Humans vs. Robots

Astronaut David S. Scott using the Lunar Rover during the Apollo 15 Mission (Image: NASA)

It’s probably not the best of times for human space exploration just at the moment. One sign of this was President Obama’s announced cancellation of the NASA’s Constellation program back in early February. The situation is still up for discussion and debate, but it appears unlikely that America will be returning to the Moon, or visiting Mars, anytime in the foreseeable future. On a family holiday in Florida last Christmas we went to the Kennedy Visitor Center. Compared to previous visits the atmosphere seemed subdued and slightly depressed, as if news of the forthcoming cancellation was already seeping out.

On the other hand, robotic space missions seem to be entering a bit of a golden age. The Rosetta flyby of 21 Lutetia and the successful return of Hayabusa are just two recent examples. But there are many others. The ongoing NASA Cassini mission continues to produce a wealth of new scientific data and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is still going strong, six years after its arrival on the red planet. Although the twin rover Spirit is not in such good shape and is currently in deep sleep mode, it has also more than exceeded expectations. The arrival of the NASA Dawn mission at asteroid 4 Vesta in July of next year is an eagerly awaited future highlight. Well at least by me anyway.

There has always been a debate about the role of humans in space exploration. One side of the argument has been powerfully stated by the Nobel Prize winner Professor Steven Weinberg, who told “Human beings don’t serve any useful function in space. They radiate heat, they’re very expensive to keep alive and unlike robotic missions, they have a natural desire to come back, so that anything involving human beings is enormously expensive”. A more nuanced interview with Professor Weinberg is available on The Space Review.

The other side of this debate was brilliantly put by US President John F. Kennedy, in his celebrated “We go to the Moon” speech, given at Rice University, Houston one hot summer day in 1962. The full text is on the web of course. President Kennedy didn’t try to cover up the likely costs. He made clear that it was going to be expensive. So why do it? Here was his answer: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Many thanks to Dr Tom Burbine (Univ. Mass. Amherst) for the Steven Weinberg quote and article.

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