In my column for CNN, I explain why Newt Gingrich's proposed moon colony is a giant waste of money:
The useful space science these days is done by unmanned probes and satellites: the Cassini-Huygens mission that returned amazing images of Saturn and its moons; the Calipso mission to monitor the health of Earth's atmosphere; the Juno mission now en route to Jupiter. In November 2011, NASA launched its latest Mars probe, Curiosity. Curiosity should reach Mars by August.
Here's the great thing about all these missions: They do not need to be engineered to zero defect, and no plans need be made to return them home. Unmanned space exploration need not worry about food and water or the effects of isolation and low-gravity on the human spirit and body.But once human beings are inserted, everything changes. Lives are put at risk. Costs soar. And for what?
Most of the research purpose of sending human beings into space is to test the effects of sending human beings into space. The missions exist to test whether the missions can continue. This seems the very definition of futility.
Human space flight originated as a symbolic competition during the Cold War era. The development of nuclear weapons deterred the U.S. and the Soviet Union from the hot war they might otherwise have fought. Instead, the two sides sought other ways to demonstrate their power, culminating in the race to the moon.
If anyone had ever imagined that Soviet communism was technologically or economically competitive with American democracy, that illusion was retired forever when Neil Armstrong and his team touched the moon's surface and then returned safely.
These human missions to space were political and military, not scientific. Their point made, their purpose ended. Meanwhile, the microelectronic and robotics revolutions of the 1970s and after enabled better science to be done without any human presence at all.