Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 2, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

MANNED SPACE FLIGHT....Josh Marshall points to a couple of good articles by Gregg Easterbrook about the space shuttle today: this one written in 1980 and this one written for Time today. In the Time article Easterbrook says:

The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced.

This may seem like a cheap shot, but unfortunately it isn't. As much as I dearly love the dream of manned space flight and the colonization of other planets, the sad truth is that there's simply no compelling reason to send humans into space on a regular basis.

  • To perform scientific experiments? Nope. It turns out that there is virtually no scientific research that requires human handholding except the study of human adaptation to space itself. So the only reason to send humans into orbit is....to see how well humans hold up in orbit.

  • To explore Mars? Ditto. It can be done by unmanned probes just as well.

  • To set up space factories? Unfortunately, nobody is much interested in commercial uses of space. Adequate vacuums can be set up on Earth quite nicely, thank you very much, and weightlessness turns out to have very few commercial possibilities.

  • To colonize other planets? Why? In case we bomb each other into the stone age here on Earth? How long would a moon colony last if it didn't get regular supply visits from Earth?

  • Space tourism? Maybe, but if this is the only reason, then NASA needs to get out of it. Let the private sector do the job.

Yes, manned space flight is romantic, and yes, man is the measure of all things. But the reality is that NASA holds onto manned space flight primarily for PR reasons: they're afraid that without it the public would lose interest in supporting their scientific mission.

Aside from Cold War "space race" considerations, the original Apollo missions had at least one grand purpose: to see if we could do it. But no one other than a hobbyist would bother flying a small prop plane across the Atlantic today, and likewise there's not much point in trucking humans back and forth into low earth orbit now that we know we can do that too.

The Columbia disaster is not a good reason to shelve human exploration of space, but there are plenty of others and they have been depressingly obvious for a long time. There are many new, far more interesting frontiers we could be exploring with the money that NASA seemingly spends simply out of habit. It's time to start exploring them.

Kevin Drum 5:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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