Feb 15 2007

A Visit to Kennedy Space Center

On my weekly podcast we have discussed several times the question of how much emphasis NASA specifically, and human exploration of space in general, should place on manned space flight vs robotic exploration. Bob Park makes an excellent practical argument for putting our resources into robotic exploration – it is more safe and cost effective, and future generations will be increasingly comfortable with a “virtual” presence in space.

Phil Plait, James Randi, and others (myself included) have taken the position that while all of Park’s claims are true, putting people in space has a romantic appeal that robots and probes simply cannot capture. Since space exploration requires publics support, and public support is driven largely by the vision of people in space, this will always be an important component of any space program. Also, it just seems like it is our destiny as a race to move off of our home planet and out into the universe. Stephen Hawking has recently argued that it is in fact necessary for our survival as a race.

I am on vacation this week with my family in Florida. Earlier in the week we paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. It was an incredible experience, btw. Walking underneath a fully assembled and restored Saturn V rocket was worth the trip all by itself – words and even pictures cannot capture the awesome size of this rocket; you have to see it for yourself.

If the tour was any indication, it is clear that NASA fully endorses the central role of putting people in space. The tours and the exhibits were all about people in space. Putting men on the mood as part of the Apollo program is still the pride and joy of NASA – their “greatest adventure”. Now the emphasis is on the International Space Station and having a “permanent human presence in space.” And all the buzz is about the upcoming missions to return to the moon and then go on to Mars. There was nary a mention of the various robotic missions to the planets.

Also, while there was a lot of mention of all the scientists, engineers, and other countless experts that make up the NASA family – the astronauts are like rock stars. They were paid constant praise and deference. For example, a video documenting the difficulty and danger of recovering the solid rocket boosters after they have plunged into the Atlantic made numerous obligatory references to the fact that the astronaut’s jobs are more dangerous still.

I don’t know if this extreme bias toward manned-space flight at the KSC reflects NASA’s feelings, or their perception of the public’s feelings, or both. Perhaps it is a self-fulfilling prophesy – NASA believes that people are only interested in people in space, so they showcase that part of the program, and therefore that is what people know and get excited about. If the same amount of time and energy were spent on showcasing the cool science being done by the robotic space program, perhaps the public would be just as excited about that.

But I doubt it.

I think the people at NASA are excited about putting people in space because everyone is excited about people in space. We all want to be Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, or Princess Amadala. We don’t want to sit at home while Robbie the Robot does our space exploration for us. We dream of bouncing along, cloaked in a space suit, in the low gravity of the moon.

I predict that the robotic and human space programs will continue to co-exist. Robots will do what they do best, and people will follow behind. And I agree with Dr. Hawking that human colonization of space is both our destiny and our salvation.

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