Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

There And Back Again

There's an interesting op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that the Mars mission should be a one-way trip in order to cut costs. The author rightly points out that this solution is infinitely more cost-effective than trying to return the astronauts home. Radiation shielding, fuel consumption, and other related factors mean that getting people there and back raises the difficulty exponentially. I think he's also correct in pointing out that the difficulties in implementing such a plan would primarily be political and social, rather than logistical.

I think the piece misfires in a couple of places, though. He draws an analogy between such a Mars mission and early explorers of the American continent. The fact that this is probably the most often-used comparison in conversations about the space program doesn't make it any less tenuous. The early colonists may not all have intended to get home someday (many did, assuming they would return in triumph after getting rich), but those that didn't intended to build a new home and a new civilization. No one believes any such possibility exists with Mars in the near-term.

More importantly, his semi-dismissal of the public opinion difficulties with such a plan misses a key point. NOTHING about manned space exploration is practical. There is virtually no scientific task that cannot be performed better and more cheaply by robotic surrogates than by humans. For evidence of this, look no further than Mars. We currently have two brave explorers already doing some incredible science on the red planet. Their names are Spirit and Opportunity. How many manned programs has NASA put together over the years that have exceeded expectations like these little guys? To dismiss the issue of the return trip as a mere public opinion challenge is to ignore the fact that public opinion is really the main point of manned space flight, and will remain so until it becomes cheaper and more practical (i.e. probably never).

The bottom line is that while a mission to, and return from, Mars would be a public triumph, a one-way trip would be a public embarrassment. Sending scientists to do work that could have been done by unmanned devices while tacitly acknowledging that we lack either the will or resources to bring them home safely again would not be a new Apollo program. It would be a stain on an agency struggling to find meaning.