Jeffrey Marlow in Wired reports on the question posed by the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board: “What good is human spaceflight?” And they want our answers. They are preparing a report to “review the long-term goals, core capabilities, and direction of the U.S. human spaceflight program.” Our responses must be no more than four pages, and they issue three guidelines covering the benefits and the challenges, and what might happen if the US abandoned manned spaceflight. I’m not going to enter a formal submission, though please feel free to do so. I am, however, entirely happy to set out my own reasons on why I think manned spaceflight is a good idea.
Obviously unmanned missions cost less and can achieve magnificent results. Our knowledge of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn derives from the Voyager, Cassini and Galileo missions, and the photos are breathtaking. The Mars rovers illustrate what we can do and learn without sending humans there. But there is more. We want humans in space and on the moon and planets because it is thrilling that our species can do this, and because we think it might be an important part of its future. It is harder to send people than machines, but we identify with people and we think that if brave explorers venture there now, our children might follow later. Ultimately some of us think that this is an important step in the story of our species. Our ancestors crawled from the primeval sea. Twelve thousand years after cavemen left their caves they left their footprints on the moon. Those of us who were weaned on science fiction want humanity to be a space-faring species. As we once roamed the seas on voyages of discovery, now we want our descendants to journey to the edges of infinity, and even to the dark spaces between the stars.
I won’t be putting in a submission because for me it isn’t really about benefits and challenges, or whether American or Chinese astronauts will be part of it. It is part of the limitless ambition I have for my species. I have on my wall a huge block-mounted photo of the blue and white Earth seen from space. It is my favourite planet, but our descendants may think otherwise.
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