US Astronaut Bruce McCandless on a Nasa mission in 1984. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images The success of the Orion spacecraft test flight has paved the way for America to carry humans to Mars and beyond. Yet many scientists say that manned missions are expensive and unnecessary and that robot probes are the future
Saturday 6 December 2014 19.03 EST
America’s first step in its attempt to reconquer worlds beyond our planet ended in spectacular success on Friday. An unmanned version of its Orion spacecraft soared more than 3,000 miles into space before splashing down on target in the Pacific ocean. The flight was hailed by Nasa, which says that the spaceship is destined to be the first of a fleet that will carry humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
In many laboratories and research centres, this delight was shared by scientists. A return to sending men and women to other parts of the solar system – years after the US scrapped its last manned space vehicle, the shuttle – cannot come soon enough for them.
But for others, the test flight was viewed as a distinctly unhappy event. Putting humans into space is futile, expensive and ultimately harmful to real science, argue researchers who believe that robot craft represent the future of space exploration and are dismayed by the US’s commitment to return to expensive manned missions.