Once again, in July 2005, NASA
successfully launched a shuttle into space. It was the agency’s first since another one had disintegrated upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. As concerns remain about the safety of the shuttles, debate continues apace about the wisdom of sending human beings–as opposed to robots–into space.
Ever since the U.S. began its manned space program, there have been occasional disasters, in the air and on the ground. Early on, three astronauts lost their lives in a fire in their craft before they ever lifted off. And an entire flight crew perished when the Challenger exploded in the 1980s. The Columbia disaster mirrored that event when its crew died when that craft burned up as it attempted to reenter the earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
Over a dozen lives lost. To what avail? That question continues to haunt the space program to this day.
(Of course, the United States is not the only country to have undertaken a manned space program. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was actively engaged in sending cosmonauts into space. And today, China is advancing its efforts to send humans into space. Given the secretive nature of the now defunct Soviet Union, there are no reliable data about disasters it may have encountered during its space program efforts. What’s more, the Chinese would likely be as unforthcoming as the Soviets were. Thus, we have no way of knowing just how many humans have actually lost their lives as a result of all attempts to travel in outer space.)
In an age when technological innovations are taking place faster and faster, producing (among other things) increasingly sophisticated robots, why does NASA still persist in sending humans into space?
From the perspective of safety concerns, robots win hands down over humans. As inanimate objects, they are free of the baggage which humans carry with them when they journey into space. Robots have no families (as such) to grieve their loss, should they not come back. Neither do they need nutritional sustenance in flight, nor oxygen, nor a veritable thousand and one other supports which humans do.
Further, if the primary purpose of going into space is exploration, robots are better able to do it than humans. Consider the immensity of space, the distances needed to travel in order to reach another moon, planet, star, and/or galaxy. In comparison with such immense distances, the average longevity of human life (i.e. 75 years) means nothing. Distances in space are measured in light years (i.e. the distance that light can cover in a year).
Few people pay attention to the fact that the light that they see at night when they look at the stars is reaching them after a journey of thousands of years. In fact, that light represents where the star was (then), not where it actually is now.
As if safety concerns and immense distances weren’t enough to indicate that robots, and not humans, should be going into space, there’s also the mundane concern about money. NASA does not have unlimited funds. It could do far more wtih what it has, if it were designing and operating spacecraft to carry machines instead of humans.
Shortly after the July 2005 shuttle launch, NASA once again declared a halt to the shuttle program. It was concerned with images of flying debris striking portions of the craft during the launch.
If robots were aboard, instead of humans, it would not have to be so fearful about the prospects of the shuttle being able to return safely to Earth.