Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Not So Lost In Space

There's a tiny fraction of my brain that is still a little kid, sitting and watching the moon landing in 1969 and coming to terms with it all. There is a tiny fraction of my brain that was excited (yes, I'll admit it) by Star Trek and all the Wagon Train to the Stars. I followed the post-lunar landing careers of the 12 men who walked on the moon - their mental problems, their mystical experiences, their alcoholism, their self-imposed isolation. I also followed the arguments, pro and con, concerning the continued efficacy of human space exploration versus robotic space exploration. I come down quite clearly and easily in the "send the robots" camp.

The imaginations of millions were fired by the possibilities inherent in space exploration back in the 1960's. Crossing the quarter million miles between the Earth and the Moon became a kind of mantra for "can-do"ism - we can put a man on the moon, but can we solve all the other problems we face, that kind of thing. Yet, putting 12 human beings on the moon was extremely dangerous, hugely expensive - at the same time the federal government was expanding domestic investment and waging an illegal and losing war in southeast Asia. Added to these facts was the simple fact that, unlike exploration of unmapped places on planet Earth back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there just was no reason for continuing our presence on the moon. No minerals, no exploitable resources whatsoever. Human beings have certainly explored, but only if there was a payoff. Just going somewhere "because it's there" is great if you're Sir Edmund Hillary; if you're a nation-state investing billions of dollars of tax-payer money, it's a sign of profligacy and lack of judgment.

Back in the 1990's, the world's imagination was fired up by the landing of two roving robots on the surface of Mars. Continuing to operate long after they were supposed to shut down, those little robots managed to show us that, like the Moon, Mars is a desolately beautiful place, uninviting to human beings, but suited well for robots.

All this, sparked by reading this post by Matt Yglesias, is to say that a sensible, fiscally and scientifically sound space policy would continue the robotic exploration of near space. When there are reasons to send human beings back out beyond near-Earth orbit, as well as the technology to do so (right now, we would be hard-pressed to equal the achievement of making an Apollo capsule, let alone getting it somewhere interesting for those inside to get out of), by all means, we should do it. Right now, I think looking at pictures sent by robots who are risking nothing is far better, and a far better investment of time and resources, than dreaming of Martian colonies or outposts on the asteroids.

Virtual Tin Cup

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