Van Allen and the SpaceBots

Physicist James Van Allen passed away yesterday at 91. Van Allen had a long and distinguished history of discovery that included pioneering use of balloon-launched research rockets, discovery of the mechanics of the Northern Lights, and most famously, the Earth-circling belts of radiation named after him. But less widely known, Van Allen was a manned spaceflight skeptic who forcefully argued that our exploration of the cosmos should be carried out by robotic proxies rather than human astronauts.

The history of space exploration in the last half-century supports Van Allen’s conclusion. Manned spaceflight is hugely expensive and, so far at least, unsustainable. Humans reached the moon in 1969, but the costly Apollo program was being shut down even as the Astronauts arrived, and humans haven’t been back since 1972. The horrendously expensive Space Shuttle barely reaches earth orbit and has never lived up to its promise of being a “space truck” that would make manned presence in orbit routine. The rickety Russian MIR space station splashed into the Pacific years ago, while the International Space Station is little more than a cash-sucking white elephant that has barely fulfilled its most basic goals of performing useful science.

Meanwhile, a host of robotic probes have traveled farther, discovered more, cost less and have had vastly greater impact on our lives than the showy heroic human missions. Hubble has gazed to the edges — and origin– of the universe. Mars Rovers are busily exploring our nearest planetary neighbor. And earth-orbit satellites from weather-bots to GPS beacons profoundly affect the daily lives of every Earthling.

Yet, against all logic, the advocates of human spaceflight continue to grab attention — and budgets– with their showboat missions. Dutifully following President Bush’s goal of landing a human on Mars, NASA is busily stripping cash from robotic spacecraft to fund a new moon mission and moon base as a stepping stone to humans walking on Martian soil.

Meanwhile, the case against human spaceflight only becomes stronger. The Van Allen Belt’s deadly radiation is but the oldest of a growing list of obstacles for human presence in space. Effects of extended weightlessness and high energy radiation seem ever more insurmountable, the closer they are examined.

Humans will return to space and one day live beyond this planet, but the path there can only be forged by the remote-controlled, robotic proxies that Van Allen so eloquently — if unsuccessfully– advocated. The Van Allen Belt’s discovery is an indicator, for, strictly speaking, the Belt was not “discovered” by a human at all, but rather by the Explorer I satellite that carried instruments designed by Van Allen. Four decades ago humans reached for the Moon, touched it, and then fell back to Earth. If an eventual return to space is ever to succeed, this time we must take Van Allen’s advice and pave the way by building and sending robotic pathfinders ahead.