For the last couple of days, I've been watching the latest Space Shuttle mission on the Nasa TV webfeed (via the Flame Trench). It's not the most exciting television in the world - well, it's in orbit about the world, but you know what I mean. But it is fascinating in a minor mind-boggling sort of way. I mean, that's space. It's not on Earth. It's 240 miles straight up. When you think what's needed merely to survive there... Then you start to realise quite how amazing an achievement were the Apollo missions to the Moon.
The US says it is going back to the Moon, although I wonder how long the enthusiasm will last. Given that China, Japan and India have also expressed similar intentions, perhaps the spirit of competitiveness will keep it on the political agenda. I think they should go. It's a great idea. And yes, after Nasa has done that, of course they should go to Mars.
But why stop there? How about Ceres next? The moons of Saturn?
It doesn't matter that we don't have any real reason for going. We should do it because we can, because whatever challenges it presents are solvable. It's something to aspire to, something achievable to aspire to. It's not a waste of money, it's not money that would be better spent on solving earthly problems. Because, let's face it, if that money were made available, it wouldn't be spent on earthly problems anyway. It'd go towards another "liberation" or "police action". Or be used to further prop up an unwieldy government apparatus. Spending billions of dollars on sending four men to the Moon is a tangible, and very visible, objective. And no one has to die, either.
There might even be some spin-off technology that will prove useful or lucrative. But that's just gravy. And the merchandising should make a bob or two. With a bit of help, a Nasa programme could even bootstrap commercial enterprises into space. It'll never be routine or economical - or rather, the amount of up-front investment required to make it routine is politically and economically unfeasible. Local authorities in the UK won't even invest in trams, so I don't consider it likely that even a nation with a GDP of nearly $14,000,000,000,000,000 will invest in an orbital elevator. So it's either spaceplanes or "Spam in a can".
There is some scientific benefit to going back to the Moon, and then onwards to Mars. But that's not important. Robots could do the job just as well. But sending robots is boring. We've been doing that for decades, and no one really cares. Send astronauts (or cosmonauts, or taikonauts), not robots.
Project Constellation is an excellent idea. Do it.