The Astronomer Royal is a peculiar British position with no official duties and an salary of £100 per year, which makes him somewhat less important than the royal gardener. Nevertheless, the Astronomer Royal tends to get quoted in the press with some frequency,because of his impressive-sounding title.
Often, these quotes concern space travel. Why the press expects an astronomer to be an expert on space travel is a mystery. It’s like asking an oceanographer about ships, a geologist about trucks, or a meteorologist about aircraft. But, for some reason, reporters seem to think that studying the stars makes a scientist an expert on space-vehicle engineering.
In January 1956, Astronomer Royal Richard van der Riet Woolley made the infamous statement that “space travel is utter bilge,” which appeared in Time magazine less than two years before Sputnik shook the world.
The current Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, is known as a long-time critic of human spaceflight. In 2010, he told the Guardian that human spaceflight was a waste of time because Martin Rees wasn’t interested in it. “It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all,” Rees declared.
Lately, it seems, Rees is trying to moderate his statements. In a new article, Steve Connor, science editor of the Independent, writes:
Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has explained his own schizophrenic attitude to human space exploration. As a scientist and practical man he is against on the grounds that it is a waste of money – you can get more bang for your bucks by sending probes and intelligent robots into space.
But as a human being, he is in favour. By sending living, breathing sentient beings like ourselves into space we can come closer to the shear thrill and danger of travelling to a far-away place we can only imagine.
Okay, Rees is not an expert on computer technology. Those so-called “intelligent robots” have far less computing power than an iPhone. They depend on radiation-hardened chips which are closer to an old-generation PC, which Rees’s office might have thrown out, than Star Trek’s Commander Data.
Unmanned probes are indeed cheaper, for many missions – but not all. Space Adventures, for example, is offering circumlunar flights in a Soyuz capsule for $100 million per seat. NASA’s unmanned lunar orbiters cost about $500 million. In the near future, suborbital missions will be available for $100-200,000 per seat. At those prices, it may be cheaper to send a human operator than to automate an experiment.
Whether humans are cheaper than automation is something that can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In the past, automated missions were almost always the winners, in purely economic terms, due to the high cost of human spaceflight. That cost is going to be dramatically reduced in the near future, however, so old assumptions and prejudices are no longer valid. Whether government space agencies like NASA send humans to Mars is still unknown and, perhaps, ultimately irrelevant. More important will be the thousands of space explorers, including professional and citizen scientists, who are enabled by the new, low-cost commercial spacecraft.