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NASA's return to Moon axed - human space exploration needs Rethink


courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Two things of note regarding space exploration happened within a week. Last Thursday, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena announced that they were suspending efforts to free the Mars Rover “Spirit” from the sand trap it’s been stuck in for the past 7 months. The plucky Spirit, which had defied expectations as to how long it would last on Mars since it landed in January 2004, has now officially been semi-retired by NASA as a “stationary science platform.”  Originally slated for a 90-day mission, Spirit endured the harsh Martian environment to provide Planet Earth with 5 years’ worth of data on our brother planet. We salute Spirit; he’s been one of Planet Earth’s pluckiest space explorers. JPL itself was upbeat, with project manager John Callas expecting Spirit to survive the Martian minus 49-degree (F) winter in a state of hibernation.

The second noteworthy incident; Monday it was announced that we would not be returning to the moon. With President Obama’s latest budget proposal, the $9 billion Constellation rocket problem, slated to replace the space shuttles and send astronauts back to the Moon, is effectively dead.

The focus for NASA will be to turn its budget towards the science of studying Planet Earth. It also pushes the agency into closer cooperation with other space exploration bodies, such as the European Space Agency and other spacefaring nations, such as India and Japan. The focus for future NASA endeavors will be to cooperate more with private companies in planning for an eventual return to the Moon, or manned missions elsewhere such as Mars. Nothing’s been ruled out at this juncture, but as NASA is forced to cancel President Bush’s mandate to return to the moon by 2020, there are those who are jubilant at this retooling of NASA’s mandate, and others who are positively livid.

There are two schools of thought regarding the manned exploration of the cosmos: The first believes that humanity should be at the forefront of scientific endeavor, whether it’s exploring the mitochondrial DNA of a microbe, or setting foot on the plain of another planet. Space exploration, by its very nature of esoteric study, gets easily boiled down to psychologically and emotionally digestible pieces at the sight of a human being in a bulky costume and helmet planting a flag underneath a red sky. Or a purple sky. Or a green one, for that matter.  It’s also argued that the spinoff technologies resulting from space travel R&D yields practical dividends for everyone. Medicine in particular has benefited from research conducted in zero-g environments.

But does the exploration of space demand an evolved biped to justify the mind-boggling cost of providing them with air, food, water, heat, space toilets, fuel and training simply to plant a flag millions of miles away and make a pithy statement that will then (hopefully) attain immortality in the history books? The second school of thought says resoundingly, “no.” We do not need humans for space exploration because quite simply, the best science has been gleaned from robots. (See the first paragraph regarding our robot brother Spirit, he would appreciate it.)

Could there possibly be a union of these differing schools? The “humans at the joystick” crowd contends that space exploration is as much about scientific discovery as it is about human endeavor. That without that human factor, we reduce the dramatic element that makes the act of scientific discovery so meaningful for the human experience.  Think of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. Or Richard Francis Burton facing hazards to life and limb to discover the source of the Nile.  

Not so fast, say the proponents of robotic probes (and nothing but.) The vastly cheaper cost of sending robotic probes firstly, is better science. Secondly, it’s far more cost effective and therefore, the money saved could be devoted to other scientific pursuits.

There is a caveat to this argument; building “cheaper” is relative and not necessarily a guarantee of success. This was soundly demonstrated in 1999 when two NASA engineering teams mistakenly programmed metric and English measuring units into a Mars orbiter’s computer, resulting in a navigation error that crashed the probe onto the planet. That takes a certain amount of paralyzing incompetence. One can imagine the hapless probe’s onboard computer screaming “does not compute” as it plummeted to Mars, trying until the very last to reconcile Imperial and Metric measuring systems.

As for an explanation of the $125 million miscalibration, a NASA Administrator declared, “People sometimes make errors.”

Of course, it’s better to lose a $125 million probe rather than a human being. That goes without saying. But there’s something to be said about human selfishness. We’ve forgotten about the $125 million loss and countless human-hours that built it. Nor have we remembered the long journey that lost orbiter made to the planet. We never invested ourselves in it, as much as we would have invested ourselves in a human venture.

So is there a happy union between these two schools of thought? Perhaps the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena best exemplify a blend of human ingenuity, dogged persistence and downright techno savvy. After all, they operated our intrepid robotic explorer years past its warranty cut-off. And they're still operating Spirit's fraternal twin Opportunity, which even as we speak, is approaching the rim of an enormous Martian crater. So the human element is always there, through Spirit and Opportunity's robot arms and robot eyes. And until Planet Earth solves the economic mess we got ourselves into, the direct human experience in space exploration is delayed. Spirit will just have to wait a bit longer for humans to walk on the path it trailblazed.

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