United States commits to President Bush’s proposal, an external review of the plans should be carried out by the National Academy of Sciences (and) the likely budgetary impact should be estimated by the Government Accountability Office.”

For several reasons, the APS position opposing Bush’s space initiative is not surprising.

First, to understand the context of the society’s report, one must first recognize how partisan politics influenced its conclusions. Though scientists generally are perceived as objective, many are Democrats and thus are by circumstance predisposed to mistrust the goals of a Republican administration.

Consider, for example, how neither the APS nor most of the scientific community felt inclined to protest when the Clinton administration redirected significant spending into NASA’s space shuttle program in 1990s so the space station could be launched. Though some scientists expressed skepticism and doubt, there was no organized effort to oppose Clinton’s policy.

Put a Republican in power, however, and the partisan juices cannot help but flow.

How partisan is the scientific community? During election week in November 2000, the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society was holding a scientific conference in Waikiki, Hawaii. The group decided to run an unofficial straw poll, asking the attendees to vote their presidential preferences to see how they compared with the rest of the nation.

The 2000 Presidential election was one of the closest in history, with Al Gore getting only 500,000 more votes than Bush out of more than 105 million votes cast, a margin of a just over 0.5 percent, but with Bush winning the electoral vote.

Among the scientists, however, the 2000 election was incredibly one-sided. Gore got 153 votes, Ralph Nader 43 and Bush tallied a mere 11, or about 5 percent of the total.

Nor is this story unusual. One does not have to spend much time with scientists to recognize that their political biases are routinely and unwaveringly Democrat.

Aside from partisan politics, however, the APS report was more obviously a reaction by scientists to a perceived threat to their turf posed by increased spending on space exploration.

To design, build and launch the manned spaceships required to explore the moon and Mars, the president’s proposal will pump a lot of money into engineering research. It remains unclear how this shift in funding priority will affect scientific space research, but the scientists felt understandably concerned their power within NASA will be trimmed.

The Bush plan would undertake a subtle but measurable shift. Until recently, scientists have controlled almost exclusively what NASA has spent on research. Since the 1980s, the scientific community, working within the national academies and the National Research Council, have produced detailed long-range decadal surveys to guide and influence the federal government’s research and spending decisions.

As noted in the APS report, “The funding agencies, primarily NASA … and (the National Science Foundation), have used the results of (these) decadal surveys to great benefit in developing their research and funding plans.”

Bush’s space initiative did not rely on the surveys, however, because its goals are not scientific research but rather the exploration of the solar system by human beings. Its adoption, without the advice of scientists, would shift NASA’s focus from scientific to engineering research, and thus threaten the power structure scientists have dominated for so long.

Evidence that the APS report represents nothing more than a turf war between scientists and engineers can be seen by the recommendation that Bush’s plan be reviewed by a national academies panel of scientists. Such a panel surely would not favor spending money on technological research at the expense of scientists.

The report’s release has an interesting historical parallel. In August 1968, less than seven weeks before the first manned Apollo mission, the National Academy of Sciences urged NASA to eliminate almost all manned exploration and replace it with unmanned missions.

“The ability to carry out scientific observations at a distance is developing so rapidly that I don’t see any unique role for man in planetary exploration,” noted Gordon MacDonald, chairman of the academy panel that issued the recommendation.

The 1968 report had enormous impact. Interest in human space exploration waned and the space program stumbled. By the late 1970s, the United States essentially had no operating program for astronauts, who flew no missions from Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 until shuttle Columbia’s first launch in 1981.

Ironic, but the lack of human missions did not translate into increased spending for robotic scientific missions, as the scientists had hoped. By 1979 NASA was able to launch only three satellites: two small short-term atmospheric research probes and one astronomical X-ray telescope.

The scientific community effectively had shot itself in the foot. Without the excitement of manned missions to whet the public’s appetite, there was little interest in funding any space research — human or robotic. Only when the U.S. manned program was revived in the 1990s with missions to Mir and the International Space Station, was there also a revival of space science.

Lucky for today’s scientists, the situation is very different than it was in the late 1960s and 1970s. Then, both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democratic party. The leadership of that party, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was generally hostile to committing money to human space exploration.

Today, Congress is controlled by Republicans and the nation seems newly poised and excited by the idea of human spaceflight. As a consequence, unlike the sustained influence 1968 national academies report, the new APS report has generated little response from either the public or politicians since its release in November. It has been superseded by more exciting space news, such as the passage of a new commercial space law and the acceleration of the president’s program.

How out-of-step is the APS report? Consider that just one day before its release, Congress not only approved NASA’s budget, but it also gave full funding to Bush’s space vision and, for the first time in years, provided the human space program a significant increase in spending.

In a sense, this conflict between scientific and engineering research is a conflict in priorities. Scientists explore the nature of the universe, discovering such knowledge as how the solar system formed or whether life is possible on Mars. The APS report is therefore a lobbying effort by scientists to focus government money toward this type of research.

Engineers develop technologies that make lives better, such as freeze-dried food and infrared sensors — technology that was developed for space travel and has become ubiquitous since. Hence, the effort to build a new and better spaceship to transport humans to the moon is guaranteed to reshape the technology around us — as did the space program in the 1960s.

Though both science and engineering are necessary for any civilized society to prosper, perhaps the United States has decided that the time has come in its space exploration endeavors to give priority to the engineering, and let the science follow when it can.

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