Von Drehle's argument against human space exploration boils down to three main questions, and I'd like to address each of them.
First, why send humans into space when we can just send robots?
Robots can do remarkable things in space. We know firsthand, having built or contributed to robotic missions on every planet in our solar system. But robots are limited by some critical factors: Being millions of miles from Earth, communication signals are significantly delayed, and we can't operate robots in real time. A human can instantly sense, analyze and respond to his or her surroundings in ways that robots never could.
NASA's Curiosity rover — currently exploring Mars — is amazing, but in more than five years of operations, it's only traveled about 11 miles on the surface of the red planet. A team of astronauts could cover exponentially more area in a fraction of the time while conducting sophisticated analysis and experiments in real time.
The best scenario would be for humans to work in tandem with robots to explore, analyze and learn together. That's where we can get truly powerful advancements in science.
The second question: Is space exploration worth the risk and cost?
Contrary to Von Drehle's suggestion, NASA is not interested in sending Americans on a one-way trip to Mars. We're developing systems such as Orion that are purpose-built to send astronauts further than we've ever gone — and bring them home safely.
For example, to address deep-space radiation, we've designed the Orion vehicle with built-in radiation shielding as well as an emergency radiation shelter for times when astronauts might face solar radiation bursts. We're also developing new protective technologies as part of our vision for a Mars Base Camp and advanced suits specifically designed for deep space.
It's also important to note that everything NASA does — from the International Space Station to robotic missions to deep-space human exploration — is done with a budget of about half of one percent of the overall federal budget. And the investments our nation has made in space exploration have yielded important benefits here on Earth.
One critical benefit is our national security. We face a complex geopolitical environment, challenges to our technology leadership and potential adversaries developing the means to deny us the advantages we derive from space systems. Our space program gives the United States a decisive advantage over our adversaries while creating new models for international partnership that drive collaboration, cooperation and shared interests.
Another well-documented benefit is technology innovation. Our space program has produced breakthrough advances in everything from cybersecurity to energy technology to communications capability and medical research. Many of these discoveries were borne from technologies invented specifically to keep humans alive in the inhospitable environments of space and would not have been developed for non-human space missions.
This gets at a more fundamental question: Why bother sending people to explore space at all?
When President John F. Kennedy spoke of the Apollo program in 1962, he famously said we choose to go to the moon because it is hard. The "goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills," he said, "because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."
In other words, the finding of a solution to the seemingly impossible is an end in and of itself.
The massive complexity of human space exploration consistently bears the fullness of American ambition and creativity. Space exploration serves to stimulate the imagination in a way nothing else can. At a time when the United States is falling behind in science, technology, engineering and math — the critical skills required to drive innovation and competitiveness — space exploration promises to inspire generations of young people to pursue these essential skills. In fact, NASA recently broke records for the most applicants to join the latest class of U.S. astronauts.
Some may be content to conclude that there is nothing new to be learned from human space exploration. I believe we have only begun to scratch the surface of our nation's true potential in space.
After the inaugural meeting of the reestablished National Space Council last week, I am more confident than ever that our nation is committed to taking concrete actions to strengthen our leadership position in space. And I believe that as a result, we will bring the many benefits of human space exploration back home to Earth.
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