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Space travel: adventure or science?

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss is still ready to jump at the first opportunity to fly into space, but today he realizes that it will be for the sake of adventure and not for the sake of science. It is cheaper and more profitable, he claims, to send robots there and stay here on Earth, in order to deal with more important challenges - such as global warming / Opinion

SUV in one of the Apollo missions. An expensive task?
SUV in one of the Apollo missions. An expensive task?
By: Lawrence M. Krause *

In 2009 we mark the anniversary of two milestones in space exploration. One, the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on July 20, 1969, which symbolized an impressive technological achievement. The other, the full premiere of Stanley Kubrick's excellent film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a vivid visual adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's vision of humans fearlessly roaming the solar system and beyond.

In the flurry of reports dealing with the subject, there were many who spoke of the striking differences between reality - man has not returned to the moon since the last visit in December 1972 - and Clark's vision. Articles also questioned whether the American nation is committed enough to devote the roughly $200 billion needed to return to the moon in 10 years, and perhaps, after that, spend more money to send humans to Mars.

The 1969 moon landing fascinated me when I was 15. I drew all the Apollo missions, built models and dreamed of being the first Canadian astronaut. Mankind's travels in space promised to move science forward. But I have since changed my mind about the proper role of manned space exploration.

I'll still jump at the first chance to fly into space. But I realize now, as I testified in Congress almost 10 years ago (coincidence brought me there along with Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11) that it will be for the sake of adventure and not for the advancement of science. The most fascinating and meaningful scientific knowledge we can obtain about the universe and the solar system will involve unmanned spacecraft, robotic installations, and much less money than is needed to send humans out of Earth orbit.

It turned out that manned space flight is terribly expensive and much more dangerous than we thought after the success of the Apollo program. What's more, the difficulties involved are much bleaker than the science fiction movies and TV shows suggest. We have not been left behind because of our inability to fly with spaceship propulsion, although the price of fuel is one of the reasons why unmanned flights are much cheaper - manned missions must carry with them all the aids necessary to preserve human life. The main obstacle to visiting Mars is cosmic radiation. It is likely that during the 18-month round trip the astronauts will absorb a lethal dose of radiation.

Our final destination may be the stars, but the limitations imposed on us by the physics and biology of our bodies suggest that this future will probably be the lot of our mechanical descendants, robots, or perhaps computers that can reboot biological life somewhere far away.

But in the near term we still long for adventure, and it seems difficult to resist the desire to go on a journey and maybe even colonize the moon and even Mars, despite the daunting financial cost. For this reason I am not opposed to sending humans into space (and would even encourage considering one-way missions, which would ultimately be more financially feasible).

But we must separate funding for scientific purposes from expensive investment in a manned space program. We also need to stop spending huge sums on nonsense like the International Space Station, which, for the $100 billion it cost to build, was supposed to provide useful science in addition to experimenting with long-term human stays more than 300 kilometers above the Earth.

The Apollo program taught us that we are capable of overcoming enormous technological problems if the nation is willing to focus on it, throughout the time required to solve the problems and invest enormous resources. Today we are faced with many such challenges, from climate change to energy independence, which we must solve at the same time as having fun quenching our hunger for space travel.

I don't think this is a zero sum game. There may be enough money to do everything: send humans into space, do the best basic science and also deal with the burning problems on Earth. But we can only do this if we are honest about the possible cost and benefit of science to humanity. And we must not pretend that a permanent base on the moon or Mars is the panacea for even one of our severe problems here at home.

* Lawrence M. Kraus - theoretical physicist, commentator and book writer - is a founding professor and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. The article was published in the magazine "Scientific American - Israel" published by Ort

7 תגובות

  1. Valencia, thanks for the comment, although in the original Krauss didn't exactly use Buster's words, so I'm not sure he meant to quote, your suggestion is better than our translation...
    Sincerely, Eitan, Scientific-Operational Editor, Scientific American Israel

  2. Translation note:

    "Our final destination may be the stars,"
    I would translate as "our face may be headed for the stars,"

    Because the author seems to be referring to the title of the book "Facing the Stars". This is based on a guess from what is written in Hebrew and other references in the text to popular science fiction, I do not know what the source looks like and if the resemblance to the name of the book exists in it.

  3. Valery, you are right, that fiscay lives in his little bubble. Without risks we won't get anywhere and as for other problems we don't have such poor and hungry people as there always have been and always will be. Man can do anything only if there is enough will.

  4. Exactly and how will we go to buy food from the shopping mall that will be built there on foot?
    That's what cars are for.

  5. This is a claim made many years ago by Robert Perak.
    In 1997 he testified about this before the Congress - as described in his book
    Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud
    first released in 2000

    Of course, these claims are relevant to a situation where we are only exploring space and developing technology that is not designed to support human life in space.
    If at some point we want to allow ourselves to "move" there will be no escape from flying people either.

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