The end of the U.S. shuttle program has prompted much hand-wringing about the future of American manned space flight. This is understandable given that so much political prestige is attached to sending humans into space. Countries capable of doing so are literally looked up to by the rest of the world.
Lost in all the fretting about the end of the shuttle program is the unprecedented exploration of our solar system that is advancing on a daily basis. How many noticed that NASA launched the Juno probe just last week (Aug. 5) to return to mysterious Jupiter? It has been 16 years since NASA’s Galileo first orbited the giant gas ball. Now, we are going back with Juno’s far more sensitive instruments in an attempt to find the origins of our solar system.
Closer to home, the “little train that could” called the “Opportunity” Mars rover just completed a three-year, 13-mile drive along the Martian surface to provide researchers with their first views of Endeavor Crater, a 14-mile-wide gouge in the Red Planet’s surface. This is by far the largest Martian crater we have been able to study up close.
And from orbit, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently discovered the clearest evidence yet that water may be flowing on the surface during the Martian summer.
There’s much more. The first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, NASA’s Messenger probe, has been peeling away the secrets of the inner-most planet since it went into orbit in March.
Do these unmanned space projects create jobs here on earth? Certainly not as many as the moth-balled shuttle program. Do they yield more scientific knowledge than manned flights? Undoubtedly. Critics correctly claim that robots are a poor substitute for a human presence in space. But we have yet to figure out how to send humans on trips beyond the moon, and the resources needed to do so are in short supply. For now, the magnificent machines we have built must suffice, and the critics will have to live with a “tele-presence” in the solar system until the political will as well as the resources can be mustered to send humans to explore the planets.
But there a larger point that much of the media misses: Despite the gap in human access to space, we continue to do remarkable things in space, moving closer to understanding where we came from and why we are here.