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I read Frank Cagle’s column on NASA [“HAL Had it Right,” Frank Talk] in your July 14th issue with the same gratitude that I feel for every article that provides educated coverage of America’s underappreciated space program. I agree that the space shuttle program was a tremendous waste of money that has distracted the public from NASA’s immensely successful robotic space explorers. The last 15 years have been a golden age of space exploration that have seen American probes explore comets, asteroids, and the planets Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan and our own moon.
However, the bemusing second half of Cagle’s article that decrees us to forever give up manned space flight could not have missed the mark more. In the case of Mars with its complex geology, the superficial coverage of robotic probes quickly starts yielding diminishing returns, and the more in-depth and direct exploration only astronauts can provide will be necessary if humanity wishes to continue making meaningful discoveries. I don’t know where Cagle is getting his ideas, but nobody is proposing wormholes or warp drives to make this possible. Processes to produce rocket fuel, water, and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere have already been demonstrated with great success, and combining these techniques with conventional rocketry and expendable vehicles will allow a manned Mars program at the same price as the shuttle program.
Of course, unmanned space probes still have many more years of work left before astronauts steal the spotlight, but when the time comes for more exhaustive exploration we will have both the reasons and resources to send people to the worlds next door.