Forum: Have Brain, Must Travel; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Jim Bell; 2 Page(s)
These are incredibly exciting times for space exploration. NASA currently operates more than 50 robotic spacecraft that are studying Earth and reaching throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Another 40 unmanned NASA missions are in development, and space agencies in Europe, Russia, Japan, India and China are running or building their own robotic craft. With such an armada at our disposal, delivering a stream of scientific data from so many distant ports, you might think that researchers like me who are involved in robotic space exploration would dismiss astronaut missions as costly and unnecessary. To the contrary: many of us embrace human exploration as a worthy goal in its own right and as a critically important part of space science in the 21st century.
Although astronaut missions are much more expensive and risky than robotic craft, they are absolutely critical to the success of our exploration program. Why? Because space exploration is an adventure--a human adventure--that has historically enjoyed broad public support precisely because of the pride we take from it. President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to sending astronauts to the moon to make a statement about the power of democracy and freedom, not to do science. As a by-product, some outstanding lunar science was done, leading ultimately to an understanding of the moon's origin. What is more, the Apollo moon program trained and inspired an entire generation of researchers and engineers, who made the breakthroughs that paved the way for robotic missions, as well as much of the technology that we take for granted today.