With the Space Shuttle’s return to space delayed – not wholly surprisingly – the people who would like to see manned exploration put on the back-burner (probably for a couple of decades if they’re honest) are naturally taking the chance to give it another kick. But they’re wrong.
As a species we can technically and financially perform manned and unmanned exploration, but if push comes to shove then the manned part is non-negotiable. Why’s that? It’s because of the kind of entity that we are. Our whole experience of life occurs through or in our minds, and apparently in our brains - according to your favoured theory of perception. We can’t all go into space (at least those of us here today can’t), so we need someone to go, “feel” what it’s like, and tell the rest of us.
Knowing that the dust is brown, the temperature is minus 132, and the wind blows at 112 knots is just not the same. I read here http://www.ghg.net/redflame/whyhuman.htm that James van Allen of Van Allen belts fame wrote: “But the application of the Columbus analogy to support advocacy of a manned mission to Mars is massively deceitful. Mars is not terra incognita. We have already explored it and found it to be far more desolate and sterile than the heart of the Sahara desert.”
I think Van Allen is wrong (Columbus bores please don’t bother responding.) The Oxford Dictionary (Pocket version – I’m only a journalist remember) defines desolate as: left-alone, solitary, deserted, uninhabited, barren, dismal, forlorn, wretched. I suppose the first four apply to places, the last two to people, and dismal is somewhere in between. It’s not clear what Van Allen means by desolate here, but I’d suggest he’s being subjective and that, despite mountains of data, neither he, me nor you know what it’s like on Mars. I’d love to talk to someone who had been there (or better still, go myself.)
I’m second to no-one in my advocacy of the science, but in space of all places science that the world cannot connect to is of enormously questionable value. There are serious problems to solve using this science, ultimately where our descendants are going to live if it’s not on Earth. But in the intervening centuries astronauts are our eyes, ears and other senses in space. And in fact they should be selected at least partly on their ability to fulfill that role.