June 4, 2005

He's remembered as "Explorer of Mars"...

But Norman H. Horowitz -- dead at age 90 -- opposed a manned mission to Mars:
In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, he voiced disapproval of proposals to send humans to Mars, saying: "It's just as wrong as can be. It's wrong because it guarantees there won't be any space science. We know how NASA treats science as a second-class citizen when it competes with man-in-space programs."

I'm inclined to believe that.

But I must say, when I saw the headline about a 90-year-old "Explorer of Mars," an idea that occurred to me was having a one-way mission, sending some quite old persons to Mars, with no way to bring them back. I was assuming he'd be in favor of sending a man to Mars and imagined him saying I'm 90, send me! I'm going to die pretty soon anyway. I'd like to have a shot at making it to Mars. And you can just leave me there!

Would it be wrong to have a mission like that? Why is it that young people take the most risks with their lives? Shouldn't the oldest people take the most daring risks, since they've lived the greater part of their lives and therefore risk less of it?

But Horowitz what not that kind of Mars explorer, not the physical adventurer, but a man who did his explorations intellectually.


Tom Dilatush said...

Opportunity (which just broke free from the sand dune!) and Spirit are demonstrating the correctness of Norman Horowitz's position right now. They've been doing terrific scientific work for over a year, at a tiny fraction of the cost of a single manned mission to the space station. And the space station is basically right in our back yard -- ridiculously easy to get to, compared to Mars. Personally, I'd like to see the manned space program restricted to those missions where it can really be justified, either in economic terms or by science work that cannot be done any other way. The savings would finance a bonanza of robotic space missions, such as the very successful Cassini-Huygens, Galileo, and Spirit/Opportunity missions. Year after year, NASA abandons or delays such missions, for lack of money. Mr. Horowitz is right.

With respect to sending older people (like me!) to explore distant places, with no hope of return: that would, in fact, greatly simplify such missions. But...can you really imagine the public being willing to send someone off into the sunset like that? I suspect sentiment would make it impossible...

From JamulBlog

Ann Althouse said...

Tom: I agree. If only people were more rational!

Mark said...

I doubt anyone sane and fit enough to function on such a mission would be willing to do it.

Look at some of those photos of Earth taken during Apollo, and imagine seeing this warm blue beauty from space but knowing you'll never return. No way.

Ann Althouse said...

Mark: But how can anyone bear to think of dying? You'll have to leave this place forever, never to return. An old person is used to the idea of leaving forever. I could imagine an adventurous old person saying goodbye to all of this and going to Mars to live out their days. They aren't going to live forever.

Less dramatically, how did immigrants leave their homelands, back in the days when they wouldn't have thought they could ever go back? They weren't crazy. It's not the equivalent of suicide to turn your back on home forever.

Stephen Aslett said...

Well, apart from the obvious physical and mental problems most extremely old people have that would make them unsuitable for such a difficult mission, I think many old people are as afraid of death as their younger counterparts. Although many people in their 80s and earlier have come to accept that they will die soon, I don't think most have them have resigned themselves to their fate. (At least, that's the experience I've had with extremely old people.)

Besides, why send old people out there to die? I thought the point of human exploration to Mars and other planets would be to establish some sort of permanent presence. You're not going to get that with the old or any other resigned to death group like terminal cancer sufferers. As I understand it, a trip to Mars would take many weeks and involve lots of isolation, hardly the sort of environment in which you'd want to put a fatalistic individual. Besides, if it's data and pictures you want, a probe can do that more cheaply, and can go places even human explorers can't.

Anyway, I don't think such a mission would be "wrong," just wildly impractical.

That said, I do agree that people have odd ideas how we should value other humans that don't stand up well to cold, utilitarian scrutiny--e.g. we should protect old people from risks despite their protests (think about any trip you've taken with grandparents when one of them wants to lift a heavy piece of luggage or go somewhere slightly arduous).

Take the chivalrous notion that an adult should willingly sacrifice him or herself to save children. If you think about it in pure utilitarian terms, young children aren't worth very much. They consume resources without providing much of anything in return apart from providing emotional satisfaction to parents. Young children are more easily reproduced if lost than a 60 year old chef, 40 year old surgeon, 35 year old research scientist, or a 25 year old law firm associate.

As a follow up question to yours on old people: Why then, would (or should) so many people be willing to sacrifice themselves to save young children, even if those children are not their own? My guess would be the same reasons we're so protective of old people--religion and longstanding culture.

(Just so I'm not misinterpreted, I don't necessarily endorse utilitarianism of this sort, but if we're going to think about the elderly in these terms, I think it only fair that we see the implications for the young as well.)

Pancho said...

NASA treats science as a second-class citizen

I would say that was true, certainly in the 60's and perhaps the 70's, but not so much today. I say this as one with some modicum of inside experience. My brother Mark Craig who just retired as a director of NASA, was at a time in the past the Director of Mars Exploration. Although trained as an aeronautical engineer he is first and foremost a scientist and persued his career with that in mind. Just this last January he helped write a NASA implentation study, Extending Robotic and Human Presence that stresses the need for both robotic and manned missions.

Ron said...

Ann: not only is it strange that we ask young people to risk their lives and not the old, but shouldn't we give pensions to the young,who could enjoy life while they are physically able to? Let people work from 40 until their deaths, and let them die "in harness," if work is supposed to be so fulfilling.

Instead what we effectively say is, "we're going to wring every last bit out of you, and if, IF, YOU've been diligent, we'll let you spend all the money you've saved on the very end of your life, which could be quite miserable physically."

if that be "productivity", than to hell with it!

Meade said...

I'll go.

May I take my beloved wife along with me? Otherwise, I'm afraid I'd miss her and I would be sad and lonesome.

I hope they don't send her to Venus instead but if they do, they should give us unlimited texting and high speed internet.

Surely that would not be asking too much.