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Faculty OpinionsRelease Date: July 10, 2005

Kathryn Thornton

Associate Dean of Engineering

Humans or Robots? Is it man's destiny to continue exploring space?


                Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

                                                                                                      Theodore Roosevelt


The Apollo program, which culminated in six successful lunar landings, shaped my generation. For a time we saw ourselves as a generation who dared to do great things, to accept an almost unimaginable challenge in spite of enormous risks, and to be triumphant. Even the Apollo 13 drama was not a failure, but a rigorous test of our ability to devise a solution when "failure was not an option." We were not so naive as to believe that we were invincible or immortal. The tragic loss of life in the Apollo 1 fire was a stern lesson in the high cost of daring great deeds. Nevertheless, we were willing to take risks, and we did.

Why were we so profoundly affected by the Apollo program? Certainly spin-off technologies such as communications and microelectronics dramatically altered the way we live today, but some would argue that those technologies could have and would have been developed without putting men on the end of rockets and hurling them into space.

Apollo Changed Nation

Beyond the myriad spin-off technologies, as a direct consequence of the Apollo program we simultaneously saw a God's-eye view of our planet and a glimpse of a marvelous, endless frontier. We saw where we came from and where we can choose to go. The juxtaposition of such a significant accomplishment with our relative insignificance in the universe was both intriguing and terrifying. That insight changed us individually, changed our nation, and changed our generation.

We embraced the God's-eye view of Earth, a fragile blue marble in the blackness of space, as the icon of the environmental movement. At the same time, we lost interest and subsequently withdrew from further space exploration, canceling the final three planned lunar missions and relegating the remaining launchers to rocket parks and history books. Millions of visitors from around the world visit rocket parks in Florida, Alabama, and Texas each year to see monuments to technology of the past. The Apollo program existed in an extraordinary time when technology and politics converged on a single goal. It happened in the 1960s and can happen again. We will send men and women to study asteroids, to explore the surface of Mars, and eventually beyond. We will do it because we want to, and because we can.

Technology marches ever forward. Unlike the 1960s, today we have the capability to build robots that can replace humans in repetitive tasks, delicate operations, or dangerous environments. If surgery can be performed remotely, why not exploration? Whether deep under the ocean, on the frigid plateaus of Antarctica, or above the atmosphere, humans are programmed to indulge our unquenchable thirst for knowledge -- not only scientific data but human experiences. We are unwilling to surrender those domains solely to robotic surrogates and forego the human experience of adventure and discovery.

Why Continue?

Three spacecraft are orbiting Mars at this very moment, sending back a wealth of data to scientists sitting safely here on Earth. Cassini is exploring Saturn, its rings, and its moons, and as if to celebrate our nation's birthday, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft created a cosmic fireworks display when it collided with comet Tempel 1 on July 4. But if you ask any school-aged child to name a current space exploration mission, she or he is likely to mention Spirit or Opportunity. Why? Because those are the two most prolific data-gathering machines in the universe? No, because those little rovers are pathfinders for our eventual exploration and possible colonization of another planet.

Spirit and Opportunity even look mammalian, not quite Homo sapiens but certainly an evolutionary step in that direction. Having survived well beyond their expected lifetimes, these geriatric space robots work tirelessly every sol (Martian day) sending data that have revolutionized our understanding of our closest planetary neighbor. We follow their progress meter by meter, celebrate their discoveries, and will mourn their inevitable end of life as we would a be Kathryn Thornton, a former NASA astronaut, a veteran of four shuttle flights, and an associate dean of engineering at UVa, is a member of the Times-Dispatch's 2005 Board of Contributors. loved family pet. There is no doubt in our children's minds that humans will follow Spirit and Opportunity to the Martian surface some day simply because we want to and we can.

Why explore space when we have so many problems here on Earth? Like music, art, and literature, exploration of our world and our universe is a celebration of the human spirit, and ranks a couple of rungs up the Maslow hierarchy from basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Music, art, literature, and exploration may not feed the hungry or house the homeless (although money circulating throughout the economy doesn't hurt), but make our lives more meaningful and more vibrant.


Human Endeavors Inspire

We spend billions of dollars, both public and private money, providing our children with liberal-arts education. We want them to have more than job skills; we want their lives to be enriched and their perspectives to be broadened beyond a narrow discipline. Even if they do not have the inclination or ability to compose a symphony or write a great book, we know their lives will be richer for having knowledge of and appreciation for those creative and uniquely human endeavors. The thrill of exploring a new world, even vicariously through the astronauts we watch from our armchairs at home, will be an enriching and rewarding experience for all of us. A part of us rides with every crew into space. We share their triumphs and we mourn their losses.

What Will Shape Future?

The remarkable confluence of technology, politics, and a collective desire to dare great deeds that spawned Apollo was a once in a generation event. Now a new generation is coming of age who views the 1960s as ancient history. What events will shape their consciousness? Will it be only terrorism and war, or will we as a nation engage in a more enlightening, enriching, elevating endeavor? In spite of one-year budgets, two-year Congresses, and four-year administrations, we can choose to focus our energies and resources on a robust space exploration program simply because we want to and because we can.

The Author:

Kathryn Thornton is an Associate Dean of Engineering

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