The famous theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss, writes in the UK Guardian today that space shuttles have been a colossal waste of American resources, time and creative energy. When I listened to him debate last week at TAM with Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, he took the same line … and you know what … I tend to agree with him, I believe he is right.
Now please do not misunderstand me here, this stance does not in any way short change the courage and drive displayed by those brave individuals who have climbed on board and gone up. In fact when you consider the fact that these complex machines are constructed by assembling 2.5 million parts, each of which has been outsourced to the cheapest government contractor, then you would be utterly insane not to be highly nervous, and so yes, I applaud their courage.
Anyway, Lawrence make the following points …
…The space shuttle failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel …
…Not only has the shuttle programme been costly, it has been boring…. we were treated to regular images of the shuttle visiting a $100bn boondoggle orbiting in space closer to Earth than Washington DC is to New York….
…No other significant science has been learned by a generation’s worth of round trips in near-earth orbit….
He then goes on to observe that they did have successes such as repairing Hubble … but since the shuttle program costs $5 billion per year, he muses that it would have been cheaper and more cost effective to simply scrap Hubble and launch Hubble-2
He also notes that real science is of course being done out there, but it is all robot probes, not humans.
He has lots more to say, so please do go read his article here.
What he is not saying is that we should abandon the space program and revert to only sending out robot probes for ever more, but rather that we need to be smarter about how we deploy the resources we have, and of course I agree.
Think for a moment about all that we might have learned if we had deployed the same resources to the pursuit of new knowledge out there. Then, when we are ready and have the technology, we could venture out with a better clearer understanding of what awaits us. Not sure about that? OK, consider this, what about a probe to Europa? The surface is of course ice, but under it there is believed to be the only other ocean of liquid water in the solar system …I would speculate that the potential for finding life there must be quite high, so are you not curious to know what is waiting under the ice for us to find? Alas no, instead we have a $100 billion tin can in the sky that serves no real scientific purpose … so be honest now, which would you rather have had.
Lawrence finishes off with a great one-liner …
As Richard Feynman himself said in his final report on the Challenger disaster: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
The human exploration of space will of course continue, but lets do it for the right reasons and use the right technology.