Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Let the Robots Do It

I am a space nut. As a kid I built models of the Apollo lunar landers. I was too young to remember the Apollo project first hand, but I do remember Skylab and the Apollo/Soyux missions. I even got permission from my folks to skip school and watch the first shuttle launch and landing. I also remember quite vividly the first pictures sent back from the surface of Mars by the Viking lander. I remember thinking how lucky I was to grow up in a time when the Voyager’s grand tour was even possible. I watched the first raw image returns from the Cassini missions live as they came in from Saturn in 2004. Every day I check multiple Astronomy websites and I make a conscious point to look up in the mornings as I walk to the car and see if I can locate the planets that are currently visible.

So with this introduction you might find it odd that I applaud the announcement to all but kill NASA’s manned space flight program. I don’t have a problem with manned space flight in particular. We just need to look at it honestly and objectively and see what kind of return on our investment we’ve gotten on manned space flight when compared to robotic missions.

While Voyager was taking pictures of Jupiter and all its moons Apollo Soyux was just trying to see if we could get Russians and American’s to shake hands. While Cassini Huygens was taking the best shots of Saturn ever manned missions were trying to figure out how to not burn up another shuttle during re-entry. While Mars Pathfinder more than doubles its life expectancy and continues to send back data from Mars manned missions are trying to figure out how to rescue a shuttle if tiles get damaged on the shuttle. While Hubble continues each day to amaze us with images from the extremes of the universe the ISS is trying to figure out how astronauts can process their own urine and re-drink it. I could go on and on with these examples but my only point is that while the robots are doing real research and doing a bang up job in the process the manned missions are quite literally doing little more than trying to figure out how to stay alive.

I’m not denying the political chest thumping advantage of being able to say we are the only country that has ever set foot on the moon. But let’s not deny that that’s all that it really was. The science was at best and afterthought. We only actually put one scientist up there and he was bumped up to an earlier mission when we realized that we were going to be discontinuing the program. If we feel we need to thump our chest again to show how great America is let’s do it after we’ve taken care of some issues much closer to home. But let’s just not disguise it as a scientific pursuit.

A few years ago when Constellation and Orion were announced I was more than a little annoyed. Why were we spending so much money to rebuild 70’s era technology to do something that we’d already done? So I’m actually glad that the current budget is choosing to cut it. Let Richard Branson, Burt Rutan and the rest of the private sector spend their own money to figure out how to make a toilet that functions in zero-G. Let’s invest our tax dollars into something based on science and with a cost effective return on our tax investment. The robots have proven that they can do that exponentially better than any manned mission.


  1. I agree for now, but I do want us to REALLY go to the moon and have a permanent scientific base. The astronomy alone would be worth it and while I sometimes question if we're worthy of it, I think for the human race to continue beyond a handful of million years we need to "seed the stars" as they say.

  2. I too agree that eventually we need to escape Earth if the human race is to survive. I just don't think that technologically we are at the point where we need to start planning for long term missions beyond the VA radiation belts. We still have no reasonable solution for protecting astronauts in the event of a solar flare. The Apollo astronauts knew it was basically a crap shot every time they went out. Until we've figured out how to do more than just barely survive missions to Mars or back to the Moon just seem a little too ambitious. Especially when tax money could be much better spend solving problems closer to home.

  3. I must admit that the only reaction I had to this was "Wow. Let the robot do it. Why don't I have a robot assistant? Then I could get everything in the library done." Excellent. I'm going to work on that right now.