Leading article: A dangerous romance

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The Independent Online

It will be the first Shuttle flight since the disaster of 1 February 2003, when the lives of all seven crew were lost during the Columbia's disastrous re-entry to the atmosphere. The tragic loss of life underlines the risks that these brave men and women take each time they are thrown into orbit with the help of a small mountain of dangerously combustible rocket fuel.

Although everything possible is triple checked, the risks can never be totally eliminated. Space travel is extremely dangerous, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

A question, then, is why we feel a need to do it? Why do we not send sophisticated robots into space at a fraction of the cost and with no risk to life and limb?

The simple answer is that we are not yet at a stage of development when even the most intelligent and dextrous of robots can match the performance of a human being.

But that may not be true for ever. It could be argued that if we spent as much money on robotic development as we do on fail-safe systems for manned space missions, we could very soon produce intelligent machines that could carry out everything needed to ensure a successful space mission.

That time may soon come. And then we will need to decide whether we wish to continue the dangerous romance of manned space exploration.