- July 26, 2022
The Planetary Society is For And Against Human Spaceflight
The mission to Mars is one stupid leap for mankind, op ed, Washington Post
“Still, a human traveler to Mars should make the most of its airless monotony, because there is no coming back. The long passage through the vacuum of space will expose astronauts to intense and prolonged bombardment by cosmic rays and unimpeded solar radiation — a death sentence for which NASA has no solution (though scientists continue to seek one). At the Hotel Mars, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. What’s more, Mars is a dead end. As fatally desolate and brutal as Mars is, our neighbor planet is the most habitable destination for many, many light years in any direction.”
Keith’s note: I’m rather surprised that the Washington Post would print such an error-riddled opinion piece – and devote half a page to it. Its take on the whole ‘why fly people in space when we can fly robots’ rant is breathtaking in its ignorance. And, for what its worth, I find it ironic that the Post, whose space reporting is otherwise quite stellar, is owned by Jeff Bezos who is a clear adherent of the notion of opening space up to as many people as possible.
But these anti-human space flight opinions are not exactly uncommon. One of the hotbeds of these sentiments is the Planetary Society. This video “A space engineer explains why humans will never go past Mars“ was just posted by Business Former Planetary Society Executive Director Lou Friedman parrots the anti-human spaceflight mantra: “Louis Friedman, an aerospace engineer and author of “Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars,” believes that humans may never travel past Mars. The former head of The Planetary Society says technology will replace exploring humans.”
Recently, as he sat in the audience waiting for Elon Musk to talk about his plans for space exploration – including Mars, current Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye said “no one wants to colonize Mars” and then explained why.
In 2014 Planetary Society Senior editor Emily Lakdawalla? tweeted “The highs and lows of the last week remind us why the future must be in robotic, not crewed, space flight.” Just to be clear on this, in 2015 Lakdawalla wrote “This is one of many reasons I’m glad that The Planetary Society is advocating an orbit-first approach to human exploration. If we keep our filthy meatbag bodies in space and tele-operate sterile robots on the surface, we’ll avoid irreversible contamination of Mars — and obfuscation of the answer to the question of whether we’re alone in the solar system — for a little while longer. Maybe just long enough for robots to taste Martian water or discover Martian life.”
In their summary of the recent National Space Council meeting Casey Dreier and Jason Davis from the Planetary Society tried (like the rest of us) to figure out what America’s new space policy would be. They noted “Through its Humans Orbiting Mars workshop and report, The Planetary Society found great value in sending humans to Mars in terms of scientific return, searching for life, and challenging our technological capabilities. How these objectives will fit into a revamped human exploration program for either the Moon or Mars is still unclear.”
Its hard to reconcile what Dreier and Davis write with what Nye, Friedman, and Lakdawalla have said. At best, the Planetary Society’s take on human exploration (Mars in particular) is ‘look but don’t touch’ which is in direct contrast to the path NASA has been taking – and the path that the current White House has clearly stated that it intends to follow.
Keith’s update: Just to be clear: I used to work for NASA as a space biologist and I fully appreciate the issue and challenges of planetary protection. Also, I think that orbiting Mars initially to do recon and telerobotics is a perfectly fine approach with historical precedents – so long as it is done in preparation for human landings – not instead of human landings.