Astronomer Seth Shostak is in favor of space exploration, but, in this op-ed, he points out that starships capable of carrying humans are a long way off. We are not sure that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is even possible. We can definitely travel faster than we do today, but anything past Mars is likely limited to robotic probes. He makes an interesting suggestion for the collection of information from our galactic neighborhood: "re-energize NASA’s development of nuclear-powered rockets, with the intention of building a craft able to send clusters of micro-bots into deep space at velocities of, say, one-tenth light speed."
COMMENT: I'm all for the idea about nuclear propulsion and small probes, although it's very hard (impossible, really) to give up on the idea of some day traveling to the stars ourselves. In the near term, though, Shostak's probe concept reflects an idea Kris Winkler and I described in a paper to the Conference on Small Satellites in 2006 about the use of microspacecraft as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.
See the op-ed version at:
I was also involved in a study of future NASA propulsion investments that concluded nuclear fission was our best chance to break out of the restraints of chemical propulsion.
We can still do this, people. Earthly problems don't require us to take our eyes off the stars: just to be smart about how we get there.
THANKS to Kris Winkler for sending me this article.