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What Next for NASA?

The Space Shuttle has become like a washed-up old rock band: doing the same old act on increasingly creaky joints, charging exorbitant prices and producing less and less of a thrill. There is little argument now about whether the Shuttle needs to be retired. The question now is, “What next?”

After Bush announced his allegedly free missions (at no additional cost to you) to the Moon and Mars, it become apparent to me that there are two divergent groups of NASA supporters. One group, to which I probably belong, is what you might call pro-Knowledge. We want to learn as much about the universe as possible with the available resources. I don't think there is much question that the most cost-effective way to do this is with robots and unmanned probes. If you only interested in acquiring knowledge, human beings simply aren't worth the cost to support their existence in space. The "experiments" that astronauts perform in space are virtually worthless*, and they aren't going to learn any more from walking around on the surface of a moon or planet than a well-designed robot.

The other group, which I can sympathize with, is what one might call pro-Adventure. They believe that it is humankind's destiny to conquer space, and that means actually showing up in person. Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first human being to walk on the Moon, but few people know the name of the first device to land on Mars. Robotic bric-a-brac simply doesn't stir the popular imagination the same way that an astronaut does.

The question is, "What cost adventure?" In the context of limited resources, are we really going to devote hundreds of billions of dollars for what would essentially be some tourist shots of people walking on Mars? Think of Mars like the Great Wall of China. You know it is there and that you could go to the library and read all about it. How much money would you spend to get your picture taken on it?

One argument that the pro-Adventure camp has in its arsenal is the prospect of human beings eventually colonizing other planets. This prospect strikes me as unlikely to happen in the lifetime of my great-great-grandchildren, much less my own. And ultimately, why bother? We have a nice little planet here, if we manage not to screw it up.

*I heard this from someone who used to serve on a science advisory board for NASA. Admittedly, astronauts did repair the Hubble Space Telescope, but NASA might have come up with another solution if they weren't available.

Posted by Woody Mena at July 30, 2005 5:58 PM