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The ATHLETE, one of NASA’s prototype vehicles recently tested at Moses Lake, Washington, is a six-legged robot, an all-terrain vehicle that sports wheels at the end of each limb that allow the robot to navigate as a rover. (NASA)

Debating Manned Moon Missions

Experts provide opposing viewpoints on manned missions to space

Steven Weinberg
Winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics
Cosmologist, University of Texas

Manned missions to space are incredibly expensive and don't serve any important purpose. It isn't a good way of doing science, and funds are being drained from the real science that NASA does. Sending people to space may be a great show, so much of what you do has to be built around the necessity of keeping people safe and alive that science takes a second place. Above all, it's an incredible waste of money. For the cost of putting a few people on a very limited set of locations on Mars we could have dozens of unmanned, robotic missions roving all over Mars and still have money left over to allow the more astronomical sciences to go forward. Unmanned missions have been tremendously important in making this a golden age of astronomy.

Very often the case is made that putting people into space pushes technology and that's good for technology on earth. I think that's nonsense. The kind of technological stimulus we would get from unmanned space exploration is much greater. It would involve developing robotics and computer programs that could deal with things in real time without people around. That's the sort of thing that's tremendously useful on earth. The only thing you learn by developing the technology to put people into space, is how to put people into space

I've spoken to high officials in NASA and they are quite frank. They do not defend the manned missions on the basis of science. They feel that putting people into space has an independent or spiritual value that transcends anything purely practical. I don't think that the public realizes that what they are getting is kind of a spiritual exercise rather than a program for the development of science and technology

 

Roger Launius
Senior Curator, Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum

Establishing a base on the moon and sending humans on to Mars is something that I'd love to see us do. Becoming a multiplanetary species is what human space flight is all about. If that's not what it's about, I think we need to back off and ask ourselves the question "Why are we doing this?" That's a debate that we've not really had in any serious way. If our objective is to go out and gather scientific data, we have robots that do that very effectively. If our objective is to get off this planet, to become a multiplanetary species, to form colonies on the moon, Mars and other places, then we absolutely, positively must fly individuals. There's no other way to find out. We're not going to establish a colony on Mars if we don't go there and do it.

We have to become a multiplanetary species so that we don't become extinct. Why would we become extinct? There are a number of possibilities. The best-case scenario is that several billion years in the future the sun will become a red giant. We know that's going to happen and it will engulf the earth and anything that's here will be dead. So we have to be elsewhere when that happens. But it's impossible to get members of Congress excited about something that's going to happen several billion years in the future. That's
understandable. There are of course more immediate threats. We could annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons or so foul the environment we can't survive here. You have to ask if spaceflight is the proper way to remedy those, and it probably is not. Do you create a colony on Mars to avoid global warming or do something here to try to resolve global warming? In this case, you try to do something here first. Becoming a multiplanetary species is a tough sell, but it is a certainty that this planet will become uninhabitable one day.

 


Robert L. Park
Physicist, University of Maryland
Author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud

What makes this all so tragic is that I regard space exploration so highly. We already have robotic explorers on Mars. They are doing fine. They never complain about the cold nights. They live on sunshine. You can't do that with humans. We have much better explorers there than we could conceivably imagine putting on Mars if we use humans. What are we after? What are we looking for in space? There is nothing that we can bring back from Mars that would begin to justify the cause of going there. The only thing we can bring back is knowledge, and we can bring knowledge back better with robots. When it comes down to it, we're after adventure. If adventure is that important to the public and they are willing to pay for it, then who am I to object. But it seems to me that in this day and age there are things that are more important to us. I'm not opposed to adventure, but I don't get a big kick out of two or three astronauts getting all the adventure. Let them go bungee jumping or something instead.

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