Space Is for Science, Not Scientists

Never mind how old I'm going to be in 9.5 years. I plan to be alive and alert when the unmanned probe launched a few days ago reaches Pluto and Charon and begins to send its data back. I hope the word "unmanned" caught your eye. Unmanned vessels and robotic explorers are the only sane way for humans to investigate what's out there.

Robust Rovers
When I think about Spirit and Opportunity going about their Martian prowls—an adventure that has become a near-fixation for me—I am overtaken emotionally. And intellectually. What a triumph of science and engineering those little rovers represent! Part true robots and part teleoperated devices, they browse that stultifyingly featureless Marscape, poking and sniffing and analyzing. No egos, no complaints of boredom, no irritatingly uplifting commentary. They send us more data than any human visitors ever could. And we do not worry about their safety. They do not need life support systems to support their life support systems. What they are is a bunch of sensors and data transmission equipment.

Lost for Space
As I write this, New Hampshire is remembering the life and early death of Christa McAuliffe, the elementary school science teacher who was lost along with six other astronauts 20 years ago in the Challenger disaster. Tomorrow (February 1) we will turn our memories to the Columbia and its crew. And I hope that some of us still remember Grissom, White, and Chaffee, who died in a launch pad fire on January 27, 1967, as they were preparing for the Apollo/Saturn mission.

All that education. All that training. All that adventurous spirit that makes us human! All vanished in seconds.

But Not Again
To what purpose? None now. We need to redirect our efforts away from raising up more astronauts to take the places of the 17 we have already sacrificed to scientific exploration. We need to focus on perfecting robotic devices stuffed with smart sensors and communications equipment and on successfully sending them off into hostile environments just as we have been doing here on Earth. One of the most intelligent uses for such an endeavor would be to repair the Hubble space telescope, which has given us far more valuable data than has any visitor to the Moon thus far.

Sure, there will always be rash souls who really, really want to go back to the Moon and to Mars. So let them go—on their own nickel and with a cheery "Good Luck" from those of us with better sense. Mind, I am not a total weenie even though Ron Howard's Apollo 13 stopped my respiration for about an hour. There are unavoidable risks that come with some lines of work. Firefighting and coal mining have more than their rightful share of danger. They shouldn't, but that's the current state of affairs.

My point is this: the rush that Space Cowboys get from leaving Earth is just that. It is not science and should not be represented as science. Adventurousness is part of the human psyche. It is hard-wired in and has a rightful place. But there are better ways to use it than getting astronauts to Mars.