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A Time for Robots to Soar

September 21, 2003

Where Americans think NASA should go after the February explosion of the space shuttle Columbia depends on whether they're Star Trek people or robot people. Trekkies say NASA must not shrink from the poetic challenge of human space exploration, that the inspirational pull can't be measured by money. The robot people point out that unmanned craft do much more science for much less money, that there's sufficient inspiration to be had from probes now heading for Mars and Saturn or the James Webb space telescope, to be deployed in 2010.

At a time when Bush administration tax cuts and Iraq reconstruction have left the nation with a $500-billion deficit, can the U.S. really afford the $100 billion it would take to send humans to Mars? Reality gives robot people the stronger argument in deciding NASA's future.

Both the space shuttle and the international space station, which account for 40% of NASA's budget, are dubious science. As Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physics professor, bluntly said of the Columbia mission, "Nothing was being done on that flight that would have any impact on any field of science."

With China saying it intends to launch its first astronauts into space in weeks, some U.S. legislators want to revive NASA's Cold War raison d'etre: not just going where no man has gone before, but also getting there before the other guy. This month, Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican whose district includes Cape Canaveral, said: "We're losing our edge. We need to do something." He proposes to double the agency's $15.3-billion budget.

Increasing its funding arbitrarily would fail to focus NASA on practical challenges that it neglects in trying to be all things to all people. Key among them: finding better ways to ferry cargo, including humans, into and out of low Earth orbit. That goal may seem unambitious, given that Mercury engineers and astronauts tackled it in the 1960s.

But the humbling truth is this ambition remains an unperfected practical challenge. As Harold Gehman Jr., the retired admiral heading the federal investigation of the Columbia disaster, said this month: "No matter what your visions [are for] interplanetary travel or stations on the moon or whatever ... they all start in low Earth orbit .... And, therefore, we have to perfect" this.

Congress, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) suggests, should first require NASA to perform a detailed study of the costs and benefits of human space flight. This hard-nosed exercise should not quash the grander vision for space or the unimagined opportunities there. Might NASA find, for example, that entrepreneurs would take over programs it micromanages at a cost of billions?

The U.S. was built on a spirit of pushing toward tomorrow's frontier, and the stars still beckon. For now, though, dollars and sense require NASA to focus on finding better ways for machines, first, and humans, later, to "slip the surly bounds of Earth."

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