Man-in-space has been an ambition of mankind for almost as long as man-in-air. Gigabytes of science fiction exist in print and video about human adventures above the atmosphere, and many people remain uncertain of what is and isn't "real." Some people actually dream about extracting water from moon rocks in order to live on the moon.
When Russia launched Sputnik, it was a challenge to a technology race between communism and capitalism. President John F. Kennedy budgeted for and pronounced that the U.S. would beat Russia with a man on the moon, and we did it! Now communism has folded, we have won, and the race is over.
Meanwhile, unmanned space vehicles, with little fanfare, have revolutionized civilization. Broad-spectrum scientific and military earth sensing, sky observation, communication, navigation, instrument landings on the moon, Mars, and an asteroid, and scientific observations throughout the solar system have been frequent.
If time, money, and technology hadn't raised their imperious heads, both manned and unmanned programs could have continued apace. But they did, so sooner or later we must face reality.
The indictment reads that unmanned space vehicles are better, cheaper, and launched sooner than manned space vehicles. Also, the only benefits of man-in-space are a continuing observation of man-in-space and filling the greatest pork barrel in human history for the benefit of profits and jobs in its industry. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the unmanned budget is crumbs from the manned budget's table.
Unmanned space vehicles are teleoperators, controlled by people on earth, automatically performing part of their control programs, and telemetering data back to people on earth. The existing art of designing such machines is enormous in scope and sophistication. A fraction of the manned-space budget would make it more so. In fact, much control over manned vehicles is already automatic, and most limited decision making is performed by ground personnel.
Beyond the never-ending measurement of human physiology in space, the only proposed projects that must truly benefit from man-in-space are dance performances in fractional G and, of course, sex.
The primary reasons for the expense, time, and complexity of man-in-space are the life-support and passenger-recovery systems required. They contribute a major part to every shuttle's weight and are the basic reason for having a shuttle in the first place. Because the safety of our passengers is our greatest concern, the reliability of their life support and recovery systems rules all other considerations when it comes to design, time, and cost. (One perverse effect is the continued use of otherwise obsolete computers due to their track record of reliability.)
The spin doctors of the man-in-space program make our political spin doctors pale in comparison. The Columbus analogy is my favorite. It conjures up a vision of Queen Isabella fitting out a steamship with remote control, radar, and telemetry so she wouldn't have to provide a human crew to observe sea monsters and the edge of the ocean. But unlike us, she had no choice.
President Bush should immediately terminate the space station and the shuttle program entirely and transfer the NASA space budget to useful space applications. The new administration can afford the embarrassment of recognizing a boondoggle, and those spin doctors will explain it away.