Using robots to roam the solar system is a false economy, and priority should be given to human-based space exploration, a group of UK scientists insists. They are urging the government to reconsider funding research into human missions. They claim the fringe benefits would make the investment worthwhile.
The British government is firmly opposed to funding the ESA's research into manned flights, and has been for many years. Robots are much cheaper to send to the other planets in the solar system, after all, and are capable of gathering huge amounts for data for later analysis. The risk of sending people "out there" has also been deemed too great: if a robot goes missing, it is an expensive shame, but if a pod full of people were to crash onto the surface of Mars it would be a catastrophe.
Alan North, president of the Physiological Society, explains why it is worth the risk: "The pay-offs could be enormous," he told the FT. "Not just for protecting astronauts from the effects of [zero gravity] but to learn how to prevent wasting of muscle and bone here on earth."
The group is looking to the ESA's Aurora programme - exploring the solar system with manned and unmanned missions - to spur a shift in policy, or at least open a debate on the subject. If Britain joins Aurora, at a likely cost of £25m per year, it could allow British scientists access to biomedical research in space.
Professor Michael Rennie, who leads in osteoporosis research at Nottingham University, said that access to people who have spent time in micro-gravity was important in his research. He claims that for an investment of £10m over a period of five years would lead to a much greater understanding of how space affected bone and muscle mass, and the production of the structural protein, collagen.
He argues that the costs could be shared with the pharmaceutical industry: "Astronauts...lose bone at a rate many times faster than post-menopausal women. For this money we have a good chance of making discoveries that could lead to pharmaceutical targets for osteoporosis research," he said. ®