Do we need astronauts?

How Science Brought Down the Shuttle (Free NY Times registration required).

Scientific experimentation in space can be safer and more cost effective using long-duration remote controlled orbital spacecraft.

This is true, but there are many other reasons why we are in space. My favourite set of videos from the recent ISS mission are the four-part series on eating (with all sorts of cool surface-tension physics hidden inside a mundane task), and the water film experiments by Don Petit. In both cases, an astronaut combined his love of science with a little spare time and came up with something entirely new, something that probably would never have made it off the ground otherwise.

The idea of using the space shuttle as a scientific laboratory actually came about after the shuttle’s design was already in place. The shuttle program was conceived in the waning days of the Apollo program as the best option to continue a manned space program at the lowest cost. However, without a place to shuttle to, and not nearly enough satellites that needed a shuttle to launch or repair them, the shuttle program succeeded in doing little beyond creating a human presence in space. The idea of the shuttle as an in-orbit lab was used as a justification for investment in its future.

So? I think it is important that we have people in space. Switching the focus of the shuttle program in order to keep people in space is a good thing.

OTOH, I think it’s a travesty that the ISS crew has been cut from seven to three (and now, temporarily, two). The whole point of building the thing was to get a permanent presence in space; cutting the crew to the point where ISS cannot be effective (science drops from 120 hours/week to 20 hours/week) kills the whole program.

It’s important that we do more science on orbit without astronaut involvement; it is cheaper and more effective. It can also be done commercially at a fraction of the cost of NASA missions :-). But I think we also need a manned presence in space, just because. NASA (or an organisation like it) is probably still the best way to do that.

If we get a bunch of intelligent, capable people into a space lab and then let them play, and all sorts of interesting (and useful!) things will happen.

posted at 9:50 am on Sunday, June 29, 2003 in Rants | Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. Rusty Barton says:

    From 1958 through 1969 the U.S. spent $ 34.8-billion on the NASA budget and achieved the moon landing.

    From 1970 through 2003 the U.S. has spent $ 304-billion on the NASA budget. For what? I would like to see more results for my tax dollars. We seem to be just going in circles.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.