Why send people?

 I get puzzled by many things, and this is a question that I’ve never really quite fathomed.  It goes like this.  Given the success of the unmanned space probes, such as the twin rovers on Mars, or Cassini and Hugens at Saturn and Titan, or the Hubble Space Telescope, what is the point of sending people into space?  People are more expensive, and can’t we get enough science just from our unmanned probes which cost a fraction of a human crewed system?

Well, yes, unmanned spaceships are less expensive, and certainly they have been marvelously successful, but I’m not sure why that means we shouldn’t be sending people out there, too. 

Tell me, do you really think that robots are the equal of humans, with the same abilities of humans?  Can we replace you at your job with a machine and will you agree that it’s a good bargain because the machine won’t get sick, or expect to get paid or take a vacation?

Don’t you imagine then, that a human being on Mars might be a bit more versatile and a bit more valuable than a small wheeled vehicle that can travel only a few dozen feet a day?  Not to denigrate the robot, but why do so many seem so pleased to denigrate human capabilities?

Humans are a bit more adept than machines, and more easily adapt themselves to the unexpected.  And even with our machines that we send into space, they are hardly entirely autonomous.  they require a lot of careful handling by a team of scientists back on earth, who work feverishly night and day to try to keep things working, who not infrequently have to try to puzzle out what might have gone wrong a hundred million miles away and hope that their radioed commands will save the day.  If there were people on the other end, it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult.

I love computers and use them every day; but I’m painfully aware of their limitations.  When I search my hard drive or the web for a specific file, I’ve got to be very careful about how I word my request and how I spell everything.  Otherwise, I am certain not to get what I’m looking for.  How intelligent is your computer at home, after all?  Do you really want to leave the exploration of the universe up to things that take everything literally, and have no sense of metaphor, who can’t puzzle out what I mean when I don’t say it just right?

Ad Astra, an advocacy group for human space flight, made a list recently of reasons why humans should be traveling in space, and that we shouldn’t just leave it to our machines.  One of the things they pointed out was that sending one’s camera to the Grand Canyon does not a vacation or an expedition make. 

Why go to watch the Superbowl in person?  Isn’t seeing it on TV just as good, or even better than being there in person?  Why would you be excited if you won free tickets to see the game?  If you went to the game in person, you’d have to sit on hard benches, sit in the sun or cold or rain, struggle with parking, pay an arm and a leg for bad food and tiny drinks, and have to put up with the noise of a stadium filled with people, squinting down at the tiny figures on the field far below.  Just stay home, where you can stretch out comfortably on your nice soft couch, with close up views, and instant replay.

Chances are, if only R2D2 were in the movie, you wouldn’t have had much interest in seeing Star Wars.  And of course, so far at least, robots are not very gifted when it comes to poetry.  It is, quite frankly, not quite as stirring to watch R2D2 stride across an alien landscape.  Our memories of Neil Armstrong taking that first small step should be enough to remind us that there is much more to exploration and space travel than just the science, anyhow.

And if all the people who have already signed up to ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is any indication, most of us would jump at a chance to go into space ourselves.  Virtual reality and video games and movies and TV are fine, but we’d really like to go there ourselves.