Sunday, July 27, 2008


The Economist this week has an article on NASA, currently celebrating its 50th year of operation. NASA's program of unmanned scientific space probes have, literally, "pushed back the frontiers of human understanding."
At the moment, about a third of the agency’s $17 billion budget is spent on unmanned science. There are the missions to Mars and other planets. There are the less spectacular but more vital observations of the Earth from orbit in search of answers to questions about climate, weather and geology. There is the examination of the sun. And there is the scanning of the universe with orbiting telescopes that range across the spectrum and can see almost as far back as the Big Bang itself. If you believe that pure science is a public good that deserves to be paid for out of taxes, most of this is money well spent.

The remaining two-thirds of the budget, however, is consumed by manned space flight—in other words, the shuttle and the space station. The agency often refers to this as “space exploration” but in truth both shuttles and the space station are barely out of the atmosphere. The real exploration of space is being done by the unmanned missions.

The result is a tension between the “manned” and “unmanned” sides of the organisation. There are those in each camp who see little value in the work of the other. In particular, many of the scientists reckon that a lot more useful stuff could be done in space if the manned budget were spent on robot probes. Dr Griffin, however, believes this is naive. He says that without the human-exploration side, the science side would be “a mere shadow of itself today”.
Comment: Count me among those who would see more money spent on science and less on manned space flight. JAD

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