The imperative of exploring space

Thursday, August 9, 2012

There are plenty of reasons to oppose space exploration. The missions are costly and, when involving astronauts, dangerous. We have many unmet needs in our own country, with deficits larger than ever. Even so, space beckons, with the real possibility for not only providing practical benefits to humanity but also expanding our vision of what it means to be human.

The ancient Romans spoke of the "hard road to the stars," recognizing how difficult it was for humanity to escape this rock, but they, as with us, continued to look skyward.

This week's NASA landing of the rover Curiosity on the planet Mars was a triumph of science, engineering and vision. An American-led team developed eight major experiments, including ones built by Spain and Russia, in support of the largest and most comprehensive landing on Mars.

The $2.5 billion project has as its objective determining whether life, or conditions favorable to it, exist or have existed on the Red Planet. Curiosity will yield remarkable discoveries about Martian soil composition, water resources and environment, not to mention innovations developed in the course of the interplanetary flight and dramatic landing.

As exciting as the science has been and will be, there are serious limitations with relying on unmanned, robotic exploration. Compare the amount of information you would get, for example, from being in Busch Stadium for a Cardinals game yourself, versus seeing someone else's pictures about their game day experience. Which would be the fullest experience, with the most data?

How much more can we achieve on Mars with humans than with even the best robots, constrained by hardware and software, and managed remotely from Houston? There is a reason we send paleontologists to look for dinosaurs, and geologists to look for oil, rather than just dispatching their iPhones on remote-controlled ATVs to explore Wyoming.

Robotic missions can set the stage for initial exploration of Mars, but they are no substitute for humanity moving beyond Earth, a goal made more feasible by the discoveries, on previous unmanned missions, of both water ice and carbon dioxide on the planet.

The United States must build on its remarkable progress along this "hard road." While the majority of unmanned missions to Mars -- including all Soviet/Russian ones -- failed, nine out the 10 last U.S. missions, and all of them since 2001, have been successful.

While the current Curiosity project did involve partnerships with other nations, NASA must lead, with U.S. scientists and engineers engaged at every step.

In addition to the U.S., China has a dedicated space program, with ambitious plans to establish a lunar base and an all-Chinese mission to Mars. Given the massive state resources the Chinese Communists pour into priority projects, regardless of cost, it seems likely they will make advances. We should welcome these Chinese ambitions, and compete with them peacefully in space, as we did with the USSR during the Cold War.

I have far more confidence in the abilities of American engineers and scientists to make real the vision of space exploration than I do in the Chinese effort, but they will have achievements that will bring humanity closer to the overall goal of a permanent presence beyond Earth.

Ten years ago, NASA was the only mechanism available for a program of American-led space exploration. Now, however, there are private companies -- SpaceX chief among them, but also Boeing and others -- capable of developing the next generations of craft and missions. We should expand the mandate of these private companies, pursuing multiple possibilities for new space initiatives.

Unfortunately, the exploration of Mars has not been a priority for the current administration, despite candidate Obama's promises in 2008. Once in office, the president proposed eliminating all unmanned Mars missions, and did end NASA's project to develop new rockets that might deliver larger payloads -- even manned missions -- to Mars.

While some of the funding -- at the insistence of Congress -- has been restored, much of this has been at the expense of other NASA science missions. Thousands of engineers and scientists with irreplaceable knowledge have been dismissed from NASA, but without the promised fiscal savings, as the money has been diverted to other White House priorities. The irony is that these cuts were made in the name of budget concerns, when NASA's funding has been flat, despite a 40 percent increase in overall government spending since President Obama took office.

Humanity has a precarious existence, clinging as we do to a relatively narrow band of livable environments, on parts of one modest-sized planet in a vast solar system. The potential for expanding not only human knowledge, but the reach of humanity, is tantalizingly close to us, as we see the potential in the night sky.

The costs of turning our backs on the universe will be far greater than those incurred by reaching for it. Ad astra!

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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