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NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon were out only two days before there were calls to cut it to pay for Katrina’s damage. That doesn’t bode well for our society’s commitment to explore space.

Robert Park is not a fan of manned space flight in this day and age, and comes out with both barrels firing in today’s op-ed in the New York Times. The time for it, he thinks, has come and gone, and we’re now in an area where it’s too costly, where there seems little real point of repeating past glories, and where robots do it better.

Much of what we yearn to discover in space is inaccessible to humans. Astronauts on Mars, locked in their spacesuits, could not venture far from shelter amid the constant bombardment of energetic particles that are unscreened by the thin atmosphere. Beyond Mars, there is no place humans can go in the foreseeable future. The great adventure of the 21st century will be to explore where no human can possibly set foot. The great quest is to find life to which we are not related. Could nature have solved the problem of life in some other way, in some other place? When we find out, we will know much more about ourselves.
Just as the glories of the Apollo space program were stubbed out by the cost of fighting the Vietnam War, so may man’s future space adventures be lost by a civilization that is all too willing to pay for war and too little values the thrill of science.

Does it matter? Some people think so. About a decade ago Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott III wrote a famous paper in Nature in which he “calculated” that mankind will be capable of manned space travel for only a brief time:

There may be only a brief window of opportunity for space travel during which we will in principle have the capability to establish colonies. If we let that opportunity pass without taking advantage of it, we will be doomed to remain on the Earth, where we will eventually go extinct.
If you look at it that way, what is the true value of the hundred billion dollars another Moon shot would cost?

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