POSTED FEB 13, 2003
Crash and burn
The Columbia crash reminds us that space travel is not yet routine, easy, cheap or safe. With seven more astronauts dead, an old question is resurrected. If we want to do space science, aren't robots faster, cheaper and safer than people? In asking, we mean no disrespect to the brave people who ride rockets into space. Nor do we presume that people have no place whatsoever in space. Some jobs, like upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope or exploring the physiological effects of space travel, require people in space. But sending people into space is risky, and hugely expensive, and many of the 88 research projects on Columbia were largely automated anyway.
With a great deal of space science already being done without a human presence, Columbia's crash cast a cold light on problems at the core of the manned space program. The International Space Station, supposed to be the pride of NASA's fleet, is half-built, short on cash, and dependent on shuttles simply to stay in orbit. As NASA scrambles to feed the space station's insatiable appetite for money, many science projects have been delayed or cancelled.
NASA's numerous nightmares
The three surviving shuttles, built with 1970s designs and materials, are 20 years old. For years, agency critics have cautioned that shuttle safety was being compromised because too little was being spent on upgrades. Now, all shuttles are grounded until investigators figure out what went wrong with Columbia.
A replacement shuttle, using new and presumably safer materials and technologies, is at least five years - or more likely a decade -- away, at a cost that hasn't been estimated.
After the 1986 Challenger explosion, NASA waited more than two years before returning to space. Today, waiting could be dangerous in its own right. While Russian rockets can resupply the International Space Station (ISS), without a yearly nudge from the shuttle, the hyper-expensive orbiting platform will crash and burn in the atmosphere, scorching uncounted billions and torching the painfully assembled international consortium that sponsors the station.
Cheaper by the robot
The argument for using robots is easily made. Already, many space experiments are largely automatic, and most of the real benefits of space - in weather, communications and astronomy, require no human presence.
Obviously the risks are infinitely less. When Mars Polar Lander missed the Red Planet (Oops!) and disappeared into the solar system in 1999, for example, NASA lost money and face, but no lives.
With a decent interval having passed since Columbia's demise, the venerable debate over astronaut versus robot is returning. As robots get smarter, we wonder:
Should we trust space robots?
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.