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Another humans-vs-robots salvo

Amid all the congratulatory news about the successful return Sunday of NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, is shouldn’t be that surprising that someone has tried to use the mission to make a point about space policy. An editorial in Tuesday’s Des Moines Register takes note that Stardust was a robotic mission:

Best of all, the stardust was successfully collected in a robotic space expedition. It’s a reminder that unmanned space travel can be as fruitful as manned travel. It’s cheaper, safer and just as exciting. A spacecraft delivered solar sprinklings to curious, 21st-century humans without risking human life.

A quibble: one can argue that human life was at risk with Stardust, since there were people in airplanes and helicopters observing the reentry and participating in the recovery of the capsule. Still, a little more proof that the argument of robotic versus human spaceflight has not gone away.

21 comments to Another humans-vs-robots salvo

  • Brent

    Does anyone else besides me think Stardust was boring? I’m glad it happened but I have to think that many people that get excited about robotic missions have no concept of what they’re missing with human space activities. Tell me that people wouldn’t have been a thousand times more excited seeing an astronaut with a pickaxe take a chunk out of a comet.

  • Fry

    I have a funny feeling that after humans have colonized the solar system and are looking on to other star systems, a newspaper will run the story, “Alpha Centauri: Humans or Robots?”

    And it’ll have quotes from Bob Park’s head-in-a-jar.

    And the answer will still be, of course, both.

  • Paul Dietz

    By the time Alpha Centauri is first visited, there won’t be any difference.

  • I am beginning to get the sense that the only people still debating whether humans or robots are the appropriate means of exploring space have no idea what they are talking about. The right question is, of course, what role does each play? What are the strengths and weaknesses of humans and robotic systesms, and how can we best use both in terms of cost and time involved.

    It would have been idiotic to send out an astronaut with a few plates of aerogel to collect samples from Wild 2, but it would also be idiotic to explore the surface of Mars without people.

  • Alistair Funge

    Robots first (most of the time), humans second. You can’t have one without the other.

    I don’t think you’ll ever have a mission that is entirely human with no robotic presence. Humans will bring along UAVs (or USVs if you will) that can conduct short missions at local human direction.

    Arguments in favor of 100% either way are pointless; just someone looking for 15 mins of fame (infamy).

  • The author is certainly pointed out the obvious: that a manned Stardust mission made no sense. Wow, who would have thunk?

  • Fundementally, this is a stupid debate, and we need to end it ASAP – The simple fact, as Carl Sagan pointed out some years ago (at least I think it was Sagan) that the debate isn’t about humans vs robots – its about exploration vs colonization. Not making that point every time someone argues for just sending robots hurts manned spaceflight. After all, everyone who argues for manned exploration really wants to see colonization. We need to start reframing the debate, so that its a colonization vs exploration debate

  • Paul –

    Well said! By the time we reach our nearest stellar neighbor millennia from now, I believe the differences between organism and machine will be impossible to distinguish.

    And to echo the sentiments of others on this thread, the debate about which should go into space – humans or robots – is idiotic. Both will go because both need each other. Robots are tools. Nothing more. Until the tool becomes self aware. But that’s another story entirely.

  • Brent, Stardust may have been “boring” (I don’t think so myself, however), but the Japanese mission to return samples from an asteroid was vital to human exploration. That it apparently has failed, is a major setback to our goals.

    Which brings me to Anthony’s comment, which I largely agree with. I have argued before that automated and human spaceflight actually have clearly defined roles. The former is appropriate for initial reconnaissance; the latter for science and detailed exploration. Obviously, there is a fuzzy line between these two, but when we try to make one fulfill the role that is apprpriate for the other, that is when we get into serious trouble.

    I also agree with the comments that we need both. I only get up in arms when someone says we can do real science with robots alone, which is such obvious nonesense that no grown up thinking being should be able to believe it.

    — Donald

  • Paul Dietz

    I only get up in arms when someone says we can do real science with robots alone

    So what’s all that unmanned stuff we’ve been doing — chopped liver?

  • Paul, most of it is reconnaissance. When we’ve attempted to automate real experimental, laboratory science — Viking, Beagle — we’ve fallen flat. At great expense, Viking failed to answer the question it was designed to answer; Beagle was overly complex and under tested and failed outright. The current Mars rovers are on the border, and their success is mostly reconnaissance with an extremely tiny experimental component. Automated missions that have stuck firmly to reconnaissance — Cassini, Galileo, Voyager — have been outstanding successes.

    While this is open to debate, it is my opinion that we’ve done about all we can with automated reconnaissance on the moon and Mars, and it is time to move on to exploratory expeditions over large areas and experimental geochemistry with many thousands carefully chosen samples selected over wide areas. Neither of these is likely to be successfully automated, but both could be done relatively easily on a few human expenditions.

    — Donald

  • David Davenport

    it is my opinion that we’ve done about all we can with automated reconnaissance on the moon and Mars

    Yes, that is YOUR OPINION.

    The current Mars rovers are on the border, and their success is mostly reconnaissance with an extremely tiny experimental component.

    You’re setting up a tortured distinction between “reconnaissance” and science.

  • Paul Dietz

    You’re setting up a tortured distinction between “reconnaissance” and science.

    Yes, I guess most of astronomy isn’t ‘real science’.

    Who knew?

  • That’s right Paul. I know this not a widely held view, but that does not by itself mean that I am wrong. The scientific method _must_ involve physical experimentation. Right now, almost all of astronomy (with the notable exceptions of the Apollo rocks, the Stardust samples, and a few mechanical and elemental experiments on few and isolated sites on Mars, Titan, et al.) is remote observation and theory. These are only part of science, and the history of science has shown over and over that relying on remote observation and theory is an excellent way to come to the wrong conclusion.

    To be a real science, Astronomy needs scientists on site, taking real samples, and conducting physical (geochemical) experiments on them.

    — Donald

  • You guys are using too many labels and stereotypes, everything is multidisciplinary now. That’s the biggest problem I originally had with Squyres and MER, they kept claiming it was a ‘geology’ mission.

  • Paul Dietz

    The scientific method _must_ involve physical experimentation.

    The scientific method must involve hypotheses that make predictions that can then be tested. There is no need for these predictions to involve experiments that can be set up in entirely in a laboratory.

    Look at the Nobel Prizes for physics. Depending on how you count, up to nine of them have involved things you would not consider ‘real science’. Among them: the short period binary pulsar and its use in testing general relativity (1993), discovery of pulsars (1974), discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (1978), physics of degenerate stars (1983), a couple on cosmic radiation (1936, 1948), one on the ionosphere (1947), and extraterrestrial neutrino and x-ray astronomy (2002).

    Maybe you should write to Stockholm and complain about all the fake science awards they’ve been giving out.

  • Paul, if you are right, how come we had to go to Jupiter to find Io’s volcanoes? Why did we have to go to Saturn to find out what Titan was like, or that tiny moons could be volcanically active? Why are the only absolute surface dates for the entire Solar System — on which all the relative dates obtained by remote observation are based — from the Apollo missions?

    You need both. I am not saying that you should not do the best you can when physical exploration is not possible, but where ever it is, you will always get better results by going there. To take one of your examples, sure, you can discover pulsars from Earth, and you can learn a lot by studying the radiation they emit, and you should even get a Nobel prize for your (provisional) discoveries. But, if that ever proves possible, there is no question that you would get far more detailed and reliable results by going there and physically sampling the environment. (For example, if there were an asteroid or Kuiper belt, you might be able to determine facts about the pre-pulsar star from buried regolith, which is an obvious prerequisite to true understanding of the formation of that pulsar.)

    We are not going to a pulsar anytime soon, if ever. But, we can go to Earth’s moon and Mars, and we will get far better science if we do.

    — Donald

  • Paul Dietz

    Paul, if you are right, how come we had to go to Jupiter to find Io’s volcanoes?

    Non sequitur, Donald. I wasn’t claiming that remote observation is sufficient. I was claiming it was science. You are the one who made the absurd claim it wasn’t ‘real science’.

    If you are now retreating to the much more defensible position that remote observation is science, but that there are things that it can’t easily do that direct contact can, I won’t argue otherwise. Perhaps you should have taken this position to begin with, though.

  • Now we are getting into semantics.

    However stated (or misstated by me), my initial position was and has been that automated remote observation is not sufficient. You need human scientists, on site, doing laboratory science to truly understand an object or location. Wherever that is possible — in the next few decades or so, the moon, Mars, the Martian moons, near-Earth asteroids — we should do it.

    there are things that [remote observation] can’t easily do that direct contact can, I won’t argue otherwise

    I’m glad you’ve come around to my point-of-view!

    — Donald

  • Paul Dietz

    > I’m glad you’ve come around to my point-of-view!

    I would have ‘come around’ to this position only if I hadn’t held it from the beginning. I’m not the one changing my tune in this discussion.

    It should also be noted that there are things that remote observation can do better than direct contact — why do you think we have terrestrial remote sensing satellites?

    The more cogent argument against colonization for science is not that on-site access is useless, but that it isn’t worth the cost. The same argument can be made against unmanned planetary missions, though.

    Behind all this is the question: why does the government fund science at all? Direct societal benefit from the scientific results? Spinoff technology? Spinoff of excess grad students into industry? Maintaining a cadre of scientists who can be diverted to weapons work during wartime?

  • Paul, I do stand by my argument that there is a qualitative difference between remote observation and theory, and physical experimentation, and that the latter should have what might be called a “higher scientific value” than the former. Trying to reach an accommodation is not quite the same as changing my tune.

    To address your last point, regarding exploration, the historical answer is, “none of the above.” Many governments throughout history have supported physical exploration because they saw it as leading to access to new or better resources; better trade routes; military expansion; and getting rid of what they defined as undesirable people. At least the first three of these could ultimately apply to spaceflight. In general, I suspect most governments support scientists because they develop better weapons and, secondarily, better industries. Science for pure knowledge’s sake is a relatively new idea, but even here it probably grew out of the military’s observation, during the first half of the last century, of what pure science could lead to.

    This brings us back to the separate discussion of breaking up NASA. What happens if space science is separated from the wider NASA? Right now, space science (widely defined) gets an outlandish amount of money compared to the other sciences. We have to ask ourselves why. My suspician is that it is strongly tied to the American mythology of a frontier, and if the wider culture and government came to believe that the automated space program were completely unsupportive of achieving that myth in the Solar System, the money would rapidly dry up. There’s only one way to find out, but if I were a space scientist I would take that risk with great care.