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Gareth Cook

A space for robots

US can lead in daring missions - without humans

By Gareth Cook
Globe Columnist / July 10, 2011

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WITH THE official end of the shuttle program rapidly approaching, America is suffering from a space identity crisis.

The shuttle missions began 30 years ago, when Columbia first ascended from the Kennedy Space Center. The launch marked a dramatic return of national confidence, in the wake of the humiliating Iranian hostage crisis and the assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Now that the shuttle Atlantis is bringing the program to a close, the symbolism would seem equally apt. We live in a time of retrenchment and diminished expectations. We’re mired in ferociously expensive foreign wars, our public schools are sub-par, and our leaders can’t even agree on a national budget. It’s perhaps fitting that we can no longer say that our astronauts will soar above the planet, the continents slowly wheeling by.

But the United States can lead in space, exploring and inspiring, without the crushing expense of a program like the shuttle. We just need to embrace the era of robots.

For decades, there has been a cynical calculation behind the space program: astronauts inspire, but unmanned satellites do the actual discovering. It’s hard to beat the drama of a man or woman blasting off into the unknown, just as it can be difficult to convey the interest of scientific instruments. The exploits of the astronaut corps - and their genuine bravery - are what drew the public’s interest, and Congress’s financial support.

This calculation has been upended by time and technology. Manned space flight has become more routine, and public fascination with the shuttle has waned in recent years. At the same time, relentless technical innovation has given unmanned craft the power to not just discover, but to inspire and awe.

In 1997, a little rover named Sojourner captured the country’s imagination when it reached Mars, making an unlikely landing on a ball of airbags, and bouncing to a stop on the rocky surface. Later, the petals of a hard shell opened, and the six-wheeled explorer rolled out to see what it could see.

In 2004, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars and began a long, self-propelled amble. The rovers confirmed that water once flowed there, establishing that Mars may have hosted life. They also proved that engineers can design robots with enough smarts to pick through an alien landscape, following only broad brush directions from mission control.

And they showed that a scientific instrument could be endearing. The rovers were the original WALL-E.

Other missions have been judged wild successes, by scientists and citizens, without the charisma of an astronaut or even a rover. The Hubble Space Telescope has captured many astounding images over the years, but few compare with the gorgeous star “nursery,’’ with its delicate pillars of gas and a visceral sense that something momentous - some would say spiritual - had been captured in the frame.

More recently, there is the story of the quest to find life elsewhere in the universe, which has achieved a new level of seriousness.

Earlier this year, NASA’s Kepler satellite discovered over 1,200 possible planets orbiting other suns. In the next few years, scientists will likely find a planet like Earth - a small rocky world, circling in the so-called “habitable zone’’ where moderate temperatures support liquid water.

The case has recently grown stronger for liquid water on Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, and Jupiter’s Europa has long been suspected of holding water.

A large rover, Curiosity, is scheduled to launch later this year, looking for signs of life on Mars. But why not send a rover to Enceladus, and a submarine to Europa? New technology, developed in part for warfare in extreme terrains, can be adapted for a new generation of space robots.

The space program does not find itself at a grim moment, but an amazing one. We don’t need astronauts on board for a mission to be worthy or dramatic. There are other ways to be daring.

Correction: In last week’s column on the psychology of liberal values, I misstated when John Stuart Mill lived. He was a philosopher in the 19th century.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.