Send out robots,
They work fine;
A waste of time.
President Barack Obama deserves credit for ordering a new study of NASA. The findings of his Augustine Commission review of our plans for human spaceflight are impressive as well. We needed to seriously question our financial will to send humans to Mars. Not every taxpayer is ready to sign on for that expense.
The title of the commission’s report: “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation,” suggests the dilemma. With our sundry wars, economic meltdown, health-care woes, and rogue banking system, Americans are already grappling with the concept that we may not be quite as great a nation as we once thought. Larding onto those self-doubts, a pullback in human space exploration might be too big a pill for our national psyche to swallow.
Unfortunately the facts are stark. We’ve been in space a long time now, on both manned and unmanned missions, but the results have been slim. The dollar costs, conversely, have been enormous. Meanwhile, heroes and heroines have emerged, martyrs have died, and thousand of PR flacks have made a comfortable living. In addition, the Smithsonian has gained splendid exhibits while tens of thousands of young people have been inspired to achieve. These are indeed major successes. And now there’s a good new niche business of carting very rich people into orbit and back.
Still, when we famously roared off to the moon and back home again it was a magnificent but largely pointless feat. Our astronauts haven’t gone back since 1972, for good reason. And now there’s an ever-growing space station whose only visible mission is providing employment for the shuttle system taking astronauts to and fro. But even those mighty shuttles will be shut down this year. It’s lucky the Russians still want to organize the trip.
The problem is that all this investment and hype has produced bupkis, in terms of return on investment. No minerals are flowing in from the moon, no resorts have blossomed, and the Augustine Commission seems pretty well agreed that Mars is out of reach for any amount of money that we seem likely to spend. True, the booming satellite industry has exploded at the same time, but that was all done from Earth. We didn’t need to send up warm bodies to create it.
Nor should we bother to do so again for any presently known purpose. At least not until we have our financial, environmental, and social house in order. The commission had its head on straight when citing those constraints, as did President Obama in ordering the whole investigation. While curtailing manned space travel will also reduce flights of fancy among young astrodreamers, this course surely seems the right path.
But there’s still plenty of work for robots to do. Their adventures are where our serious scientific discoveries come from. Unmanned probes, while not cheap, cost peanuts compared to sending out people. Robots just don’t provide the same P.R. bonanza that heroic photos generate for industry lobbyists.
And NASA aside, other huge bucks support the Air Force program aimed at ruling the world from orbit. But that venture hides in the Pentagon’s “black budget.” We don’t get to comment on it; we just get to pay for it.
Let’s stop. If such a spasm of thriftiness suddenly deprives America of the power to destroy any target on Earth, the whole world will rest easier. That’s not all bad.