Columbia Disaster Resurrects Debate Over Scientific Value of Manned Flights
February 3, 2003
Subsequent to the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle, television commentators seemed all but unanimous in their opinion that space exploration is America's destiny and that scientific experiments aboard the space station hold benefits for earthlings. But more than a few scientists disagree -- holding that the returns to science are not worth the high costs involved and the toll in human lives.
From studies in protein crystallization to the behavior of fire in zero gravity, "there is no experiment that has been done on the space shuttle that has made a significant difference to any field of science," says physicist Robert Park of the American Physical Society in College Park, Md.
- Many of the experiments done in space simply confirm phenomena already known to earth scientists.
- Pursuing experiments designed by school children in Australia, China, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein and the United States concerning how fish, spiders, ants, silkworms and bees responded to space flights suggests that public relations -- not scientific breakthroughs -- are the foremost goal.
- In fact, Columbia's final flight was the last scheduled shuttle mission dedicated to science -- with upcoming flights resuming primarily a transportation role, ferrying parts and temporary crews to the international space station.
- Critics suggest that Columbia's missions were too often about dreams, symbols and national prestige aimed at building public support for space programs.
There are only three places in the solar system that astronauts can travel to using available technology -- the Moon, Mars and an asteroid. That's why NASA only sends unmanned probes to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. But unmanned flights don't grab the public's attention like manned ones do.
But any specific mission "you can identify to do in space, you can design and build an unmanned space craft to do it more effectively, more economically and more safely," says Duke University expert Alex Roland. He calls manned space flights a "circus, it's just pure circus."
Sources: Sharon Begley, "Shuttle Science: Just Along for the Ride?" and J. Lynn Lunsford and Nicholas Kulish, "Shuttle Crash Raises Questions About Future of Manned Flights," both in Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2003.
For Begley text (WSJ subscription required)
For Lunsford and Kulish text (WSJ subscription required)
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