I wrote a space post last Friday, and that’s always a dangerous thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I like writing space posts. No, the problem is that I had nowhere near enough words — nowhere near enough space — to write what I wanted. So, today, I get to touch on one more of those (several) things I didn’t have the space or time to say in that post…
The ISS and current proposed NASA budget may have some folks clutching their pearls and searching for a fainting-couch, but complaints and battles about budgets are only the second oldest debate in space exploration. No, the oldest argument — older than the flights of Gagarin and Shepherd and Glenn — concerns the value of manned spaceflight itself.
Now, one piece of explanation and background is required before I get into the argument itself. Launching shit into space costs. The more you launch, the more it costs. It costs weight, and technology, and (most of all) money. When you send just one astronaut into orbit, you are sending not just a 180-pound human, you are sending all of the food and water and air that human needs. AND all of the additional fuel launching that stuff requires.
When you get right down to it, putting humans into space is expensive. Your ships and stations have to be bigger (read: heavier), because they have to have things like atmosphere, water, HVAC, radiation shielding, toilets, medical supplies…you get the idea. It is (literally) tons of stuff to support just one human.
That’s bad enough in low Earth orbit, but what about things like trips to the moon, or Mars, or even the asteroid belt? That is A LOT of stuff to be trying to move around.
So, is it worth it?
You bet your ass.
Robotic probes can do an awful lot. Hell, the Mars rovers have been absolutely phenomenal. Even better, take the Juno and Galileo missions to Jupiter…the Cassini mission to Saturn…New Horizons…the various space telescopes & observatories…and, especially, the granddaddies of them all: Voyagers 1 &2.
We wouldn’t have learned half of what know without robotic probes. And, let’s be honest, there are certain places where we HAVE to use robots. No human, at our current tech level, is going to orbit Jupiter or Saturn. Barring major changes, we are probably a century or more away from that. But, the inner system still beckons…
If robots can do so much, why go to all the trouble and expense of sending people?
Because we — as a people, and as a species — need to stretch and reach and strive for more. Because we need to feel as much as to see. Because, in the end, we need to dream.
No robotic probe, no matter how capable or sophisticated or multifaceted, can provide the same connection and capacity as does a human. No robotic probe can inspire dreams.
We anthropomorphize the shit out of our probes: from plucky Curiosity, to the self-sacrifice of Cassini, to the reckless daring of the two Voyagers, we have imbued our exploration craft with “personality” and “life”.
It’s not the same.
Why did the Apollo program resonate so very deeply with people? Why did it connect with not just the people of the US, but also folks around the world? Even back then, we could have done the missions with robotic probes. Hell, the Viking landers were little more than Apollo technology, sent to Mars…but they had far less “connection” than a few frail humans walking awkwardly in bulky suits. Why?
Because they were people.
Because Neil Armstrong nailed it. To paraphrase that famous quote: a giant leap for humanity required one small step by a man.
Hell, to tie this all back to writing: why did The Martian (both book and movie) resonate so very deeply with folks? Because it was the drama of exploration and danger and disaster, yes, but also — and far more importantly — it was the story of “Mark Watney.” It was the story of a person.
I just checked my word-count for this post…sure enough, just like last Friday, I’m running long. Very long. And there is still more to say. More to say on this particular topic, more to say on space exploration, more to say on astronomy and science…
But not now. I’m out of space.