Saturday, December 03, 2005

Why send people?

Human space exploration is the type of space exploration that I am most interested in. However, I don't think the primary purpose of human space "exploration" is exploration, as much as it is an attempt at colonization and expanding our capabilities to travel and live in outer space.

The probe people are probably right that it will usually require less mass to send machinery and instruments to a remote location than people. People radically complicate any space travel involved, with increased mass and specialized equipment required just to keep them alive. Furthermore, with modern computing technology, our probes can have a good degree of autonomy in what they do, and time delays for communicating become less of a problem. Probes do have drawbacks - they're usually limited to doing only the types of exploration that they're designed for, they're physically clumsy and can run into obstacles that a human being would just step over or shoulder aside, and they can only deal with problems that the programmers anticipate. However, they have succeeded in getting the basic exploration of the inner solar system done.

If a human being is going to another planet, odds are that a probe has gotten there first, mapped the surface, located deposits of useful materials such as ice and various metals. On mars, our surface rovers are drilling samples from rocks near to their landing area at fractions of the payload mass required to send people. If we only wanted to explore mars, we could send a spacecraft with equivalent payload absolutely jam-packed with sensors, bus sized rovers and robots, drill rigs, ect, all without the life support, water, and living space that people require.

But then again, why are we exploring space? Exploring extremely distant galaxies and other stellar objects gives us a picture of the universe, how it came about, ect, satisfies some curiosity and hones our physics. Exploring the inner solar system holds the long-shot chance of discovering life that may have developed independently of Earth based life, and thus dramatically raise the guessed-at chances of life existing in other star-systems, as well as giving microbiologists something to study. However, I think the main reason we explore space is to see if there's something out there that we can use, to see if there's somewhere new to expand our human presence to. When we began having inklings that the other planets were worlds just like the earth, getting people there was one of the first things to come to mind, no matter how impossible it seemed at the time.

Why bother knowing whether or not the moon has ice? So that when we start building bases there we can drink the water and grow our food (unfortunately the moon doesn't have a whole lot of hydrogen or ice). Why try to determine the effects of zero gravity on frogs? So that we know what sorts of precautions we have to take when we send people on interplanetary trips.


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