In the aftermath of the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia an important debate on the purpose and future of the U.S. human-space-flight program is under way, though perhaps not as forthrightly as it should be. The issue at stake is not space exploration in itself but the necessity of launching manned (versus robotic) vehicles. Because articles of faith are involved, the arguments tend to be manipulative and hyperbolic. If the debate is to be productive, that needs to change.
The proponents of manned space flight—particularly at NASA—are in an unenviably defensive position. They argue weakly for the operational flexibility provided by astronauts in space, and trot out the story of the Hubble Space Telescope's in-orbit repair, as if this single success might justify two decades of shuttle flights; they advertise the applied scientific benefits of performing laboratory-style experiments in orbit, though they cannot point to much of significance that has arisen from them; and finally, bizarrely, they argue that only the excitement of a human-space-flight program can persuade the American public to foot the bill for the robotic efforts—a self-indicting logic if ever there was one. When all else fails, they fall back on the now empty idea that the shuttle program is a matter of national prestige—or on the still emptier claim, made obliquely by the NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe last spring, that a retreat from human space flight would be akin to a return to the Stone Age for all humankind.