Putting humans in space will only set the space program backwards by decades. Development schedules for manned craft are much longer than for unmanned craft, and what happens when something goes wrong and an astronaut doesn't make it home? Years of inquirys, redesign, congressional hearings, committees etc. When a robot goes pear shaped you just send up another one after tweaking the fuel valve or whatever it is that scrapped the mission.
I think both manned and unmanned space exploration are important. In practical terms, I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a manned mission to accomplish what Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have accomplished in terms of adding to our knowledge of the solar system -- at least, not within the limitations of current technology and economics. On the other hand, manned space travel was what excited me as a kid. I'm excited about the Mars Science Laboratory (landing in just 26 days, 1 hour, and 36 minutes!), but as others have already pointed out, it doesn't seem to have captured the public imagination the way that the Space Shuttle, or especially the Apollo program, did. And I would argue that inspiring our imagination (especially the imagination of youth) is at least as important as adding to our scientific knowledge.
I agree - part of the fascination we have with space would be diminished if we ruled out manned exploration. I am in favor of unmanned missions for exceptionally dangerous missions, but the inherent risk in space travel is understood by those who embrace it. The romance we had with the Apollo program ignited the scientific fervor of our nation and propelled us forward. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" would just not have been the same coming from a pre-recorded audio clip activated by a robot...
No, send people, not machines! Where is the fun in saying, "Oh boy! We just landed a radar platform on the moon!" There isn't any.
Plus, no one is as creative as a human in figuring out problems, analyzing a situation to learn something not expected, and, for heaven's sake, we need more heroes! We really do! I remember the early astronauts. They were exciting men who conquered great obstacles. The current generation is too dependent upon rock stars, actors, politicians, and nobodies for their guides. Give me a man on the moon any day!
Beth, I agree with you. Just knowing about space and other planets is interesting, but ultimately the goal is get humans into space. It all depends on what you want to do. I disagre with Jon about the situation with the Mars mission. If humans had been there with control of the craft, the unit issue might not have been fatal. Remenber that with missions outside of Earth orbit, there is no direct control. You upload a set of instructions, a program, and hope the spacecraft carries them out. You also hope that you have thought of all the issues you might run into. With a human in the loop, there is the chance to correct problems on the scene.
We are all fond of the pilotless drones that are used in the wars we have had lately. In these asymetric conflicts, where the enemy does not have an air force or air defenses, this works well. Against a foe with such assets, the drones are all gone in the first few minutes of the conflict. This is similar to what is happening in the Mars exploration. We have sent many missions over decades to Mars. These are very limited in scope and very expensive. One manned mission would have done a lot more.
As for the cost, the whole space program is probably funded at between $12B - $15B, if I recall correctly. Compare that with Medicare which is approaching $1T per year. This is not a cost driver for the government. In addition, many of the innovations in electronics, materials and other areas have been driven by trying to solve space travel problems. In addition, the Medicare funding is often spent on end of life care that in the end does little or nothing to extend the individual's life and certianly does not help with quality of life. There was an article on that in the Wall Street Journal recently. A small percentage of savings in that area would double NASAs budget.
Well, I think you know where I stand on the issue.
You raise some great points, Jon. The cost issue and possible expense of a human life is a compelling argument to keep the humans at home and send robots into orbit. But I think the very nature of human curiousity would dictate getting a human into space or to Mars or wherever the mission whenever technologically possible. The thrill of living and learning vicariously through metal, however intelligent, is not a fully satisfying substitute for the real thing for most scientists and explorers.
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