Television footage from the debris field at the site of the July 2014 MH17 tragedy in Ukraine showed intact bags lying in the sunflower fields. 

But all people on board were torn to bits. Eyewitnesses describe a macabre, veritable shower of severed arms, legs and twisted torsos at the time of the shoot-down.

Suitcases are tougher than human bodies. Just about anything is tougher than a human body, but now, for more than a generation, sending humans – these incredibly delicate and fragile beings -- into the searing, radiation-infested hostile environment of space has been considered the gold standard of space exploration.

Is that because of misplaced chauvinism and some long-enduring science-fiction-inspired fantasies?

It is quite evident that we can learn a lot about space and the planets by unmanned space vehicles at a fraction of the cost of manned missions and far more efficiently.

The ostensible reason for manned space flight has been the advancement of science.

But it is apparent that the main driving force behind these adventures, from way back in the 1950s and 1960s, has been national pride and flag-waving jingoism.

When former U.S. president John Kennedy made his bombastic speech in the 1960s promising to put a man on the moon was he thinking of advancing the frontiers of science? Hardly.

Likely, what he really wanted was to put the stars and stripes on the moon, create a feel-good atmosphere in the U.S., and in the process, also stick it to the Ruskies.

Even today, if there were to be a manned moon landing, it would be headline news for days on end, manna from heaven for the 24/7 news channels. But if a gamma spectrometer were to be installed on the moon, it would perhaps be reported, if at all, in about four column-inches of space in Section E of the newspapers, even though that instrument would generate far more scientific data than an astronaut.

Machismo was very much a part of the early astronaut culture. These were square-jawed, crew-cut men – sorry, no women – who spoke in short, clipped sentences.

If there was any science in their background, it was not too evident. 

A columnist for a newsmagazine recently lamented that today’s astronauts are a bunch of wimps and that is why we don’t have a decent manned space program.

One of the longest lasting fantasies has been the one about human colonization of space – all the new worlds out there waiting to be populated.

There is even talk of catapulting a fecund co-ed crew on a one-way trip to Mars where they would be expected to go forth, multiply and create a new world.

Unfortunately, it would be difficult for romance to flourish in an environment of temperature fluctuations of hundreds of degrees, no oxygen, no food and a wonky gravity field.  And the radiation there would do a lot more than just cause cancer. 

Astronauts return from even brief stints into space unable even to walk, when just a few weeks earlier, they were robust young men selected for the job in large part because of their physical fitness. And that is just because of the lack of gravity.

Those looking to colonize new worlds, would be better advised to look at a place that is much closer to home and far more hospitable than either the moon or Mars. A place where lots of oxygen is available just a few kilometres away, which has an area more than four times the area of the moon and which has all the water one would ever need. That place is the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The good news is that over the last many years, both NASA and the European Space Agency have quietly set aside their manned programs – except for the International Space Station floating a mere 300 kilometres above the Earth -- and have used unmanned spacecraft for some genuine scientific research. NASA has learnt a lot about Mars through a series of orbiters, landers and rovers.

ESA was in the news recently for chasing down a comet, which they eventually hope to lasso.

It will be good if our space agencies, and the politicians directing them, decide on whether space programs exist simply for creating news and rah-rah jingoism or for furthering the frontiers of human knowledge.

We should be clear about where our precious tax dollars are going.

Winnipegger Nash Soonawala is retired from a career in mineral exploration, scientific research and management and now dabbles in writing.