It is a commonplace that mankind is meant to explore, but like many commonplaces, the concept doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

That is particularly true off the planet. Just as humans can go for generations without moving off their patch of land, humanity is far from settled on whether it would be a good idea to become a “multiplanet species.”

Contemporary spaceflight “stakeholders” as disparate as SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden believe that it is. “If the species is to survive indefinitely, we need to become a multiplanet species,” says Bolden. Musk compares setting up shop on Mars to the evolution of human consciousness.

But a National Research Council (NRC) panel appointed by Congress to review U.S. human spaceflight found only soft public support for the space program. “Although the public has a favorable view of NASA and most of the spaceflight missions it has sponsored, most Americans do not favor increased spending on space exploration,” the panel stated in its report, drawing on polling data and 18 months of interviews with stakeholders and experts.

In the most comprehensive recent review of the subject, an NRC sub-committee identified seven “rationales for human spaceflight” and concluded that “[n]o single rationale seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.” Two of them—survival of the species and “shared human destiny”—the panel described as “aspirational.” The remaining five rationales were counted as “pragmatic,” in that there is a return on the investment that transcends exploration for its own sake. Leading the list was economic benefits, followed by contributions to national security; national stature and international relations; inspiration to motivate science and engineering students, and contributions to science.

Within science, perhaps the most existential question that can be answered by space exploration is, “Are we alone?” Planetary scientists believe the answer may lie on Mars.

“I think in the next 25 years, if we continue our space exploration of Mars and some of these icy worlds in the outer Solar System, we’ll have gone a long way toward being able to answer that question,” says Nadine Barlow, a professor of physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University and an expert on the Martian environment.

Even if Barlow and her like-minded colleagues are off on the timing, the possibility of such a discovery anytime soon shows how far astronomy has come since Galileo and Kepler were corresponding on the subject at the turn of the 17th century. “It’s really just been in the last half century that we’ve had the technology to do this,” says Jim Crocker, who manages Lockheed Martin’s civil space business. “And when you look at what we’ve done, it’s actually pretty eye-watering. We’ve been to or are on our way to every planet and mini planet, counting Pluto, in the Solar System.”

As a businessman involved in human and robotic space exploration—a prime stakeholder in the eyes of the NRC panel—Crocker says he was struck by a point made by a docent at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam about Pieter Claesz’s 1627 masterpiece “Still Life with Turkey Pie.” The most valuable item depicted on a table strewn with food and silverware, he said, was a small twist of paper filled with pepper.

“Pepper was worth at the time $427 per ounce on the docks at Amsterdam,” Crocker says. “And a galleon at that time could carry about 60-70 tons of cargo. So if you do the math, that means one of those treasure ships could come back with something on the order of a billion dollars worth of cargo.”

The point, says Crocker, is that having the ships and navigation skills that enabled exploration made it possible to do so. “Not everybody explores, either people or nations, but the ones that do kind of improve their odds,” he says. “It’s an intuitive and compelling argument, but sometimes it’s so complicated we have a hard time articulating it.”

That perspective helps avoid the “false framing” of the political argument over funding space exploration instead of other pressing needs. “We can do both,” says Crocker.

John Elbon, who plays a similar role at Boeing as vice president and general manager for space exploration, draws on another rationale highlighted by the NRC panel: international relations. Business links forged in the trailblazing International Space Station partnership have been good for all of the economies involved, he says, and would continue to be if deep-space exploration is undertaken on a similar model.

“As a businessman, would I rather build the lander than have the Europeans build the lander,” says Elbon of NASA’s decision to leave a return to the Moon to its partners (see page 42). “The first thing I would like to happen is the exploration program to continue, because if it doesn’t continue, there is no business. And I think it’s more likely to continue and have pieces of it available for U.S. companies than it is if we just kind of isolate and try to do it by ourselves. . . . The pie gets bigger, and there’s still a good slice of the pie for the U.S. companies, as opposed to the pie [being] a constant size and we’ve got to divide up the slices.”

The NRC panel also declares that it is “in the best interests” of the U.S. to bring China into the fold (AW&ST June 9, p. 12). Elbon, who worked with Russian engineers at Kennedy Space Center to install their docking module in the space shuttle for missions to the Mir space station, agrees.

“This is just my view,” he says. “It would be a good thing if it happened. There are a lot of political aspects that would have to be worked for that to happen, but it doesn’t seem maybe as far-fetched as it was to think about doing the space station with the Russians at that point in our history. We were just tearing down the [Berlin] wall when that happened, and it served as a real catalyst for relations between our countries. And again, there is so much required to do this mission to Mars that having a chunk of it that the Chinese could do would benefit the program overall.”

Jason Crusan, who oversees advanced system development for exploration at NASA headquarters, echoes many who have pondered the question, “Why explore space?” The answer “depends on where you sit,” he says. 

“It can be a statement of the value of inspiration to some,” he continues. “To others it can be a statement of economic value and expansion of our economic influence and markets into space, [or] it can be a value of leadership . . . [or] technology advancement. So why you explore is a very challenging question to answer in a very clear way that appeals to all, because it is something that is really directly related to the stakeholder group and your point of view that you come from. Those things don’t need to be mutually exclusive, though. It can be different things to different people.”