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Why man instead of machine?

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2005

Every generation of Americans since the opening of the Space Age has seen astronauts don spacesuits only to pay the ultimate price in the risky enterprise of human spaceflight.

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Each time the space program picks itself up from a disaster, each generation has had to answer for itself the fundamental questions: Why are we doing this? What justifies spending billions of dollars on space travel when more pressing issues demand money and attention?

The importance of answering those questions has seldom been higher.

Next Wednesday, a world that witnessed tragedy in the skies over the southwestern United States in early 2003 will watch with anticipation as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches the first space shuttle since the orbiter Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing its seven-member crew.

Despite the safety changes the space agency has made to the orbiters since that disaster, shuttle missions remain anything but routine. "These next two flights are test flights" to gauge the effectiveness of those changes, NASA administrator Michael Griffin warned lawmakers last week. "It must be fully understood that these carry the risks of test flights."

And their objective - to finish building a scaled-down international space station whose utility will fall far short of the original vision - is not as awe-inspiring as the rovers now charting Mars or images of "the pillars of creation" - star nurseries - from the Hubble Space Telescope. So as President Bush pushes his blueprint to return humans to the moon no later than 2020 and eventually send them to Mars, even space enthusiasts are asking anew why the US should pursue manned spaceflight when machines can so far do more for far fewer dollars.

"We are at a crossroads," says former NASA historian Roger Launius, now the curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. "The decisions reached in the next two to three years will drive what happens in the next 30 to 40 years."

The administration's program will require support that far outlasts Mr. Bush's presidency, which ends seven years before the earliest date for a moon landing. This makes long-term public support for manned spaceflight vital, specialists say.

Over the long haul, that support must be grounded in a "convincing argument of why it is in the nation's interest to make and sustain such an expensive commitment," according to John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington.

When US astronauts return to space next week, they will also launch into a geopolitical atmosphere far different than the one Columbia left. Since the accident on Feb. 1, 2003, China has orbited its first astronaut. The first American to reach space after the Columbia disaster was a hard-scrabble test pilot who guided aircraft designer Burt Rutan's Spaceship One on two suborbital flights last fall. Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson has licensed the technology behind Spaceship One, creating Virgin Galactic. He plans to begin flying tourists to space - or at least the edge of it - in 2007. Another space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, who heads Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, is offering a $50 million prize to the first group to build a vehicle able to loft seven astronauts to a destination in low Earth orbit by 2010.

Meanwhile, Europe's Aurora program is slowly moving ahead. It envisions a set of unmanned and manned missions aimed at putting humans on Mars by 2030. The European Space Agency initiated its program two years before Bush unveiled his plan.

Other countries are pursuing manned spaceflight today for many of the same reasons the US and the Soviet Union did during the cold war, explains Joan Johnson-Freese, who heads the department of national-security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Manned spaceflight carries the image of technological sophistication and advanced industrial and economic development. "It's an indicator of power," she says. Today, "other countries see their technology gap with the United States grow, and they don't want the gap to become insurmountable. For China, a manned-spaceflight program does all of these things. It leapfrogs China into a position of technological leadership in Asia, of being a global player technologically - one capable of more than making shoes."