"What have 42 years of astronomically expensive manned space flight shown other than how many times we can circle the Earth? What's the cost-benefit ratio? What's NASA's annual $15 billion budget brought us? I mean other than Tang and Velcro. (...) It's time to think about these things. And ask tough questions. And slip the surly bonds of Congress and smack the face of NASA."

--John Baer, "Is NASA Lost in Space?", Philadelphia Daily News, Feb. 3, 2003


Far be it for me to disagree with the learned Mr. Baer. I have no doubt that he spent costly seconds of research determining that space travel has produced only Tang and Velcro. Surely something as frivolous as space travel could not have produced important research in biology, medicine, metallurgy, physics, and astronomy, right? I mean, who am I to argue with a guy who'd claim that he wants NASA gone partly out of respect for deceased astronauts then close his column by twisting a poem particularly beloved by astronauts into a cruel, mean-spirited jab at those same astronauts and their families, right? Right?

You hear this argument from people sometimes--that space travel is too dangerous, that we should be spending NASA's money on education (although these same people always seem to complain when too much money is devoted to public schools, damn whippersnapper coddled children), that robots could do the job as well as people.

Is space travel dangerous? It sure as hell is. With the Columbia crash, NASA has a 2% failure rate for its manned launches. That's not an insignificant risk--kill two of your 100 closest friends and try to tell me that's something you'd feel good about. But it's a much better rate than in the early days of aviation or the early days of jet aviation. When pilots were testing experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s and '60s, they had a failure rate of 25%. Do Mr. Baer and his ilk think the risks outweighed the benefits back then? Would he give up the jet airliner? The automobile? Vaccinations? Would he ever emerge from his cave? Progress is always risky; stagnation, on the other hand, is not always safe.

Could funds allocated for space travel be better spent on other programs? Perhaps. I know many people who would agree, though most of them would probably disagree, even with each other, on what the money should be spent on. However, I consider the argument to be bogus--if space travel and education (or defense or the environment or highway safety or business incentives or whatever) are both worthy enterprises AND if there is sufficient money to fund both, it's foolish to say that one of the programs should be designated less worthy and shut down. It's the equivalent of asking a parent to choose which child they love the most so that the other can be given up for adoption.

And could NASA's projects be carried out more efficiently by unmanned missions? I'm not convinced. I can't trust my home computer not to crash when I'm working on important projects--why should I trust that a space crew of robots won't suffer computer malfunctions, also? Sure, my computer is a lot less complex than the machines that NASA uses, but I've seen enough problems with other computers, both weak and powerful, to know that they're not a magical cure-all. Computers make good tools, but until they're smart enough not to make silly glitch-driven mistakes, I'm not convinced they'd make good explorers without human guidance.

I am not, by training or inclination, a scientist, so I'm not really that comfortable discussing the scientific breakthroughs that space exploration and research have brought about. I'm not a good businessman either, so I have trouble saying, yeah, the stuff discovered up there is good for business. But I have no difficulty saying that if we run away from the space program because people have died, we are Worthless Damnable Cowards. Any race that abandons progress onwards and upwards has stopped evolving--hell, they've probably already started devolving.

On a purely personal level, I want the space program to continue because I've read and loved stories by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and dozens of others and have dreamed, with them, of riding that big rocketship into the vacuum, of watching that big blue marble fall away below me, of seeing other worlds with my own eyes, rather than through a television or movie screen. I doubt I'll ever have a chance to stand on the surface of the moon, but I've seen photographs taken on the moon, and I know that the beauty of those photos is certainly not something I'd pin a price tag on. I'll never have the opportunity to stand on the red sands of Mars, but I think someone will someday, and that's worth, to me, even more than that $15 billion annual cost.

"For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return."
--Leonardo da Vinci

http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/columnists/john_baer/5091311.htm
http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/research_projects/researchupdate.html
http://www.locusmag.com/2003/Features/Letters02.html
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/photo_gallery
Thanks to The Custodian, riverrun, Professor Pi, and arcanamundi for help with the title

To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.
-- Dr. Stephen Hawking

So are we faced with a dilemma, who will take us to Mars? Will it be the big nasty money grubbing corporations or the big nasty corrupted bureaucratic government? If this is the question, my heart fills with joy because frankly I don't care, as long as we get there! But if the question is whether or not to explore, to completely abandon the prospects of humans in space, then I say, that could possibly be the most damaging thing to our society. We have a wanderlust. From the trees of northern Africa, we have propagated ourselves throughout this world, and recently to the outskirts, like no other. This need to explore is a healthy aspect of our nature.

When the Challenger exploded, my heart sank, not only for the life lost but also for the progress lost in exploration. Missions were canceled while NASA tried to figure out what went wrong. With the loss of the Columbia, and this new spark to the old debate, my feelings remain the same. What are we doing in space anyway; NASA is only an relic of the Cold War. I'll tell you what we're doing, we are advancing ourselves in ways that neither you nor I can comprehend.

Why take the risk of coming out of the trees? Why take the risk of crossing the Bering land bridge? Why take the risk of sailing to the New World? And why take the risk of flying across the Atlantic? Did these risk takers have any idea how much they were contributing to the future of the human race?

On the other hand, fear can cause us to take steps backwards. One of the most tragic events pertaining to human transportation was the crash of the Hindenburg. Airships make much more sense than conventional aviation in several regards. But when the Hindenburg exploded into a fireball, there were plenty of reporters around to take pictures for the newspapers and show how unsafe Zeppelins were.

After World War II, my grandfather was a test pilot for the US Navy. He was the first pilot to survive flying one particular model. If he would have ejected two seconds later than he did, I would have never been born. He did this voluntarily, with the knowledge that he was helping to make the future better and safer for the rest of us in some small way. The three pilots who died before him felt this same way or they would have never gotten into the cockpit.

We will make it to Mars and continue from there. That is not a question, the only question is when. My hopes are that this comes about within my lifetime. See, since I was a little boy I've wanted to go to Mars, not just to visit, but to live...to colonize. I have discussed it with my wife, if we have the opportunity we will go to Mars. I don't necessarily think unmanned missions have been a waste of time. Progress was made with each of these from Sputnik to Pathfinder. But were they as significant as the missions John Glenn or Neil Armstrong participated in? Machines will only take us so far. At some point, people will need to take the risk. I will tell you right now, more people will die before we reach the stars. I may even be one of them. But that is the price we pay for our future.

In another node, robwicks is correct in the numerical estimation (NASA does routinely go way over budget), however NASA is also exploring a largely unknown environment, and it's difficult to anticipate the costs of the unknown. Before demanding the dissolution of our one and only agency dedicated to space exploration, it's important to note that the private sector has already become involved, and, unfortunately, is still unable to succeed. (Witness the most recent of failures, the Delta Clipper - a single-stage VTOL that tipped over, exploded and burned.) Until such time as the private sector can reproduce the inventive genius of the Wright Brothers, the government must remain involved.

We are all saddened by the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew, and some of us still remember Challenger. Fewer still remember the names Grissom, White and Chaffee - but without their sacrifices and the incredible efforts of the entire aerospace programme, we would not have reaped the benefits: world-wide broadcasts, cell phone technology, massive improvements in audio and imaging technologies... In fact, it's solely thanks to the Space Programme that we even have an accurate topographical map of the Earth! Naysayers declare that risking "precious human lives" is unacceptable - but what about all the lives that have been saved, thanks to improvements in heart pumps, UV protection, and even rescue equipment! Countless lives have been saved thanks to modern advances in surgical equipment, firefighting gear and other lifesaving devices.

While the cost in money may be great, the benefits to humanity are far greater. Keep the Space Programme!


tdent says "All those benefits (for which it would be more convincing if you gave verifiable sources) could just as well have been developed without sending *people* into space. You are assuming that without *manned* space travel, no space technology would ever have developed. But this is hardly an automatic assumption. Most of the useful things in space are unmanned - your task is to defend specifically why people should be there too."

To refute tdent a bit:
Most of the useful things in spaced are unmanned - but they got there because someone put them there. And in many cases, human interaction is a necessity in the proper deployment, capture and repair of those - the Hubble telescope is a perfect example of this. Human engineering is not yet sufficiently "perfect" to create a robotic system that can substitute for human flexibility and ingenuity when dealing with unknown or unexpected variables. In Mercury 4, Gemini 8 and Apollo 13 the ability of the crews to react to unexpected situations salvaged the missions - missions that would have been completely lost if unmanned.

Human presence in space is also a requirement if we are ever going to understand and be prepared for the rigors of long-term space travel - the next great leap. True, we are in a bit of a rut with the current Shuttle-to-ISS runs, but if we are ever to expand our horizons beyond the moon and to the stars, we must first conquer the space around us.

There are those that feel that any loss of life is an unacceptable cost. If that were true, we should never have explored beyond our own caves. "Those who live like turtles see little but their own shells." Life, in itself, is a risk, and to advance ourselves as a species, we must explore and expand our horizons, ever outward, at the risk of stagnating and dying. Truly, however, the choice is not mine. Ultimately, the decision is made by the astronauts - it is THEIR choice to climb into those capsules and Shuttles, and they do it in the hopes of advancing mankind. As Mercury 7 astronaut Gus Grissom said: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

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