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"I can't imagine that not happening, or imagine having to look to, say, China, for the next exploratory manned rocket launch."

As a European I can imagine that feeling quite well.

"Nothing makes us realize that we're all part of one world than seeing the big blue marble from lunar orbit."

Very true. So why do you care so much that it should be your nation doing it?

Yeah, I wasn't very clear about that, was I, David? I don't by any means think the US should be the only folks doing space exploration, just that we shouldn't be the only ones NOT doing it, when we're capable of it.

It's not obvious to me that warm bodies in space are absolutely critical to inspiring people to science & engineering. People used to find inspiration to those fields all the time; for example in the 19th Century, when space travel wasn't even yet on the distant horizon.

But could it be that the advent of the Astronaut corps has prompted more people, a greater portion of the population, to enter technical fields? I don't know. Does anyone really know? Is it possible that there's an approximately constant relative frequency of technophiles in the populace, with or without warm bodies in space? Or could it be just the opposite, that in during the three-decade career of the space shuttle fewer people than ever before take interest and instead turn up their iPods a little louder?

I've come to the tentative opinion that NASA severely overpromotes itself, trying to sell propaganda when it could just be producing results and letting people use them as they see fit. NASA isn't the only U.S. government agency that does research. Agencies such as the NSF, USGS, NOAA, CDC, NRAO, etc, all do important scientific work, and they all do it without hype, almost invisibly to most people. Why do NASA administrators think their agency needs to keep its praises on people's lips? Why do NASA management think they need warm bodies in space at all costs?

Bradley, I think the term "human spaceflight" encompasses everything that's important about space exploration. No matter how many amazing little bots, fantastic probes, or marvelous machinery we send into space, the act of exploration by human beings from space itself is far more inspiring than all the raw scientific data in the world. It's not just about inspiring kids to take up science and technical careers so they can wear a button that says "why, yes, I am a rocket scientist." It's about inspiring them to take chances and perhaps do something that no one has ever done before, to take that one giant leap for mankind.

In an editorial today in the New York Times, Lawrence Krauss said it better:

"Colonists and pilgrims seldom set off for the New World with the expectation of a return trip, usually because the places they were leaving were pretty intolerable anyway. Give us a century or two and we may turn the whole planet into a place from which many people might be happy to depart."

Many more people than we know dream of being those colonists and pilgrims, but we need explorers to make that possibility real. Not just technicians and scientists, but explorers.

There is not an exact 1:1 correspondence between exploration and being there. 99.999...9% of the Universe will never be set foot upon by human beings [because it's just that big a place]. Yet we explore the whole of it, and I am inspired by our capacity to do so from wherever we happen to find ourselves. It's not as if, by sending a robot to Mars, people aren't the ones doing the exploring. They are always the ones doing the exploring. If I were serving a life sentence in prison (which both you & I are doing), would a distant mountain be a less interesting place just because I can't go there and walk on it?

I am not opposed to people walking on other planets; but when we're using public money to pay for it, I think we need a VERY good reason for it, and that reason isn't that warm bodies in space inspire. The ISS has people aboard: where are the throngs who are "inspired" by this discrete fact? I personally grew up in the '60s and my every hour back then hung on the space program. I stayed up late on school nights watching the Apollo EVAs. Walking on the Moon certainly was a great adventure. But you know what? It didn't inspire me to become an astronaut. As I grew older I was much more impressed by people who achieved a lot with only very little to work with. Einstein was a real explorer. Thus far the NASA astronaut corps have not been great explorers: all they've ever done is carry out work given to them by someone else. In their day they were the robots. But now we have real robots that have been busy doing for decades what no warm body has yet to do, and in many cases have done what no warm body *can* do.

Bradley, I'm much more worried about our overall response to the Unknown than I am about gathering knowledge. Knowledge is a secondary gain when it comes to exploring. What we gain by exploration is a pushing of our own limits, not just as individuals but as a species. Explorers, right down to Columbus, have always used public money or private investment to fund their trips. It's like funding education. What you get out of it is directly intangible, but the future gain is tremendous. Once we've lost the desire to explore, physically, beyond our own boundaries (and in this I mean beyond our literal, physical survival zones), we have lost one of the major factors that makes us a unique species.

As for all those people who are inspired by what we are doing in space, I'm going to refer back to Lawrence Krauss's op-ed again, where he's suggesting one-way trips to Mars:

"If it sounds unrealistic to suggest that astronauts would be willing to leave home never to return alive, then consider the results of several informal surveys I and several colleagues have conducted recently. One of my peers in Arizona recently accompanied a group of scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a geological field trip. During the day, he asked how many would be willing to go on a one-way mission into space. Every member of the group raised his hand. The lure of space travel remains intoxicating for a generation brought up on “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”

Sign me up. I'd go just to wash pots on Mars.

Yes, I've read Krauss's op-ed piece. So? All he says is that, given the intent to put people on Mars, the one-way-ticket is a way of getting it done on the cheap. He doesn't exactly say that he favors warm bodies in space. He does say in that same piece that he questions if people can really do experiments better than robots.

But getting away from just that one person's take on this, I must ask again: where is the evidence that the presence of people in space has inspired more than its fair share? Where are the data to show that the the populational tendency toward adventuresomeness is any higher than it would be without? People have been riding rockets for darn near half a century. That should be more than enough time to show a strong trend. Does it exist? If you are right about this, then the trend should be there already and you have nothing to worry about. If the trend has been conspicuously the opposite, then maybe space travel has proven to be harmful. If the trend is the same as it's ever been, then people are the same as they've ever been, in which case riding rockets is a sport for the very few at public expense.

And let's say we do put some people on Mars? Alright, that puts a handful within walking or driving distance of a rather small portion of the surface. Is that really what you're after? Do you really just want some people "on Mars"? Surely you don't want to spend all that cash and put those people at considerable risk JUST so you can say that they're "not on Earth". They really will need something to do, a reason for being on Mars instead of anywhere else in particular. So how soon will we be in a position to put colonies all over Mars, to authentically know the place, so that it's actually worth being there? Looks to me like in the foreseeable future they'll just end up using robots anyway to fill in those gaps affordably.

You say, "Sign me up. I'd go just to wash pots on Mars."

That's all too easy to say when you're at no risk of having to own up top it. No one signs on for duty aboard the ISS or a submarine thinking they'll spend the rest of their years stuck inside a few small rooms with no privacy. They always know they're going back home in a timely manner. People who staff the South Pole base all eventually go back home, and at the very least they can, occasionally, go outside and feel the Sun and breeze. Even lifers in jail get to walk outside in their shirtsleeves. If you go to Mars you will NEVER go outside without your suit. You want to do that for the rest of your life? There is no evidence in-hand that people can really tolerate that sort of life, because no one has ever done it.

And just how many places are there that people could go to? I'm sure that eventually it'll become economical to put people and their bootprints on a number of planetary bodies in the neighborhood. But how long will that take? I think it'll take so long to put people on places such as Mercury, Venus, Titan, etc, that by then we'll need to have learned to either sink or swim without it anyway. In the foreseeable future all there'll be is the Moon, Mars and a few asteroids. That's not much real estate. 99.999...9% of the Universe will never be set foot upon by homo sapiens.

This is supposedly a physics blog. When one studies physics, one has the opportunity to enjoy high adventure, to push on the envelope, here, there, anywhere. Here at my desk I can contemplate the cosmic implications of the *seemingly* mundane fact that my butt doesn't pass cleanly through the chair. It expect would be the same on Mars. There is symmetry.

And please keep in mind that when Columbus, et al, all got their fundings, the backers weren't in it for the thrill of exploration. It was always an investment with the expected payoff being purely in terms of cash. Columbus didn't sell one iota of adventure to the Queen. She wanted a lucrative trade route to the Orient. This is the real reason why no one is on Mars right now. If you show how Mars will make someone richer, then you will get backing for it. If you show how Mars can pay back just enough to break even on the cost, you will get backing. Why is Richard Branson putting money into Virgin Galactic? Because he expects it to pay for itself in the long haul. As it stands Mars will return only knowledge to the investors back home. Is this enough? It is for me, but I'm not able to pay for it out of my own pocket. It's my good fortune just to have the robots there at the very least, let alone some warm bodies that need to be fed all the time.

"So how soon will we be in a position to put colonies all over Mars, to authentically know the place, so that it's actually worth being there?"

Well, never, if we don't start somewhere.

I think we're coming at this from different angles. This isn't a scientific study and there isn't any one reason that overrides all others for sending people into space. I'm perfectly happy with profit, curiosity, scientific research, adventure, or just plain pioneering spirit as good reasons to go. Not all exploration has a profit motive. Some has fame as a motive; some has just plain thrill-seeking and personal challenge. Look at many of the arctic and antarctic expeditions, or talk to people who've been to the top of Everest. And that risk factor is certainly there, but it's not like we're shipping people off against their will. The people (like me) who'd be willing to go understand the dangers of radiation, vacuum and the risk of death. And yet, people go. Sure it's easy for me to say I'd go when the possiblities are small that I'd be able to. That doesn't change my desire or your lack thereof. And the fact that we'll never set foot on 99.9% of the universe is a null factor. So what? We'll never set foot on any of it if we don't go ourselves. Columbus and his backers had a profit motive, but he lived in an era where exploration and charting the boundaries of the world fired the imaginations of not just merchants and Queens, but landlubbers around the world. Look at the revolutions that came out of that exploration: new food, new materials, new technology. It's not just about experiments, or profit, or adventure, or any one thing.

To some people, travel is about getting from point A to point B. For some people, it's about the adventure and what happens along the way too, not just at the destination. But I think you're missing the point. That 99.9% of the universe we'll never set foot on? We don't know what's out there. We don't even know what's on Mars. We don't know that what's found there might not change our store of knowledge radically in some way. Just because you can't imagine it doesn't mean it's not possible. And it's those possibilities that matter. Human space travel is basic R&D, but it's also an adventure.

"And yet, people go."

No one has ever spent the rest of their life in several small rooms on Mars.

And you just keep missing MY point: people's motives are beside the issue. Putting people on Mars must pay back what it's worth to the investors, even if the profit is knowldege or adventure. I said point-blank in my other post that esthetics are enough to satisfy me, but that I"M NOT PAYING THE TAB. The bill is being footed by hundreds of millions of taxpayers, most of whom couldn't care less. That's just the way it is. The population is huge, so there is a spectrum of variability in people's sentiments and priorities, just as it's been for thousands of years. Would you consider ours a free society if everyone agreed with your sentiments, or with mine? What's at least as important as the spirit of adventure is personal liberty, which as far as I'm concerned implies dissent. But I guarantee that small colonies stuck underground in small rooms won't end up with as much liberty as you and I enjoy now; and the reason will be that everyone's survival will depend on every single person falling into line and NOT opening up all the purge valves on a whim. The opportunities for capital offense would be abundant in such a place. Are sailors in the Silent Service allowed to open the hatches while submerged?

And what do you have planned for when all the bodies near here have been walked on? Interstellar migration? I challenge anyone to show that they know how to do such a thing. When you do the math, this sort of thing loses a lot of its obviousness; and it doesn't take all that much math to start finding monkey wrenches in the works. Plus, even if you get the green light to put *some* people on Mars, or wherever, that still leaves 99.99% of the people back on Earth left out. All they'll ever be able to do is experience it vicariously, JUST LIKE THEY ALREADY DO. Warm bodies in space will continue to be a sport for the very few at public expense.

And PLEASE, OH PLEASE, don't put words in my mouth. I'm not against exploring Mars and everyplace else. WE ARE EXPLORING THE PLANETS, RIGHT NOW. We have robots which can reveal those challenges to our store of knowledge. AND, my point about the 99.999...9% of the Universe? It's not about saying there's nothing worth discovering out there. It's about saying that, IN FACT, most of the Universe will not be walked on by us or our descendants. This is not me being pessimistic or defeatist. The Universe is simply that big. I didn't make the world that large; I only understand that it is so.

There is more to the Human Condition than optimism without discipline. If you advocate science, then you ought to know this.

I feel that manned missions are the way to do science, but robots have their place. If the robots don't go first, what happens if there is an issue with life support? Even though I know many, many a people who would go on a one-way mission to Mars in a heartbeat (myself included), the preservation of human life is something to be highly valued.

If you are interested, there is a radio show on every Tuesday night (9pm-11pm CST) that deals with space, astronomy, and whatnot. Maybe you could email, or even call the DJ, and I am sure he would be glad to have you and your views on the show. Their number is 1-866-626-2604, and you can reach him directly at

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.