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Man or Machine: How Should We Explore Space?


It looks like, after a long hiatus, the United States is getting back into space exploration in a big way. The Space Launch System, a booster even larger than the Saturn V that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon, is on schedule for its' first test launch in 2017, and the Orion capsule, which was originally intended to carry astronauts back to the moon, but which is now being modified for journeys to the asteroid belt and possibly even Mars, is scheduled for it's first test flight later this yea, aboard a modified Delta rocket. In the meantime, private companies such as SpaceX are designing space vehicles to carry both men and supplies into earth orbit and the ISS, a job which the now-retired Space Shuttle did for so long, so that we will no longer be dependent on Russian rockets to get us into space. The fact that these things are happening is heartening, since it comes at a time of severe economic problems and deficits, when many other programs are being cut back or even cancelled.

But is this a good thing? Some have questioned the spending of vast sums of money for an endeavor, such as the exploration of space, that would appear to lead to no immediate practical benefit that one can point at, particularly at a time when we have so many problems here on Earth. Others say, why bear the expense and very real danger of sending human beings into space (as the two Space Shuttle accidents vividly demonstrated), when the exploration of space could be done much cheaper and safer by automated probes, such as the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring the planet Mars, following in the footsteps (or tracks) of its' illustrious predecessors Spirit, Opportunity, and the Mars Pathfinder. These probes, and many others such as the Cassini probe that explored Saturn, and the New Horizons spacecraft that is currently speeding towards Pluto, have given us much scientific knowledge. Given the rate at which computer technology is improving, many ask why we can't just keep sending smarter robotic vehicles into space, while we sit safely here at home, watching our favorite reality shows.

However, I feel that to take this kind of position is to fundamentally misread human nature. Anthropologists say that possibly the single most important reason that human beings evolved from their ape-like ancestors was the desire to explore the unknown, even though at that time the unknown may have only been the next cave. This desire to push back boundaries, to, as the introduction to Star Trek put it, 'Boldly go where no one has gone before', has remained a fundamental part of our nature. When Werner von Braun, who guided the Apollo program that put men on the moon nearly fifty years ago, was a young boy growing up in Germany, he dreamed about someday going to the stars, and that was to reason he and his friends began to build small model rockets, not the desire to someday try to destroy London. The fact is that there is no way we could NOT go into space and still remain true to ourselves as a species. Robots just won't do, because no matter how intelligent a robot might be, he (it) can only deal with things he has already been programmed to deal with, and if one thing is certain, it is that, in the course of our exploring the universe, we will run into things that we not only can't plan for, but which we can't even imagine.