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Rest In Peace, Challenger Crew

January 29, 2006

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in which a shuttle crew was killed and the nation was gifted with another of those iconic images, the enormous sky-burst framed by out-of-control SRB’s.  I was working at Kinko’s at the time, and everyone stopped to watch it happen over and over on television.  It was an awful thing to see.

Later a congressional inquiry board stumbled around the problem, to have their rogue member (Richard Feynman) finally illuminate how the accident took place.  But like all ‘reasons’, it was not the only weak link.  As with many disasters, it turned out to be symptomatic of an organizational malaise resulting from a once-vital agency degenerating into a technical bureaucracy.

As a kid I was seriously pumped by the Gemini and Apollo space programs, and the idea of manned spaceflight in general.  But the Challenger disaster, horrible as it was, got me thinking and comparing.  Not that I have any problem with explorers dying – every explorer knows that risk and takes it willingly – but it was about that time I began to think about the wonders of robotic space probes.

The manned space flight program truly is driven by ‘the romance of it all’.  For a fraction of what it costs to have a few people spinning around the planet in low orbit (doing almost no science at all) we could fund a blizzard of robotic missions to explore everything from Earth’s climate to the solar wind.  Some of that is being done now, but far too little and too close to the budgetary edge.

Our robots will bring back a wealth of scientific knowledge, and likely also cheaply discover the economic rationale for manned space flight in the future. At the same time, spin-off advances in robotics very likely would transform our whole society as earlier spinoffs in electronics did from previous programs. 

Sooner or later, our robots will find something out there we can use to make a profit. (Remember, Columbus was looking for a trade route!) Once profit is found in space flight, the problem won’t be funding it; it will be regulating it.  In the meantime, manned space flight is just another boondoggle.

Not to dishonor those who do go into space, or who died going there.  But… imagine what we could do by putting our energy behind the highest return.  It might even shorten the time until manned spaceflight becomes really common.

Notes:

Federation of American Scientists’ Space Policy Page of Challenger accident links and resources.
University of Maryland Professor of physics Robert Park explains the economics – and the value – of robotic missions

Questions that robotic space missions could help answer include:

  • Is global warming anthropogenic?  To what extent?  What other factors might be involved?

  • Where are all the asteroids?  The comets?  When are any of them likely to collide with Earth?
  • What is the condition of the Yellowstone Caldera? (We might want to keep an eye on this one)
  • How are ocean fish stocks doing?  Are numbers of African elephants rising or falling?  How about other endangered species?
  • Is there life on Mars?  (ironically, sending humans there might make it forever impossible to find out, by contaminating that planet)
  • Why is the climate of Venus so hellish?
  • What is the fate of the universe?  (Yes, this question is scientifically addressable)
  • Are there advanced civilizations “out there”?  (A robotic SETI station on the far side of the moon could be exquisitely sensitive)
  • An Earthquake just happened.  Is a tsunami on the way?
  • Where is deforestation happening that we don’t know about?
  • Where are all the ships?  (tracking them could be very useful in WMD interdiction)
  • Where are the resources in our solar system that might fuel and supply long manned space missions?
  • …and many more.