- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

I think NASA has just taken another long step toward killing off manned exploration of space. Good thing, too, maybe.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (https://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mro/overview/) has successfully gone into orbit around the planet after a seven-month journey.

To get into orbit, it had to fire its engines for exactly the right amount of time (27 minutes), putting it into a not-very-useful elliptical orbit. It will spend the next seven months dipping into the Martian atmosphere to slow itself down and getting into a nice almost circular orbit.

This doesn’t sound very exciting, but it is truly sophisticated driving at that distance. It worked, and that’s why there probably won’t be manned missions to Mars.

This is the pattern. Every probe is more sophisticated and does more. The MRO carries a wide variety of cameras and instruments including Hirise (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). The latter will photograph the planet at 1 meter resolution. Other instruments will look for water and so on.

After a couple of years of this, it will devote time to relaying data from future probes, such as the Mars Science Laboratory rover scheduled for launch in 2009.

Think about this. Not only do we have multiple successful spacecraft in several places at once (Cassini around Saturn, Spirit and Opportunity crawling about Mars long after they were supposed to be dead, Galileo at Jupiter until recently, the European Mars Express at Mars, and so on). We are now technologically confident enough to leave one in orbit to help another that hasn’t been launched yet.

Now: One of MRO’s goals, says NASA, is to “prepare for human exploration.” This, like looking for life, is a ritual justification for sending probes everywhere. But why humans?

The unmanned probes are getting so good, so fast, that it’s hard to see what would be gained by sending people. What could they do that couldn’t be done decades sooner and enormously cheaper by unmanned vehicle?

Bring back samples? Again, why? Rocks are rocks. By the time people get there, crawler-probes will long since have analyzed anything that needs analyzing. Look for fossils? Crawlers with drills and microscopes will have done it long before people get there. If they do.

NASA and others talk about manned exploration, maybe because it attracts funding and keeps the public interested. But if you look at what’s happening, we have a space shuttle bordering on antiquity, and no very believable replacement on line. At any rate the new vehicle would just get to Earth orbit. Getting people to another planet and back alive would make World War II look cheap.

And for what? To say we did it? Although the NASA Web sites still talk about manned missions to Mars, I note that nobody is actually doing much about the idea, and the public doesn’t seem to care.

How many people know what ISS stands for? The International Space Station, that also was supposed to be a step toward visiting Mars. Now it’s just another semiorphaned high-tech program like the F-22 fighter plane.

NASA is calling the Hirise camera “the people’s camera.” From the Hirise site, “Anyone may submit suggested image target … Public suggestions will be filtered to minimize duplication and frivolous input.”

You don’t need to send people to do the science and, with public participation yet, we can all take part over the Internet.

The probes have won.

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