What James Van Allen got wrong about NASA’s International Space Station
The science world was rocked recently by the creation of what is called a fifth state of matter, thanks to an experiment on the International Space Station. Without getting too much into the weeds, this involved using a briefcase-sized Cold Atom Laboratory to lower the temperature of bosonic atoms to near absolute zero with lasers and magnetic fields
The atoms then, since they were in microgravity, took on a quantum state of a matter wave for much longer than if they had been on Earth. Then the astronauts on the ISS observed the properties of what they had created before the atoms expanded again. The experiment could not be properly conducted on Earth in a gravity field because the expansion would be too rapid, making observation of the properties of what physicists called Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) all but impossible. A more detailed description of the experiment can be found in the journal Nature.
What are the implications of the experiment? Phys.org quotes research team leader David Aveline as saying, “Applications range from tests of general relativity and searches for dark energy and gravitational waves to spacecraft navigation and prospecting for subsurface minerals on the moon and other planetary bodies.”
For the layperson, the results of the experiment are a big deal.
Besides potentially answering a number of long-standing scientific questions, the Cold Atom Laboratory experiment has answered once and for all the question of whether or not humans have any utility in space.
Dr. James Van Allen was famous for two things. The first thing was the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts that surround the Earth, thanks to the missions of Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 at the dawn of the space age. The second was a lifelong war Van Allen conducted against the very idea of space exploration conducted by humans.
Van Allen summed up his case against sending human explorers to space in an article in Issues in Science and Technology published shortly before his death in 2006. He had a caustic view of the prospects of the then under construction International Space Station.
“The still only partially assembled International Space Station has already cost some $30 billion. If it is actually completed by 2010, after a total lapse of 26 years, the cumulative cost will be at least $80 billion, and the exuberant hopes for its important commercial and scientific achievements will have been all but abandoned.”
Whether Van Allen knew it or not he had become the living embodiment of something the great science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke said, “If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Van Allen had been proven wrong even before the Cold Atom Laboratory experiment by any number of scientific and technological discoveries achieved aboard the ISS. One standout has been the initial success of a 3D bioprinter on the space station creating tissue using human cells. The ongoing experiments hold out the prospect of creating human organs such as hearts, lungs and kidneys using stem cells that would be genetically compatible for recipients. In about a decade, scientists suggest, such organs could eliminate the agonizing wait lists that organ recipients must linger on, hoping for a suitable donor. Nor will organ transplant patients have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. Millions of lives would be saved as a result of the bioprinter experiments on the ISS.
Needless to say, Van Allen did not predict the revolution in commercial space travel that has lowered the cost of going to and from low Earth orbit being conducted by SpaceX’s Elon Musk and others. Ironically, President George W. Bush kicked off that revolution with his Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that would later be improved upon under President Barack Obama with the Commercial Crew Program and would see its fulfillment under President Donald Trump with the recent flight of the Crew Dragon to the ISS.
Going forward, the spectacle of Van Allen’s incredible folly should inform the debate on whether or not and how soon humans should return to the moon and go on to Mars and beyond. The ISS has proven its worth with its scientific and technological discoveries. Experience on the space station suggests that exploration beyond low Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars and beyond, will prove likewise.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.