Should President Obama be aiming to cut America's programme to put people back on the moon? Mark Henderson, science editor of the Times, welcomes the proposed cut as a 'triumph of realism'. He says that human beings aren't really good explorers: they 'need food, water and oxygen, they must be shielded against radiation and they generally want to come home'. Robots can do it much better.
I'm not a science editor, not even a scientist, but I'll express my reservations about the decision nonetheless. I have three of them. The first, which may not be thought to justify much in the way of expenditure - but never mind - is that there is a human aspiration to boldly go and so forth, which can only be met by doing the boldly going in person: being the first man or woman, the first human, to achieve this or that. Sending mechanical substitutes is no substitute. Second, having robots colonize the moon won't replicate the experience of human beings doing the same, even if it may be able to tell us a certain amount about what that experience would be like for humans. I can understand why humanity might like to have this experience for itself, though, speaking for myself, I'm happy to forego it.
Third, there are sometimes unanticipated benefits, scientific and practical, to research initiatives undertaken for some given purpose, benefits that exceed by far the original purpose itself and yield new capacities and new advantages. Given the nature of today's world from a political point of view, I think it might be unwise for America to cede the terrain of such potential benefits to a country with China's present state profile.
(Incidentally here, I am intrigued by the reactions to this of some Republican politicians - to the effect that Obama's decision is 'a crippling blow', or even 'the death march', for human space exploration. I thought government provision wasn't all that central to human accomplishment, according to some philosophies.)