Space has spurred the collective imagination of humans since ancient times. While the astronomers of the Renaissance era began to unlock the secrets of the heavenly bodies, it wasn't until the 20th century that humans could actually travel to outer space. Today most space exploration is done by unmanned space probes. These probes present a number of issues for government-run space agencies.
Sending human-made objects into space is always a costly venture. In comparative terms, however, unmanned space probes will cost less than manned missions because the design of the vehicles does not have to accommodate and sustain human life, which includes provisions for breathable air, a livable interior temperature and the ability to safely re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Cutting out these additional engineering challenges makes space missions cheaper, which lets the space agency perform more missions with a limited budget.
Ability to Reach Extreme Locations
Unmanned space probes can go where astronauts cannot. These include missions that get close enough to the sun to where heat and radiation levels would kill a human. And a long-term unmanned voyage could go farther than a craft that had to carry food to sustain life. Unmanned craft allow for such missions as Voyager I and II, which not only visited some of the outermost bodies in the solar system but continue to journey out into space and send data back to Earth. Indeed, Voyager 1 is now traveling outside the solar system, in interstellar space.
Risk of Malfunctions
While space probes can undertake missions that would preclude human involvement, they are not perfect. Whereas humans can adapt to changing situations and repair malfunctions, probes can only execute their programming. If this programming is flawed, such as the ill-fated Mars Climate Orbiter that crashed into the Martian surface because two different teams used different measurement systems, the mission may be doomed the moment the probe lifts off. These can lead to costly and embarrassing public failures.
While space probes conduct good science and undertake useful missions, they do not capture the human imagination or ignite the same kind of excitement that a human physically exploring space does. Government space agencies depend on the budgetary politics of the moment for funding, and a lack of public interest in space exploration makes space agencies an attractive target to cut. While manned missions are more limited from a scientific standpoint, they are far more effective at capturing the public opinion necessary for funding space exploration.
About the Author
Micah McDunnigan has been writing on politics and technology since 2007. He has written technology pieces and political op-eds for a variety of student organizations and blogs. McDunnigan earned a Bachelor of Arts in international relations from the University of California, Davis.
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