America In Space: Should Man Be There Too? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture How should we go about exploring space in the future? With manned or robotic flights? Should this be an American or an international initiative?
NPR logo America In Space: Should Man Be There Too?

America In Space: Should Man Be There Too?

Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. NASA hide caption

toggle caption

Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.


I was 10 years old on July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and solemnly said: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (Here is a transcript of the Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal, with commentary.)

The words were supposed to mark the beginning of a new era of exploration as we extended our presence beyond the confines of our home planet, not unlike what had happened here on Earth a few centuries earlier as we began to travel more freely and fully explore our own planet.

Fast forward to 2011. Much has changed. We don't have a lunar base and, in fact, haven't stepped back on the Moon in almost 40 years. Manned space flight is prohibitively expensive and, of course, risky. There are also serious technological challenges. However, President Obama believes we should keep on sending humans to space, as he made clear in a speech delivered in April at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center:

Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. (Applause.) And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. (Applause.) So we'll start — we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. (Applause.) By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it. (Applause.)

But I want to repeat — I want to repeat this: Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we'll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that's what you've always done. (Applause.)

Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We've been there before. Buzz has been there. There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it's more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach — and operate at — a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that's what this strategy does. And that's how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last. (Applause.)

So, according to this plan, it's to Mars and to asteroids that we will go next. To people of my generation, manned missions have an irresistible appeal. To hold us back here is to hold back our destiny. I am not sure what the younger generation thinks, the people who grew up with the space shuttle, the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. I'm sure many will say that we've done the moon and it's time to move on to new and bigger dreams. The question is, what dreams are those?

Many politicians in Washington want to make sure that the space program remains strong and active so that the aerospace industry can keep on generating jobs and income for their constituents. The livelihood of thousands of people depends on it.

Then you have the aforementioned appeal of going where no one has gone before, spreading our presence in the cosmos, perhaps fulfilling our evolutionary destiny. (Are we the ones to spread intelligent life across the cosmos?)

You also have the scientists, who tend to prefer cheaper, robotic missions in large numbers to attend the needs of many research areas.

Finally, you have the privatization of space exploration and the possibility that other nations will (and some already are) aggressively pursue their economic interests in the cosmos. We don't want to be left behind in either the economic or the scientific space race.

So, there are many hands pulling at the space exploration tug of war.

From a scientific perspective, if we want to balance the benefits of space exploration with costs, unmanned missions are more effective. While it is true that an astronaut on Mars could have done more efficiently the same work performed by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the reality is that — in the short term — we don't have the resources to send a human there. We don't know how to shield humans against radiation or deal with the unavoidable muscular and bone decay that our bodies suffer in prolonged space flights. We need, as President Obama mentioned in his speech, more efficient propulsion mechanisms that will allow us to undertake longer and more ambitious exploratory trips into "deep space."

More than any of that, however, we need a united front in order to do any of these things.

It's distressful to think that we can only succeed at overcoming barriers when under competitive pressure. That was the case with the Cold War push for going to the moon. Perhaps we can learn from what happened with high energy physics, where the high costs of experiments have forced scientists from dozens of countries to work together in a single research center.

Who remembers the painful demise of the Superconducting Super Collider, the SSC, which was shut down by the United States government after having spent over $1 billion of its initial budget? I believe it's time to adopt a less nationalistic and more international approach to space exploration. The International Space Station is a prototype of this kind of initiative, and lessons can be learned from it as well.

As the world unites to create a truly functioning and funded International Space Agency, possibly all different aspects of the space exploration could be pursued in a collaborative basis, as opposed to being based solely on national interests or patriotic reasons.

(There is an International Space Agency, but when I tried getting into their Web site, all I got was a robotic female voice repeating the same sentence: "Please stand by the international space agency secure public web site is now loading, thank you.")

As we leave our home here on Earth to explore the seemingly boundless possibilities of space, we leave as a species and not as a country.