Science: The Cruise of the Vostok

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The Russians recognized the great opportunity, used their big booster rockets to score their long series of propaganda triumphs in space. Now it is increasingly difficult for the U.S. to catch up. But despite its defeats, the U.S. can and will continue to do sound scientific research in space. It has been doing this for years, learning more with small, numerous and deftly instrumented spacecraft than the Russians have with their monsters. Such work impresses scientists, and adds immeasurably to the world's store of knowledge, but the great world public probably could not care less about such discoveries as the energy of cosmic rays or the number of electrons in space. Only a spectacular and extremely difficult bit of rocketeering, say a manned trip around the moon, will top Russian spacemen in the eyes of the world.

Instruments v. Men. Aside from its tremendous value as propaganda, the latest Soviet shot accomplished little. During his trip around the earth, Major Gagarin apparently saw nothing of scientific interest, and reported less than his weight in instruments would have reported. He did not even exercise control over the Vostok; all button pushing was done from the ground.

But this was no less than most scientists, including Russians, expected of him. The scientific consensus is that during the early stages of space exploration, instruments will be better explorers than heavy, vulnerable humans, who require tons of supplies and equipment to keep them alive. Instruments are smaller, lighter and tougher than men. They can stand acceleration, shock, vibration, spinning, heat, cold and radiation. Best of all, they do not demand to be brought home alive. They transmit to earth all the information that they have gathered in space: then they die as streaks of fire without reproach or protest. Or they land on the moon or Mars and stay there, reporting faithfully until their radios fade.

For a long time, human space travelers may be relatively useless cargo. But scientists whose imaginations run beyond the immediate future do not scoff at men in space. There will come a time, the scientists believe, when men will be needed because of the human capability for judgment and improvisation. A collection of instruments landed on the moon can do only the specific jobs for which it is designed. It can look around with TV eyes, scan the close and forbidding horizon, feel the ground for moonquakes, perhaps examine pinches of moon dust for chemical content. It can do almost anything that its designers want it to do—except the most important thing of all: react intelligently to unexpected situations.

No collection of instruments, for example, could be expected to show interest in a book with platinum leaves inscribed in an unknown language and left by an unknown race in a lunar crevice one million years ago. The moon is unlikely to have such objects on it, but it may hide things that are just as startling. Mars should be even richer in surprises. It may shelter subtle kinds of life, or relics of life, that no instrument would appreciate. Voyages to Mars will always be unsatisfactory until men report what they see there.

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