- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

I don't get it. The International Space Station slowly grows toward completion, costing lots of money, almost ignored by the media, generating no detectable interest in the public.Heretical questions: Why are we doing it? What's it for? For that matter, why do we do unmanned planetary probes?
I know.I'm going to get lots of angry letters. Maybe I'm wrong. But I'll ask the questions anyway. The usual answers are that we need the space station because:
We are going to manufacture exotic crystals and compounds in space that can't be manufactured in Earth's gravity. Are we? The fantastic cost of putting machinery and raw materials into orbit creates a powerful economic incentive to find ways to do things on the ground. If manufacture in space isn't wildly impractical, I'd like to see the numbers i.e., actual costs, using honest figures, including the cost of the space shuttle, its support infrastructure, personnel costs, and so on. What commercial companies have plans to engage in unsubsidized manufacture in space?
We can do all sorts of magical science that we can't do on Earth. Really? Yes, it's interesting to see how tissues grow in microgravity and how spiders spin webs when they don't know which way down is.What have we actually gotten from these experiments that justifies the expense? One easily gets the impression that the science is pretty lightweight, that being in space is the real goal and that the experiments are tacked on to give a sense of legitimacy. Am I wrong? Show me how.
If funding for research were infinite, there would be no objection. But it isn't. A buck spent on keeping Bob and Ivan in space is a buck not spent on something else. Is this the best use of the research dollar?
People in space can do things that unmanned satellites can't. What? Can they do enough things sufficiently better to justify the cost of maintaining a space station? A lot of first-rate astronomy and so on have come out of the space program, but mostly from unmanned birds the Hubble Space Telescope, the planetary probes, and so on. Why send people except for the sake of having people in space?
The space station is a step toward Mars. Oh. Why do we want to go to Mars? The underlying answer seems to be that it would be a really neat thing to do, an adventure. Agreed. If a Martian expedition were sold honestly as sheer fun and an appeal to the exploratory spirit, and people still thought it worth doing, I'd say fine. Yet the cost would be fantastic.We don't have better uses for the money?
One may also ask about the value of unmanned space probes. How much knowledge is enough? Mapping Mars, photographing Io, taking a close look at Saturn are, to me at any rate, fascinating and entirely worth doing.
But to what extent? If you map a planet at, say, three-meter resolution, you learn a lot about its geography. If you then send a better probe and map it at one meter, or 10 centimeters, you're just taking a better picture of rocks.So what? Rocks are rocks. We have them here. Having a fair knowledge of the chemical composition of Martian soil is interesting mildly interesting. At what point does more detail cease to be productive?
I don't suggest that we have reached the point of exhaustion. I'd like to know a lot more about, say, Jupiter. But not an infinite amount more.
A skeptic might suspect that the space program exists because building the space station, and then going to Mars, will employ a lot of engineers and scientists who have built their careers on the space program, and whose chldren need to go to college.
I was a child in 1957 when Sputnik went up. My father, a mathematician, saw his salary increase greatly as the United States put together the lunar-landing project. In 1969, we got to the moon. A huge and proficient organization suddenly had nothing to do, yet still had mortgages. How to stay employed? The answer came: Build a space ship. Consequently we got the space shuttle, sold not-quite-honestly as a cheap way to orbit. The shuttle is getting old. What now? Answer: Build a space station.
Governmental entities are not good at dying, and everyone needs an income. The space program was highly successful, but I wonder whether much of it doesn't keep on going just because it keeps on going, independent of real purpose.

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