Agendas for Research

Space history offers one approach to studying these thorny, fundamental issues. It is, of course, impossible to explore their full spectrum within the scope of this book. Even within the Apollo program, questions were not limited to the landings. From the astronauts' relative passivity during launch, to their systems monitoring during other phases of flight, to their operations as geologists on the lunar surface, each phase of flight entailed a series of trade-offs between human and machine. Nevertheless, a close analysis of the Apollo landings illustrates an approach to the history and sociology of human spaceflight that will have broad impact.

Questions about human-machine interaction, when addressed from primary documentation, open up new avenues into seemingly well-worn topics. As a meeting point for the social and technical aspects of a system, the human-machine relationship connects a variety of dimensions of space history that are otherwise difficult to integrate into a coherent narrative. For instance, the iconic role of astronauts as American heroes was critically dependent on their roles (real and perceived) in actual piloting of the missions. Questions of control unify Apollo's cultural and political dimensions with the evolution of its hardware and software.

As a final example, consider the lunar EVAs (''extra vehicular activities,'' colloquially known as ''moonwalks''). Here the astronauts sought new professional roles, seeking to become like scientists, or, as they put it, ''explorers.'' Where did they exercise scientific judgment in collecting samples and data? Which actions, specifically, constituted ex ploration (versus science, data collection, instrument deployment, etc.)? How did these actions necessitate human presence?

Beginning with Apollo and continuing during the 1970s (and onward), the professional identity of astronauts began to expand—from the exclusive focus on test pilots to scientists and engineers to new job titles like ''mission specialist'' and ''payload specialist,'' coupled with demographic expansion beyond white men. What did these new professionals do? I recently asked an astronomer-astronaut how much he used his scientific judgment while in orbit. ''Not at all,'' he quickly replied. Most of his time had been spent following well-established procedures to deploy and operate other scientists' automated experiments. Under such conditions, what is the necessity for scientific training? Or for human presence at all? Still, that same astronaut acknowledged that being able to ''speak the same language'' as the scientists on the ground proved an important part of his job. Clearly, tacit knowledge, social interaction, and shared vocabulary play an important role in space operations.

Scholars who can deeply analyze scientific practice can explore these issues further, across a broad range of spaceflight. Like this study, an anthropology of space operations would examine skill, training, professional identity, automation, risk, organizations, divisions of power, and other aspects of human-machine relationships. Sources exist for Skylab, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station, as well as for similar endeavors in other countries. What, exactly, are engineers, pilots, and scientists doing in orbit? When are they using judgment, skill, experience, and expertise, and when are they following scripts? What kinds of contingency operations do they perform? How are skills and judgment divided between those in orbit and those on the ground? What kinds of ''repair'' do humans do (including rework and workarounds) when operating complex systems? Numerous spaceflights have been recorded and transcribed in detail (all of the Apollo flights and at least some of the shuttle flights), allowing such real-time ethnography. Mission transcripts, combined with deep analyses of operations, provide an empirical basis for exploring such questions.

Similarly detailed studies of unmanned projects will help us see the degree to which remote systems provide scientists and engineers on earth a sense of ''being there,'' as well as the value of that remote presence for missions' success. How do operators of remote vehicles—in air, in space, or even undersea—explore unknown places? What skills do they require? What sensors, imagery, or data presentations can enhance their experience? What are the limitations of remote presence?

Such studies, if rigorously done by disinterested scholars, would have implications for engineering design, training, mission planning, and safety in spaceflight. Moreover, comparing such studies of human- and remote- spaceflight will provide much-needed insight into the appropriate mix of these technologies in a national space policy. Only by conducting such research will we be able to understand the evolution and operation of human (and remote) spaceflight and make informed engineering and policy decisions for future endeavors. This work will also likely generate insights into other complex technical systems whose operations are rarely as well documented or as accessible as human spaceflight.

We can also help clarify the relationship between science and exploration. The documents leading up to Kennedy's 1961 Apollo decision assumed that that ''exploration'' is done by humans, and ''science'' is remote or automated, assumptions that broke down during the Apollo missions. The distinctions remain unclear today. George Bush's January 2004 speech kicking off a new American space policy used the word ''exploration'' more than twenty-five times, while mentioning ''science'' only once (regarding elementary education).16

When must exploration entail physical human presence? Exploration has a long history, but when that history has been brought to bear on spaceflight it has tended to serve advocacy and hagiography more than critical analysis. The history of science and exploration has a great deal to offer current debates.17

Exploration often includes science, but usually as one component of a broader agenda, and not usually the most important one. We can make this oversimplified distinction: science involves collecting observations to learn about the natural world, whereas exploration expands the realm of human experience. Sometimes the two overlap, but not always. Exploration has always had significant components of state interest, international competition, technological display, public presentation, national and professional identity, and personal risk—components ideally suited to human spaceflight (under the right political and cultural conditions). Hence the prominence of these nonscientific elements in Apollo seems less anomalous than sensible in a historical context.

In this light, justifying human spaceflight by emphasizing unique human abilities to collect scientific data seems a distraction, always to be overtaken by the next generation of technology. Better machines will always come along to choose landing sites, collect images, map terrain, and so on. Human judgment will, by definition, always be required to interpret the data, but perhaps in the comfort of earthly offices or control rooms.

By contrast, justifying human spaceflight as an expansion of human experience is independent of technology, ultimately a human rather than a technological aspiration. Perhaps NASA's technical and political orientation has prevented it from appealing for public support for so humanistic an ambition. Perhaps the agency lacks the language to make the case—although NASA administrator Michael Griffin has recently spoken of ''acceptable reasons'' for human spaceflight, favored by the policy process, and the ''real reasons,'' that motivate those involved. Only a precise and rigorous framing of the case for (or against) human spaceflight can generate informed, productive, and engaged public discussion of NASA's envisioned futures.

My goal here is not to take a side on whether we should be sending people or robots into space. Rather, I argue that a historical understanding of the human-machine relationship helps to clarify the terms of this important debate, a clarification critical for those seeking to intelligently commit public resources for future projects.

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