Friday, April 6, 2012

Space science is of little use if people don't leave earth

I have commonly heard the argument that we should not bother putting humans in space because robots can do science there far cheaper than people can. I have always hated this argument. Space science is of little use if people don't ultimately establish permanent settlements in space. So what if we go to Mars, take a lot of pretty pictures and find water? If we are going to sit on earth and do little else they are only good for some minor amusement for a handful of people. If we establish a self-sufficient colony capable of expanding than we all but ensure that in a few centuries many billions live off this planet. A far larger payoff.

I was therefore particularly happy to see this article in The Atlantic arguing for humans in space. The main argument is good. If you try to sell space travel as an exciting adventure to build a future that no living thing in the several billion year history of the earth has managed to achieve you have a fighting chance of winning funding. If you try to sell it as a way to take pictures of rocks in space than we just better hope some other country makes a better case.

His main argument, then is those scientists consigning themselves to a future of interstellar probes are shooting themselves in the foot. Ventures like the James Webb Space Telescope may hit the ceiling for government expenditures on purely scientific ventures, but researchers and scientists can -- and should -- try to make the case for manned spaceflight in other contexts, if only for the sake of maximizing the scientific gains made from planetary exploration.

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