Britain’s leading astronomer has said the public should stop funding human spaceflight.
Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told Sky News the European Space Agency (ESA) should stop sending humans into space and devote its budget to robotic missions instead.
I think the future of human spaceflight worldwide is really only as an adventure and spectator sport.
As robots get better they can do more of what people were doing in the past. So the case for sending people is getting weaker all the time.
The UK has contributed £70 million over four years to the ESA’s human spaceflight programme. Lord Rees said that was a ‘good deal’ and missions like British Tim Peake’s recent six month stint was ‘worth the marginal cost’ – but they should stop.
Rees added that the only case for sending people into space is if they are funded privately, instead of publicly. Why? Rees says ‘because private organisations can take high risks and cut prices at a level that can’t be done by publicly funded civilian programmes,’ and because it’s not ‘public money’.
But Tim Peake – the first British astronaut to visit the ISS – thinks otherwise. He said just days before he returned to Earth:
This has been an exceptionally worthwhile endeavour. This is about the UK becoming involved in human spaceflight hopefully for the foreseeable future.
Space is going to play an increasingly important role in our lives and if the UK is not in the forefront of that we are missing out quite simply.
And more than a million school children have been involved in projects related to Peake’s mission. A school in Surrey is one of hundreds growing rocket seeds that Peake took with him to the ISS – and have since been returned – in order to test the effects of microgravity on plants, Sky News reports.
These proteins grown in microgravity could lead to new medicines and metals, and the science behind it is attracting the new generation into a scientific career – which is a growing part of the UK’s economy.
Not only that, but human spaceflight can result in some pretty cool experiments:
Could we play water ping pong with robots in space? Probably not.
But not only is human spaceflight expensive – as Lord Rees points out – being an astronaut is also dangerous, which could be another reason to back up Rees’ warning to start using robots.
Astronauts suffer from fluid build-up in the brains – a result of microgravity. And earth-bound patients with head injuries have a similar problem, which is life-threatening. But right now, the pressure can only be monitored by surgeons drilling through their skulls, according to Sky News.
So while sending humans into space is dangerous and costly, would sending robots in from now on be as efficient when it comes to research and science? Where we stand now in 2016, we’d have to guess no, probably not.