In space, no one can hear you scream

New Zealand is suddenly and unexpectedly a “spacefaring nation”, with locally built rockets regularly launched to orbit and even the Moon. This is a shock to many – it certainly surprised me, and I live and breathe this stuff. But now that we find ourselves with an unexpected lead in a couple of key events in the Space Olympics, how do we make the most of it?

Maybe it’s time to spill a few little space secrets, so that we can all collectively make good decisions about this opportunity. And the biggest, dirtiest little secret is this: a lot of what humans do in space is not very interesting, particularly when it is done by actual humans.

Almost any story about human spaceflight claims that science is happening – but it is often a figleaf for the uncomfortable reality that the main reason we fly in space is simply to fly in space. A classic example of the genre was a recent Axiom mission, which flew “private astronauts” to the International Space Station. Keen to assure everyone that it wasn’t just a couple of wealthy people goofing off Axiom’s media releases stressed that they performed “25 scientific experiments and technology demonstrations and completed over 30 outreach efforts from the ISS” – but the value and impact of these efforts is nowhere described.

In fact, just how little science impact the Space Station has achieved is illustrated by NASA’s list of 20 Breakthroughs from 20 Years of Science aboard the International Space Station. At first blush it looks great — cures for Alzheimers, particle physics, microgravity research. Something for everyone.

But let’s take a closer look. Collecting Data On 100 Billion Cosmic Particles sounds pretty cool. What’s up with that? This refers to the AMS-02 experiment, the single biggest science project on the Space Station. This is a cosmic ray detector that is bolted on to the Station which provides it with a stable platform, electrical and data connections and the detector has been serviced by space-walking astronauts. AMS-02 was paid for by the US Department of Energy (which underwrites particle physics research) rather than NASA. When the DoE rated its portfolio of ongoing experiments a few years ago, AMS-02 landed in the “most expensive, least useful” category as it was assessed to deliver less science-bang-for-buck than anything else in the DoE portfolio, despite its eye-watering cost — a couple of billion dollars. It’s not that it has had no impact, but it has had far less impact than a dozen terrestrial experiments funded by the DoE, most of which were far less expensive [1].

New Zealand is not going to fly a billion dollar particle physics experiment into space. But what about “microgravity research”, looking at the flow of fluids in weightless conditions? It’s a fascinating topic, and by working in space you unlock phenomena that would be swamped by gravitational effects in a terrestrial lab. However, I could not find anything in this area that has happened on the Space Station with any impact outside of its specific niche. Possibly I’ve missed something, but drilling into the details (and it is a great report, with lots of links) revealed no blockbuster results or breakthroughs. Instead there was the same solid, respectable, journeyman work that is typical of most science, but hyped to the point of parody by NASA’s public affairs people.

As a physicist, I love the nitty-gritty playground provided by materials science in space and it might yet have a big payoff. In fact, just yesterday SpaceX launched a satellite built by Rocket Lab (who do much more than just rockets) for Varda, a start-up that may well use this kind of knowledge for its in-space manufacturing facilities. But not yet.

The same thing happens with other items on the list. The Alzheimers breakthrough is “a prime example of the amazing discoveries and advancements possible with partnering between NASA, research and industry,” according to the president of the company which built the gizmo used to do the work. Sadly, no help for Grandma just yet, just some mildly interesting journal articles describing some decent science whose only genuinely remarkable feature is the view from the window of the laboratory where it was carried out [2].

I am not writing this to make fun of NASA — I love NASA, and I love space. But I am pushing back against the starry-eyed infatuation of those who tout everything that happens in space as “inspirational”. The problem is that if everything is awesome nothing is actually awesome. “Blue skies, bouncy springs, we just named two awesome things, a Nobel Prize, a piece of string”, as the song says. NASA has produced a Nobel prize or two (for the “baby photo of the universe”, and contributed to a couple of others), mapped the solar system (close-ups of Pluto, anyone?), played a key role in figuring out how the climate works, and birthed a slew of technologies that changed all of our lives. But a decent chunk of NASA serves internal American political agendas – there is a prestige to flying in space that matters to current and aspiring superpowers – as much as it exists to change lives or promote science and technology. However, it takes some sophistication to separate one part from the other.

NASA famously put people on the Moon and is working hard to put them there again. But the Artemis program that will do this is almost criminally mismanaged — at a billion dollars plus per launch, it is certainly great for aerospace contractors. Likewise, the project timeline could land a residency at a comedy club in Vegas, given the likelihood that NASA will actually adhere to it

Moreover, NASA (or at least the members of America’s gerontocratic political class [3] who shaped its agenda) takes it as an article of faith that a new round of moon landings will be as transformative as their memories of the first, speaking in treacly tones of the “Artemis Generation” even though there is no real evidence it will reach young people who are not already “looking up”. It might, who knows? But it might not.

It is very possible that our return to the Moon will be more akin to Antarctic exploration [4] — which saw the same fifty-or-so year gap between the heroic (and exceptionally dangerous) first visits and the establishment of a permanent presence on the ice. Polar exploration is still fascinating but it has nothing like the hold on the public mind it possessed when Scott and Amundsen raced for the pole [5].

With New Zealand preparing to collaborate with NASA, we need to peel away some of the mystique to make good decisions about where and how to engage with this behemoth. So I am writing this now to lay out general principles, rather than to complain about specific decisions after the fact.

Preliminary indications suggest that New Zealand’s initial effort will focus on “engagement with Artemis” — albeit in a general way (Artemis has a broad scope, well beyond just boots on the Moon), and “environmental monitoring” of the New Zealand region, perhaps extending down into Antarctica and up into the Pacific.

For us, whether we get value out of an engagement with Artemis depends very much on the choices we make. We would not be sending Kiwi astronauts to the Moon (we’d need to add a couple of zeros to our commitment before we could even talk about that), but sending an instrument to the Moon is a possibility. Artemis has a lot of focus on getting objects to the lunar surface, which makes for great photo opportunities.

That said, the most interesting science New Zealand might do in the vicinity of the Moon may have little to do with the Moon itself [6], so it would be a huge shame to limit our options ahead of time. In particular, we need to avoid being trapped by the same naive boosterism that afflicts work done on the International Space Station when we assess our opportunities.

Likewise, a bespoke New Zealand spacecraft (or an instrument on a larger spacecraft) for “environmental monitoring” appears to be the possible outcome from the engagement with NASA. These are often the first choice of countries building a space program from scratch, but they are often simply participation trophies that allow you to feel good about playing the game even if you’re achieving little of real value. Fleets of satellites already provide data that is widely available, so a bespoke mission would need to find a special niche to justify the effort to build it.

On top of this, any satellite orbiting the Earth only spends a tiny fraction of its time over New Zealand – these are not helicopters. Consequently, there is a real risk that whatever we did in this space would be largely duplicating other efforts, rather than breaking genuinely new ground. “Sovereign capability” can be an advantage for some national security issues, but you should try to buy data off the shelf, in the absence of clear goals to develop novel technology or capabilities.

We can look across the Tasman for inspiration and also warning. Australia announced a costly but hastily assembled program for environmental observation in 2022, and has apparently had second thoughts after the change of government. It still has an Artemis effort under the slightly cringey moniker “Gidday Moon”, with the goal of sending a rover to the lunar surface. The actual purpose of this effort is unclear and it is one of a dozen schemes to put what amounts to a Roomba on the Moon, so it is a very crowded field and the Australians have no well-developed roadmap that I can discern.

For every gimmick at NASA there is also a genuinely productive mission: a James Webb Space Telescope (for all its pre-launch tribulations), a probe to the planets, or a climate mission. But unlike NASA, New Zealand will only do a handful of projects in space, so we need to choose all of them well. The best way for New Zealand to make good choices is to take the same approach as NASA (and the broader United States science community) does fo things it actually does well: setting up a national discussion that gathers all players together to hammer out the strongest strategy.

Unfortunately, the few times New Zealand has engaged in big science projects our choices have been driven more by political expedience rather than a quest for genuine excellence and, as a result, these investments often fail to deliver both politically and scientifically. Right now, we are not holding discussions (called Decadal Reviews in the United States) that resemble those in the countries we aspire to emulate – and we can and should change that.

On top of this, given our size, when we do latch on to a project it inevitably becomes a “flagship” — a word that always reminds me of the Chakri Naruebet, the world’s littlest aircraft carrier but the biggest ship in the Thai navy. It has no planes and no military purpose, but junking it would be admitting that its acquisition was a mistake in the first place. Our science leaders should have pictures of this brave vessel on their wall as a reminder of the importance of making good choices from the outset.

My sense (as someone who does a fair bit of work as a science commentator and communicator) is also that hype doesn’t work in the long run. If the subject is discoveries involving Martian rivers, our climate, or the cool things made visible by space telescopes that creates opportunities to talk about big scientific questions and how we can engage with answering them. But if the actual work is just busines-as-usual science done in an unusual place the pumped up media releases get you a sugar rush headline but no substantial engagement.

So if everything in space is awesome, the solution is to seek out projects that would still be awesome even if they had nothing to do with space. We have a growing space industry and far more local expertise than we did a dozen years ago. There is a huge range of options for our community, from developing exciting new technologies, running missions that showcase the capabilities of our burgeoning space sector, monitoring the global environment in novel ways, or building well-targeted science missions that will deliver answers to important, relatable questions.

I am not even asking for awesome straight out of the gate – just for a clear roadmap that leads there. There are great things that we could do. And often for surprisingly little money. This is not an ask for money — it is an ask that the money we do invest is spent as well as possible.

The biggest single story to come out of the Space Station in the last decade was Commander Hadfield playing his guitar [7], rather than anything to do with cosmic rays or drug discovery. That’s fun, but if we really want to inspire the rising generation of New Zealanders to seize the opportunities out there, whatever we do in space has to provide a platform for substantive, ongoing connection to big questions. Feel-good human interest stories about a brave Kiwi scientist or two punching above their weight will be part of it, but if the underlying project has little real value then the effort will not be built on solid ground.

As we manage our relationship with NASA and our wider ambitions in space, New Zealanders should always be asking whether we are making the most of the remarkable opportunity that has landed in our lap. We need to have better conversations — between the community and decision-makers in MBIE and within the community itself — about our goals in space and our roadmap for achieving them. MBIE is staffed by good people, but this is not a style of decision-making in which we have deep experience as a country. And we have never needed it more than now, as we seek to manage a complex relationship with a major space agency whose goals do not always align with our own. And whatever we do has be based on realistic assessments of its value — it is too easy for people involved with space to find themselves huffing their own PR fumes rather than taking an honest look at projects, but it amounts to getting high on your own supply.

The ultimate test for me is very simple: we should set ourselves the goal of doing things in space that make people here and elsewhere look up and say, “Wow, the Kiwis are doing that? That’s AWESOME!”

Image: The lift-off of the CAPSTONE Mission from Mahia — the first launch from New Zealand to the Moon. Courtesy of PhD student Frank Wang.

[1] To be fair, the NICER mission is also attached to the Space Station and it is doing a great job and is excellent value for money. It’s not that the whole list is oversold, it’s just the actual breakthroughs wouldn’t get past the fingers of one hand.

[2] “Breakthrough” is a loaded word — space-based instruments have contributed to several Nobel prizes in physics, but that is a capricious standard. But at the very least it should be a result that is going to be eye-catching to people outside the field that produced it. In fact, apart from the efforts directly related to the adaptation of the human body to space I could not locate a single biomedical “breakthrough” worthy of the name delivered by actual space-based research, on the Station or anywhere else. There are hopes that microgravity synthesis will aid drug discovery and manufacture but little of that seems to have actually eventuated. Happy to be proved wrong on this and would be genuinely interested in examples although I would be stunned if they added up to a fraction of what has been delivered elsewhere, as there are dozens of huge results in other fields. Rather, you get the strong impression that NASA has focus-grouped for keywords that grab the punters’ attention.

[3] NASA’s current Administrator famously flew in space when, as a Congressman, he and a colleague from the other side of the political aisle managed to have money appropriated for both of them to take rides on the Shuttle. He was awarded the nickname “Ballast” by his crewmates and was apparently very keen to participate in actual science to avoid the giving the impression that he was involved in by far the most expensive political junket in history, which of course he was.

[4] I owe this analogy to former Columbia colleague Arlin Crotts.

[5] There are people who feel that all human spaceflight is a waste of time, and I am emphatically not one of them. It is genuinely interesting and often inspiring. But it is now also something human beings have been doing for more than sixty years. The complexity is that unlike any other area of science and technology I can think of, “space” (whether for people or machines) has a strong network of true believers who assume that everyone should find it as exciting as they do. The dreams of those who imagine humanity as a “multiplanetary species” may yet be fulfilled but the reality may be much more humdrum with the two key sectors being tourism and science, just as we see in Antarctica. My point here is not that we should shun anything to do with Artemis, but that we need to be particularly clear-eyed about our choices, given the environment in which we will be making them.

[6] I have no idea how this will play out — but the more we limit the ways in which we might participate (at whatever pricepoint; the initial commitment across a range of options is $9 million) the less chance we have of finding something that hits the sweet spot of excellence and engagement.

[7] Ironically, Space Oddity was banned by the BBC at one point because it satirised the space program.