Thursday, August 14, 2008
Fly me to the moon: manned vs. unmanned space missions
Posted by John McHale
I was reading about NASA's latest Mars missions today and remembered a pair of columns John Keller and I wrote back in 2003 on manned vs. unmanned space flight.
John advocated shelving the manned space program for cheaper unmanned missions, while I pushed for continuing the manned space program.
Since then, NASA has made significant steps forward in both areas - awarding the contract for the Orion spacecraft, the follow-on to the Space Shuttle and successfully landing the unmanned Mars Phoenix spacecraft on the Martian surface.
The demand for unmanned systems is even greater outside of space. In military applications - on land, sea, and in the air - various market reports see growth in the $30 billion range over the next five years.
Yet, despite the technological success of autonomous spacecraft and the lower costs of such missions, I still argue that NASA leaders continue to push for manned missions to the Moon and Mars. The image of humans setting foot on new worlds is what will excite the public and convince politicians to spend more money on such programs.
In the column I wrote "the only way America will ever attain the glories it achieved in space 30 and 40 years ago is if manned space exploration becomes a competition - either among commercial companies in our own country or with another nation."
Based on current world events - see the recent blogs from John Keller - it is more likely we will be engaging other nations in much more terrestrial and sadly more violent competitions.
How recent events will affect the collaboration between NASA and the Russian astronauts on the International Space Station and other space programs remains to be seen.
That brings us back to commercial space travel.
As I wrote in 2003, commercial competition makes a lot of sense because it lets "American business bid for government money to create their own spacecraft, thereby fostering that spirit of competition that spurred many of America's accomplishments in medicine and science. Space-exploring machines, while technological wonders, don't hold a candle to the appeal of flesh-and-blood all-American astronauts."
Which way do you - our readers - think NASA should go? Manned or unmanned?
Mr. Keller, do you still feel the same way?