Big discussion on the future of the American space program on DailyKos

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Impressive feat of human achievement or huge waste of money? One of the subjects among others discussed on DailyKos yesterday.

One thing I like about DailyKos is that a lot of the time the articles on the main page have nothing or very little to do with Democrat vs. Republican politics, but rather national policy as a whole. Yesterday there was a discussion on the future of the American space program that readers might be interested in taking a look at. The nice thing about ending an election season is seeing more of this content compared to pieces on the latest polling, who said what and when, the situation in battleground states and all the rest. Very glad that's over.

The article eventually shapes up into the age-old debate on manned vs. unmanned missions:

Long before Constellation was a gleam in anyone’s eye, hemmed in by budgetary reality and vacillating Presidents, the eternal, classic debate between manned and unmanned missions was well underway. Proponents of unmanned missions point out, correctly, those robotic probes are way faster, and obviously safer, to build and fly. Plus they return more hard science. Exhibit A: Voyager I and II, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Martian Rovers, plus a bunch more, all for the price of a single return to the moon mission. On top of that, with Moore’s Law on their side, using the economies of scale and implementing existing advances in interplanetary plasma propulsion, future unmanned missions could soon offer an almost irresistible bang for the buck.

Manned enthusiasts might respond that 1) Super heavy boosters like Ares V can launch a lot more than manned missions. Imagine a 10 to 14 meter space telescope millions of miles away from earth's glare (20 to 30 times better resolution than Hubble) able to resolve everything from exosolar planets to hypothetical, large scale ET construction projects; 2) Humans can do things machines can’t do; 3) Necessity is the mother of invention – the spinoffs from past manned space projects include everything from the device you are reading this on, to materials and designs found throughout your neighborhood and workplace.

Of course the reason there is this debate is that NASA is always forced to try to make do with as little funding as possible for what it's being asked to do, and the paltry $17.3 billion it receives a year pales in comparison to the money given to other programs that produce a lot less in terms of benefits to humanity. It would be nice to not have the manned vs. unmanned debate in the first place.

My opinion of course is that we need as much focus as possible on discovering other earthlike planets that we can actually visit, after which we'll see space as something completely different than it looks now, and will have that much more reason for carrying out advancements in propulsion, the most necessary area for manned exploration (6 months travel time one-way to Mars is simply too long for us to withstand right now).


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