And, with today’s advanced robotics and satellite technology, should we still send up astronauts (whose safety in space is extremely expensive to maintain)?
President Obama made his opinion on the subject quite clear when he cancelled the Constellation program, which was our next step in manned exploration, and included a return to the moon. His goal is to change NASA from a space transportation provider to a research and development organization.
Many agree with the president, pointing out that private contractors can build the necessary hardware and that technological advancements have rendered manned space travel not worth the risks.
Other experts disagree, arguing that robots can only uncover what they’re programmed to seek out. And, since space exploration may involve encountering the unimaginable, robots are ill-equipped to properly respond.
G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University summarized the arguments for the utility of space exploration and the relative roles of humans and robots in a recent forum at freakonomics.com:
- Space exploration will eventually allow us to establish a human civilization on another world (e.g., Mars) as a hedge against the type of catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs.
- We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.
- Space exploration in an international context offers a peaceful cooperative venue that is a valuable alternative to nation state hostilities. One can look at the International Space Station and marvel that the former Soviet Union and the U.S. are now active partners. International cooperation is also a way to reduce costs.
- National prestige requires that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space, and that includes human exploration. History tells us that great civilizations dare not abandon exploration.
- Exploration of space will provide humanity with an answer to the most fundamental questions: Are we alone? Are there other forms of life beside those on Earth?
Obviously, there are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue. And one of the most severe consequences of our long-term fiscal irresponsibility is that we may no longer be able choose our course of action based solely on the merits of those arguments.