April 12, 2011

Who Pays for the Robots

Next week marks the beginning of the end of a significant chapter of American history.  When the space shuttle Endeavor launches on Tuesday, it will mark the last planned manned mission into space by NASA.  The future, when it comes to space exploration, is in robotics and remotely controlled vehicles.  It’s kind of a bummer.

Over at Salon, Michael Lind lays out the case for why we should welcome, rather than mourn, this milestone.  He makes a familiar, and compelling, case for ditching manned space flight, but misses something along the way.  He writes:
[t]he truth is that the American space program is flourishing. In recent years Mars has been visited by the Phoenix lander and the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. At the moment the Messenger probe is orbiting Mercury and the New Horizons probe is scheduled to pass Pluto in 2015. With the help of the orbiting Kepler space telescope, more than 500 planets in other solar systems have been identified. We live in the greatest age of cosmic exploration in history, even if the public pays little attention because there are no astronauts to engage in white-knuckle landings or to clown around for the cameras.
In other words, nobody is paying attention to all the good work being done aside from those interested enough in the science to seek it out.  They’ve lost the public’s interest.  Which is all right, as long as said public doesn’t decide to gut NASA funding because such robotic pursuits aren’t really worth the money.

I actually used this idea as the basis for a short story I’m currently shopping around.  It’s about a manned mission to Mars (that goes horribly wrong, natch!) that’s undertaken entirely as a PR project.  Everybody involved realizes there’s no real point to sending people there, but it captures the public imagination and keeps the funding coming in for other projects.  In The Right Stuff, one of the Mercury astronauts says, in response to looming budget cuts, “no bucks, no Buck Rodgers.”  Now it’s exactly backwards: no Buck Rodgers, no bucks.

I think Lind overlooks the need to feed that public imagination.  Just look at the comments for evidence of that.  After all, for all the good and important science that artificial explorers can give us, nothing matches the visual impact of seeing a human being, wrapped in copious layers of technology to keep out the void of space, bounding along the surface of another planet.

As an aside, I agree with some of the critics in the comments that starting off a column arguing about promoting science of wishful thinking  with “[i]f God wanted us to live in outer space, we wouldn't have inner ears” is pretty stupid.

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