Humans or Robots?

No, it’s not the title of a cheesy movie; it’s a real-life battle.  And whether or not you care about space and science, they’re using your money to pay for it, so you might want to have a say in how your money is being spent. Since the U.S. space shuttle program was retired in 2011, this is the first time in decades that the U.S. has not had its own manned space program running.  Both the previous and current U.S. presidents and scientific leaders have made bold speeches regarding what the future holds for the U.S's space program. However, manned space programs are many times more expensive than unmanned programs. The crux of the issue is this: with our bad economy, the national budget is being cut in many places, and the space program is one of them. The proponents of manned programs argue that despite the higher costs, manned programs are worth the extra cost because they attract the attention and spirit of the public; that these manned missions to the moon and/or Mars should be undertaken because they capture the essence of mankind's nature to explore the unknown; that by pushing out into space, we are exploring the final frontiers, the last places that humans have yet to go.

Most current SMC students were not around when the space race to the moon was in full swing. But the general feeling of the time period can be easily gleaned from history. Looking at speeches and newsreels from that era, it was clear that there was a kind of unifying excitement about our nation boldly going where no humans had ever gone before. Experts agree that a present day manned mission to Mars would garner the same kind of fascination, and almost everyone in the scientific community would like to see such a fantastic human endeavor. But the divergence of opinion arises on the questions of: Can we afford such a mission right now? And if not now, when?

“It’s good to have ambitious plans for manned space exploration to keep the public interested in the spirit of scientific discovery,” says Dr. Gary Fouts, an SMC Astronomy Professor and advisor to SMC’s Astronomy Club. “However, considering our current budget, we should focus on unmanned space probes right now, which can gather the same scientific data for a fraction of the cost of manned missions.” Despite this, the importance of manned missions was also stressed.  “We should not give up on manned space exploration, but rather plan for it in the future when we can afford to do it properly.  It’s good for the public to have something exciting to look forward to in terms of space exploration.”

It’s clear that as humans, our natural curiosity will eventually propel us to send people to Mars and beyond. But realistically, we can’t afford it right now. Instead, we could be sending robotic space probes to determine if there is life on other worlds in our Solar System. Such an amazing discovery is within our grasp if we commit to doing it. So the sensible route would be, “Robots now, humans later.”  When we’re no longer dealing with a budget crisis, then we can once again start sending humans to explore the final frontier of outer space.