Do We Really Need to Send Humans into Space?
Automated spacecraft cost far less; they’re getting more capable every year; and if they fail, nobody dies
"What future lies ahead for humans in space? Last year, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing found a host of private and governmental projects that aim to send astronauts far beyond the near-Earth orbits that have limited human space exploration since 1972. China, which landed the first spacecraft on the lunar far side in 2019, has plans to place astronauts to the moon. India, which crashed a lander on the moon in 2019, dreams of doing likewise. Russia, which doesn’t seem to have much of an ongoing astronaut program, still provides the rockets and launch facilities that provide astronauts with access to the International Space Station. The Trump administration proposes to create a lunar base as a key step in sending astronauts to Mars. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have spent large sums on future human space missions. Indeed, Musk has already created a thriving rocket business, which NASA uses to resupply the Space Station, 250 miles above Earth’s surface.
What benefits will flow from these efforts to send humans much farther into space? As children of the 1950s, we were thrilled and inspired by the satellites that began to circle Earth in 1957, the first astronauts—who followed similar paths in the 1960s and made the first spacewalk in 1965—and what turned out to be the culmination of human spaceflight: NASA’s six astronaut explorations of the lunar surface from 1969 through 1972. Beyond any scientific returns, these efforts elevated the human spirit, reaching a peak on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set humanity’s first footprints on the moon. During the 1960s, we became astronomers with a deep passion to explore the cosmos...."