By editorial board • 

Just say no to reliving past glories

Last week’s Viewpoints cover piece was headlined, “Can our political leaders shake the Curse of Apollo?” In other words, can they forsake the hollow lure of manned flight bragging rights for the very real scientific promise of less costly — but also less glamorous — unmanned expeditions?

Unfortunately, the answer is almost certainly an emphatic no. If the question were “should they” instead of “can they,” it would be an emphatic yes — at least by virtually unanimous consensus of the nation’s scientific community.

The problems with manned flight stem from the weight, fragility and extensive support requirements of human beings, particularly when they are launched into a hostile and alien environment. Advances in electronic miniaturization have made computers, robots and cameras the agents of choice when it comes to space.

Humans have to be protected from heat, cold, radiation, g-forces, zero gravity and the risk of mechanical malfunction. They also have to be continuously supplied with food, water and air from back home, adding exponentially to weight and space requirements.

Given the additional cost of accounting for all that, a single manned endeavor can cost taxpayers more than a dozen unmanned probes of greater ambition and richer promise.

Many scientists considered John Glenn’s celebrated 1998 flight, as one academic researcher put it, “nothing but a publicity stunt.” They felt NASA and Glenn, whose resulting fame propelled him to the U.S. Senate, were the only beneficiaries of consequence. They felt the money could have been put to better use elsewhere.

A more current and egregious example is the International Space Station. Scientific consensus considers it a colossal waste of money and manpower, a political boondoggle of very little scientific value.

NASA is aware that the cost-benefit advantage rests squarely with unmanned flight. But it is also aware that its funding is dependent on public support, as expressed through the political process. And history has proven that “one small step for man” means more to the public — and perhaps even more so to the politicians it elects — than all manner of robotic Venus probes and Jupiter flybys.

Of late, talk has turned to landing a man on Mars. But the prestigious National Academies Press rightly suggests that “having flags and footprints on the surface of Mars might do more to satisfy the political needs of Washington than missions that better serve the needs of the research community.”

Returning astronauts to the moon seems even more wrong-headed.

We achieved that 50 years ago. It’s history. Reliving past glories may feed political egos, but it comes at great cost to taxpayers reaping no real benefit.

 

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