Which would be more exciting to happen in your lifetime: humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system? If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars. In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality. Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common. Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.
Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes. NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.
If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration. Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories. You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions. I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both? What gets the most bang for our bucks?
Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment. Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined. However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money. If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project. If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.
If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die. Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth. As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.
Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic. Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions. However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.
I have no idea how big will be big enough. Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?
The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality. That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge. If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe. Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer. Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else. It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.
I wish our species was smarter.
JWH – 7/16/14