Thursday, June 26, 2008

our exploration of space

in response to some of the comments i received on my post about the discovery of water on mars, i've been reading about the global interest in exploring other worlds in our solar system, thru both manned and robotic missions.

the european space agency, ESA, recently put out an application call for aspiring astronauts and received nearly 8500 completed applications from many different countries! i couldnt find many specifics about their exploration plans other than this generic statement: "This campaign is ESA's first astronaut selection since 1992, providing the opportunity to be at the forefront of ESA’s human spaceflight programmes, including future missions to the ISS and beyond." while 10% of those applications came from the UK, it's no secret that the UK space program has suffered from some recent controversial funding issues.

china has twice sent manned vehicles into space. they plan a third mission to launch after the 2008 beijing olympics, but only have plans to explore the moon, as far as i could tell from the internets. russia hopes to meet the october 2009 launch window to reach mars with their phobos grunt project. the indian space research organization (ISRO) has stated plans to launch a vehicle to mars by 2013. they would also like to send a "gaganaut" within a decade after that, if plans go well.

the NY Times posted an interview in january 2008, asking several space-science-related people: "Is manned space exploration worth the cost? Why or why not?"

all six people interviewed claimed manned space missions is definitely the way to go! this is surprising to me considering most of the astronomers i've talked to about this issue are of the opinion that if we go far far away, we should send robots first. i'll let you read that article to get an idea of the arguments given from their biased selection of NASA-related people, and i'll also list some other opinions collected by fraser cain at universe today and the bad astronomer phil plait.

the argument against space exploration that bugs me the most is that if we have so many problems here at home, why spend money to send humans so far away. now i agree with the fact that i dont think we should send humans, and therefore save money, but i also think there are plenty of financial resources - specifically in the US - that are being poorly allocated. specifically, have another look at the death and taxes poster to see where US tax dollars are going this year and how their direction differs from last year. increase in department of defense yet a decrease in energy efficiency and renewables (even though bush promised otherwise in his last state of the union address).

also, here's a quote from keith cowing of

“Right now, all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That’s pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on.”

at this point, us earthlings have successfully blasted countless electronic explorers off into space, as well as placed many many satellites in orbit around our planet to help us with many technological endeavors that make our daily life a bit more "convenient." it's a pretty crazy reality to think about this accomplishment of ours. the arrival of phoenix to the surface of mars marks another huge accomplishment in our robotic exploration of our solar system, and the Universe at large. but are we ready... psychologically, economically, and politically to go that far ourselves?

i think there are clear benefits to space exploration, and i think the major problems us earthlings are facing is how we are treating each other, our children and our earth. those things should be evaluated, but not by putting on hold the one task that currently keeps us all together and reaching for the same goal.

by the way, NASA is also accepting astronaut applications until july 1st, 2008!

pictured above is astronaut karen nyberg on the recent discovery mission.


heroineworshipper said...

If you ever had to find housing in Calif* or Tokyo, the most important task is to begin colonizing other planets. I always wonder if Calif* housing isn't $200,000 or $300,000 cheaper just because of the tiny chance humans could someday break the bonds of Earth's gravity and permanently live on other planets.

David said...

The debate between robots and human exploration seems to me to be an artefact of budgetary limitations. We want to get the most for what we can spend, and we have to do a trade-off. Put that way, it just seems obvious that the two end cases - only do robots or only send humans - are not the way to go.

So it becomes a question of the right balance, which can only be resolved by a detailed look at what you get, over time, for what you spend.

From that point of view saying 'manned space missions is definitely the way to go' is not contradictory to 'if we go far far away, we should send robots first'.

The devil is in the phrase 'over time': we benefit from investments made 50 years ago by people who are now mostly dead, and what we invest in space now will mostly only bear fruit after we are gone.

DavidCruise said...

Hey, I just clicked a picture on Google and arrived here - but I used to see you on DeepskyVideos on YouTube! Also I have some friends in Astrophysics in one or two of whose photos you have appeared. Small world! Thanks for your contribution.