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Boston Globe February 4, 2003

Should we be up there at all?

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff

Three days after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia and the deaths of its seven crew members, scientists, engineers and politicians are asking the crucial questions: What went wrong? Why didn't anyone see this coming? Could it have been prevented?

But there's another vital question: What were those people doing up there? America spends billions of dollars to send handfuls of brave, brilliant people into a region totally hostile to human life. They go to expand our knowledge of the universe, but critics say that much of the astronauts' work could be accomplished with automated space probes, and the rest probably isn't worth doing. In a time when unmanned satellites can broadcast TV images around the world, and robots can scurry across the surface of Mars, why send people into space?

It's not a question that troubles most Americans. A Gallup poll taken right after Columbia went down showed that 82 percent of Americans want to continue sending people into space. The same poll was taken after the 1986 destruction of the shuttle Challenger, and the result was nearly identical.

But why such devotion to this expensive and sometimes deadly adventure? Ask the aeronautical engineers and space scientists, and while they speak of commercial benefits and scientific breakthroughs, they speak of something else, something oddly nontechnical and deeply human. People will keep on going into space because they're people, beings that hate nothing more than an empty space on a map.

''Exploration is a very basic human function,'' said Bruce Murray, professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and chairman of the Planetary Society. ''I just think that's the way we're built.''

Love of adventure hasn't kept us from launching a stream of unmanned satellites intended for planetary exploration. And no wonder: Robots are cheap. They've scanned and photographed the planets at a fraction of the cost of sending humans on the same voyages.

In 1997, a miniature dune buggy called Sojourner, launched to Mars for a mere $265 million, sent back razor-sharp photos of the planet that astonished the world. This year alone, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will spend $600 million to launch two roving robots toward the surface of Mars, while the agency will go partners with the European Space Agency and the Italian government to fire a $150 million radar-mapping satellite at the red planet. The cost of all these Mars missions added together barely amount to a rounding error, compared to the estimated $400 billion cost of sending people to Mars.

But there'll be nobody on Mars to repair these robot probes if things go wrong. Dava Newman, associate professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said people must go into space to do the jobs robots cannot do. ''It's risky and it's also very costly,'' Newman said, ''but there's just so much humans can do as explorers that we don't have any other way to accomplish.''

To Eric Spina, associate professor of engineering at Syracuse University, manned missions are a political necessity. Spina, who helped design an experiment that flew aboard the doomed shuttle, said that public support of space travel requires humans in the loop. Assign all the missions to robots, he argues, and political backing for the space program would fade to the point where even robots would no longer be launched.

''If you can't captivate the taxpayer, you won't have your priority on the agenda,'' Spina said. ''It is cynical, but that's the way it works.''

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and former director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, justifies sending humans to space in language reminiscent of the Cold War. ''Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin] did not go to the moon for science,'' Pike said. ''Neil and Buzz went to the moon for truth, justice and the American way.''

''Human space flight is a way of demonstrating national greatness. I'm interested in this as a tool of foreign policy.''

Still, for Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, it's the human need for heroes that justifies the vast expense and terrific peril of human space flight. ''I have yet to see anyone give a ticker-tape parade for a robot,'' he said. ''Even if you can't recite the names of the last 30 astronauts who went into orbit, every one of them is a hero in his hometown.''

Even staunch critics of the human space program aren't entirely averse to launching people into orbit. ''There's nothing wrong with sending people into space,'' said Duke University history professor Alex Roland, ''but we don't have a very good way to do it.''

Roland served as an official historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the 1970s and early 1980s, and was present during the creation of the space shuttle. Roland said it soon became clear that the system would never be cheaper or more reliable than the throwaway rockets it replaced. ''What you saved in materials costs by not throwing away the vehicle,'' he said, ''you lost in maintenance costs.''

Worse yet, Roland said, NASA used the shuttles to carry out scientific research of limited value. Most of the useful stuff could have been done in other ways; the rest was literally a waste of space. ''I liken what we're doing right now in space to the barnstorming era in aviation. We learned how to fly and we were so intoxicated by the excitement of it that we just flew a lot. But we don't have anything to do up there.''

Roland said it's time to shut down the shuttles and get to work on a new kind of disposable spacecraft. It could be flown as an unmanned rocket for launching satellites, or with the addition of a modular crew capsule, could launch people into orbit. ''We need more efficient ways to get into space,'' he said.

Bruce Murray of the California Institute of Technology agrees with Roland's case against the shuttle. He said that the system was a good idea as an experimental craft, but it could never have lived up to NASA's vision of a cheap, reusable space vehicle. ''I think the space plane is a false dream.'' Instead, he favors the Russian approach, relying on a standardized single-use space capsule that can be mass-produced at a relatively low price. ''That's how you get reliability up and costs down,'' Murray said.

He would get no argument from Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X-Prize Foundation, a St. Louis organization that will award $10 million to the first privately funded group that launches a three-person craft into space, brings it safely back, then does it again with the same craft in two weeks. The idea is to provide a financial incentive for aerospace companies to invent low-cost ways of getting people into space.

It's not an original idea. In the 18th century, Britain's Royal Society used a cash prize to spur the invention of the first clock to keep accurate time on a ship at sea. This enabled navigators to accurately calculate the ship's longitude, making ocean travel far safer. Maryniak said he figures the same incentive might finally result in a cheap space rocket. And he's convinced such a ship will have no shortage of passengers. ''Pretty much seven out of 10 people in the developed world, in survey after survey after survey, say that if they could buy a ticket to ride into space, they'd buy one,'' Maryniak said. ''People are not as risk-averse as modern folklore would have you believe.''

Besides, statistics show that the risk posed by human space travel is less dramatic than it seems. The United States has sent 786 people into space since 1961; 14 of them have died in the process. If you add the crew of Apollo 1, killed on the launch pad during a training exercise, the number rises to 17. That's a fatality rate of a little more than 2 percent. Compare that to Magellan's trip around the world during the 16th century. About 250 men departed Spain with Magellan; 18 made it home, and Magellan was not one of them. By that standard, the human exploration of space so far has been remarkably free of tragedy.

Still, there's no question that others will die in space, or on the trip to space or the way back. They will die because they will insist on going. It's what humans do.

Doug Belkin of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent David Chandler contributed to this report. Hiawatha Bray can be reached by e-mail at hbray@globe.com.


Copyright 2003, Boston Globe