- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

As I read the plans to bring back rock samples from Mars and build bases on the moon, a few questions come to mind.

First, how much do we really want to know about other planets and heavenly bodies?

As an extreme example, take Phobos, the moon of Mars. Phobos is a large rock. Photos at reasonable resolution are clearly of scientific value, as would be determination of the type of rock. Beyond that, what is worth knowing? It”s a rock.

Just as clearly, we are far from knowing all that is worth knowing about Mars, Saturn, etc. Since unmanned exploration is both effective and cheap, finding the point of diminishing returns is not of immediate importance.

Second, what could possibly be the advantage of permanent bases off this planet, particularly a lunar base?

Such a base would immensely increase the national prestige of the country building it — and just as immensely decrease its supply of money. The moon also is a large rock, if more complicated than Phobos. Nobody has bothered to go there for 40 years. It can easily be studied by unmanned probes.

A Mars base would be absolutely phenomenally expensive, as well as dangerous.

Third, why is returning samples of Martian rock particularly desirable?

It would be very pricey and, despite NASA’s improvements, likely to fail. But suppose it worked. So what?

It would be far faster, cheaper and safer to build a rover, a la Spirit and Opportunity, to scoop up samples and analyze them on-planet. Technology advances rapidly. Unless NASA deliberately didn”t develop the on-planet analyzer, the sample-return mission”s job already would have been done by the time it got to Mars.

Fourth, is there any longer any point to manned exploration at all?

Here it is worth reflecting on how we got to where we are. When the Russians orbited Sputnik in 1957, America besting them in space came to be seen a a national priority. The successful moon landings beginning 12 years later were perhaps the most astonishing technological feat on record.

But they were not done chiefly for reasons of lunar research. It was to win the race with the Russians and, I suspect, because we just found the idea fascinating.

Today’s public seems to have little interest in the International Space Station, which creeps along ever so slowly. And nobody gives a convincing rationale for putting money into it instead of, say, planetary probes.

Meanwhile the unmanned probes have become stunningly effective — and that with antiquated technology.

“Antiquated?” you ask. Yes.

A major probe takes years to design and build. At some point you have to “freeze the technology,” instead of constantly tearing out the electronics to replace them with something better. By the time it is launched and spends perhaps years getting to where it is going, it is in many respects obsolete. Think how much computers advance in five years. So with unmanned probes we can do much better than we have done, which has been very good indeed.

My point in all of this is that it is probably a good idea to have a deliberate and reasoned plan for the exploration of space, rather than to continue on our current course through a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the desires of what might be called the “space-industrial complex.”

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