Monday, February 1, 2010

The Future of Manned Space Travel

Most people who think they know me are going to be surprised by this:

Bravo to President Obama and the administrators at NASA for the new direction they are now taking!

Now, some advice: Take it further!

The manned space program is a waste of time and money.

Hey, I'm a Trekkie. I want to see people in space, but for the time being there's really no good reason to have us there. All we're doing is farting around in low orbit the same way we've been doing for the last half century. We're not really learning anything anything any more. All the great scientific discoveries that NASA has made in that time have been made by unmanned spacecraft.

Sorry. I know I'm bringing down some serious hate on myself, but going into space just for the sake of going into space is a frivolous waste of money.

NASA's concentration needs to focus on exploration and scientific discovery. Technology being what it is just now the best way to do this is to concentrate on development and deployment of unmanned probes. We can't continue to support manned space flight when that same money could launch 10 unmanned probes, especially when each probe will generate far more scientific data. If 90% of unmanned probes failed, crashing into the sun or spinning off into space, the program would still provide more valuable scientific data than an equally financed manned program.

Down the road, as technology improves and space travel becomes safer and cheaper it will also become more practical, but we're a long way from the type of engineering leaps that will make manned space exploration competitive with unmanned probes, or commercial exploitation of extra terrestrial resources practical.

It's possible that these probes may find a reason to send men into space, in which case all bets are off. Even with current technology this there is a resource that would justify the expense of space travel for commercial reasons. Helium 3 is a compound that very likely exists in small amounts throughout the universe, but it can't be found in significant amounts on earth. If a source of He3 could be found just about anywhere in the solar system it would be worth mining at just about any cost. It would be quite literally priceless. Engineers could use it to create a controlled fusion reaction and even a small amount could provide virtually unlimited energy.

There is no other (known) resource in space that justifies the expense of retrieving it, and there is no valid scientific reason to waste valuable resources with manned space flight if there is a cheaper, safer unmanned alternative.