Our Place In Space

I wrote earlier today about the setback for Rover Opportunity. It is stuck in some sand as it scoots around the surface of Mars. It has now been operating nearly a year beyond its expected Martian lifetime. It owes us nothing at this point.

Those in charge feel confident it will extricate itself. Good luck. I hope they’re right.

Also today, NASA announced they were pushing back the next launch of the space shuttle. What was scheduled for May will now go off during the summer.

The problem relates to ice. Much of the propellant for the shuttle is incredibly cold and any exposed area of its plumbing or tanks will cause ice to form, even on a warm Florida day. If the ice breaks off… Well, you remember what happened on the last shuttle flight.

The shuttle program started in the early 70s. It was a good idea at the time, but 30+ years later, it’s obvious we need to go a new way.

The shuttle is bulky, expensive, labor intensive and extremely dangerous. Close your eyes for a second and think how your car differs from the one you drove in the 1970s. We are flying a 1970s shuttle fleet.

The shuttle program was predicated on many promises, such as advances in pharmaceuticals, metallurgy and the like. In reality, shuttle related progress in those field has been minimal.

Certainly there have been benefits, like communications satellites, integrated circuits and computer chips. Today, it seems like the shuttle is without a real mission. The International Space Station, one of the reasons for continuing shuttle flights, is doing less than the shuttle did!

On the other hand, our two robotic Martian missions have been astounding successes. They have lasted longer than expected&#185. More importantly, they are doing real science on a real mission.

We can take chances… even get stuck in the Martian sand, because no lives are at risk.

We are using robotics more and more to replace humans, especially in dangerous situations. Unmanned drone airplanes fly recon over Iraq (and probably other places our military doesn’t admit to). Even portions of the New York City subway system are scheduled to be operated robotically.

The state-of-the-art in robotics is well beyond anything imagined in the early 70s. Yes, NASA gets some credit for that. But now it’s time to take advantage of that technological edge and move our space program into the 21st Century.

There might be a time in the future when men, again, will be necessary for space exploration. They aren’t now. Another space disaster would be devastating to our nation. Along with the human toll, that bit of national vanity must be considered.

It’s time to ditch the shuttle and start flying smarter.

&#185 – I suspect, based on past experience, that NASA timelines are always conservative, making every success look that more successful.

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