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The arguments being waged in the Chronicle are not new. The old, tired competition for priority and funding between robotic space exploration and manned space exploration has been around since day one of manned spaceflight. I suspect, until we learn to live as a society with more balance, they always will be. In reality, they both compliment each other. I suspect, in the end, one without the other means nothing.
Robots have always been the best means of making first exploratory efforts and of reaching places man does not yet have the capability of go himself. The exploration of the moon is a good example. Orbiters and landers made the first surveys, giving scientists their first looks at what the lunar environment held. Yet, even with those robots, I remember there was still speculation about what we would find when we got there. It took men actually going to the moon to answer many of those questions.
Likewise, robots are doing exceptional work exploring the planets in the solar system and other places in space we cant reach. They are doing great science, but I can ask a counter-question, playing devils advocate. What impact will any of that knowledge about the other planets do to improve life on earth? It is possible that the mechanisms being studied may reveal more about our geology, our biology, or our meteorology. But those are very subtle, long term gains. They may be cheaper to achieve, but they are also harder for the public to understand and, eventually, justify.
The manned space program, however, often performs the science that is more immediately applicable to human life on planet Earth, such as it is. For instance, experiments performed by the Columbia crew while they were in orbit studied the effects of desert dust and smoke plumes on the Middle Eastern climate, the effects of soot, and conducted experiments on flame propagation in zero g that may help improve combustion models used to develop cleaner burning engines. Could we have built robots to study those things? Perhaps, but my bet is no. Each robot would have cost millions of dollars and taken years of development work in order to conduct a limited series of experiments. My guess if that training a human to do them not only saved time and money but allowed interaction with the prime investigators to changing conditions that robots could not have accomplished.
Of course, many satellites do study the Earth. And that is exactly my point. I believe the best science and most results are achieved by a mixture or robotic and human exploration and experimentation, not one without the other. It is not scientific value that puts the two programs into competition. It is political expediency and the dependence of both programs on politically motivated Federal funding.