Friday, October 5, 2007

Looking Back on Sputnik

The 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch was yesterday, and everyone's favorite geek column in The Observer covered the issue. From this week's edition of "Quarked"-

I must admit though, I am a little disappointed; the future prophesied at the beginning of the space age has not come to fruition. Space has not panned out to be the exciting final frontier it was promised to be: we haven't been back to the moon since 1972, and fewer than 500 humans have ever made it into space. NASA's Space Shuttle does not have an incredible amount of modern technological prowess either, as the fleet has been used for over a quarter-century and the computers haven't been updated since 1990. Your iPod has more computing power than the Space Shuttle, and it's not susceptible to falling chunks of foam to boot!

Now lest anyone get me wrong, I will be the first to say that the human presence in space has provided us with an incalculable wealth of new science, technology, and inspiration about the cosmos. Who doesn't feel a sense of awe when looking at the latest Hubble pictures, or see the advantages to a global positioning system? It's just that when it comes to manned spaceflight in recent years, I do not think NASA has much to show for their efforts. We did the whole Apollo program for just a fraction of what the International Space Station will cost when it's finally completed, even when adjusting for inflation, and space still remains inaccessible to all but a tiny handful. If you want to be an astronaut, you will probably have a better chance hitching a ride with a private company like Virgin Galactic once they begin operations in a few years, even with an initial price tag of $200,000...

Comments? Let me know either in person or here, as I like to know how these are received.


Anonymous said...

But careful -- going back to the moon will equal O(100) fundamental physics & astronomy satellites in cost. And that's not counting going on to Mars.
Manned spaceflight is extremely important -- and extremely expensive (at least at the present time). And NASA (& ESA too) has a rather difficult time balancing exploration with fundamental science.

More money could solve all problems, but the amount is limited.