30 September 2006

Manned space flight

On this subject, I am compelled to disagree with the enthusiasts. We should not be sending humans into space at all. It is too expensive, too dangerous, and unnecessary. Very little in the way of actual scientific discovery has been produced by manned space travel. The Moon landings were essentially a national prestige project, designed to re-assert technological superiority over the USSR after the shock of Sputnik and Gagarin. Having made the point, the US has never again sent men to the Moon -- because there is no reason to do so. Since then, manned space flight has been confined to near-Earth orbit, accomplishing nothing of scientific or technological significance, and appears to be continuing mostly because NASA believes it is necessary to maintain public interest, and thus protect funding. During the same period, increasingly sophisticated unmanned probes have explored most of the solar system, delivering a wealth of scientific data at a fraction of the cost in money -- and none of the cost in human life -- of manned space flight. Far more such missions could be funded, were the space shuttle not consuming such a large share of NASA's budget.

It is sometimes said that we must keep humans in space in order to prepare for a manned mission to Mars. But such a mission would serve no worthwhile purpose either. Anything it might discover could be discovered at a fraction of the cost by unmanned probes.

It has even been argued that we must press ahead with space colonization as a sort of hedge against extinction in the event of some global catastrophe that wiped out the human race on Earth. It is hard to imagine a more unconvincing position. It would be a very long time before such a space colony was viable enough that it could permanently survive completely independently of Earth, let alone carry forward human civilization (where?) if Earth were out of the picture. The money and brainpower required to create such a colony would be far better invested in strengthening Earth's defenses against whatever disasters might threaten it.

Of course I believe that humans will spread outward from Earth eventually, when the technology exists do so at acceptable risk and to exploit other planets in a cost-effective way. But that time is not now. Today, we are sending people into space in dangerous contraptions at huge expense for no good reason. Space will still be out there fifty years from now. We need to learn how to walk before we try to run.

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