Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Probing Space

The recent 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's lunar landing brought the usual suspects out of the woodwork, kooks and crackpots who have just the selection of YouTube videos and poorly-written blog posts they need to convince you that it was all just a hoax. Fortunately they're harmless, if a bit nutty, and can be ignored. I wish the same was true of the other usual suspects. These are the people who, whenever there's bigger-than-usual news about space exploration, bitch and whine about how all that money should be spent here on Earth solving our problems and how pointless it is to send humans into space when probes can do just as much science just as well.

Notwithstanding that, say, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars have been such successes in spite of their limitations and not because of them, and that two astronauts could have taken in a matter of days the observations it's taken those probes years to collect. Neither, for that matter, is NASA's budget ever stuffed into rockets in the form of small unmarked bills and launched into the sun.

Personally, I like the science that the space probes have been doing. The photographs from Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 revolutionized our understanding of the solar system, and I look forward to the discoveries that Dawn and New Horizons will make in the coming years. Nevertheless, I can't have faith in a program that goes no further than that. To my mind, probe missions have always been, and should always be, precursors to eventual human presence on those other worlds.

This is why it infuriates me so much when I hear people suggesting that we shut down manned space exploration, that we do all our looking around from home. Bullshit. I have no problem with indulging scientific curiosity through these probes and expanding Earth's ability to interact with space at the same time, because those things will be important later.

If things were up to me, I would sooner shut down NASA and JPL and all the rest than see them relegated to shepherding a bunch of robots. I can get behind the value of blue-sky research toward space when it's being done in conjunction with something just as worthwhile, like laying the groundwork for humans to eventually escape from this world. But if it's no more humans and only robot probes, and NASA is drawing $16 billion a year for robots to peep at Mars and Mercury - if that ever came to pass, I think would side with the people who say that All That Money should be spent on Earth.

We need to know where our priorities lie. I would rather have no space program at all than one that had no intention of including humans in it.


  1. We're earthlings! Let's blow up Earth things!

  2. This is the moon blowing up, and this is me smiling.