Jan. 1, 2004

Does manned space travel really make sense?

I am writing to respond to the editorials in October and November, "End of the line for manned space travel?" and "Manned space travel is vital and necessary."

It seems to me that the recent arguments in favor of manned spaceflight have more to do with emotion and continuance of employment than logic. I'd suggest we take a deep breath, step back and take a good look at the major points:

All the other kids are doing it. My mother had a response to this one — I'll bet yours did too. Europe marches to it's own drummer and will always continue to do so. China is a very different country from the U.S. What makes sense for them might or might not make sense for the U.S. Besides, they're basically trying to reinvent something we did 40 years ago. Good for them.

World opinion counts. Look at today's papers and see if you really think the opinions of people throughout the world have anything to do with the fact we placed men on the moon in 1969. The afterglow of that event was so thin that NASA couldn't even keep the U.S. public interested. That's why we tipped two completed moon rockets over on their sides and left them to rot.

Men can do things robots can't. I'll concede there are a few rare moments when having a human in the loop might save an experiment or spaceflight that would be lost in robotic control. Who cares? It costs so much more to put the human there that it's a lot cheaper just to fix the problem and launch another one.

Only man can describe what space flight is like. That's probably true but most of the people we've sent into space seem pretty inarticulate. The most enduring moment is the picture of the Earth rising over the Moon — which was taken by a human but could have been taken by a robot. And if I see one more picture of an astronaut sucking a floating object into his mouth I'm going to puke.

Spinoffs. A few, but at what cost? I'd argue that GPS, Direct Broadcast Satellites, terrain avoidance systems that won't let your airliner fly into the ground and the Internet are a whole lot more useful to people than anything that has come out of manned spaceflight.

Inspiration. Actually there are lots of things that inspire people. I don't think most people would put manned spaceflight anywhere near the top.

There's nothing like manned spaceflight. Actually there is and it's called exploration of the oceans. The problems are very similar and there is a strong message to be taken from oceanographic research if we'd just open our eyes. Even though the early pioneers felt it was necessary for a human to be directly in the loop, most underwater research has moved to keeping the human safely onboard ship. Even Robert Ballard, who most people would associate with human underwater research, has admitted that even though he'd rather be underwater it makes more sense to let robots take the risks. NASA should do the same.

Michael R. Corder

Micor Research
Aptos, Calif.

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