Yes, more humans-vs-robots

The wave of commentary about the relative utility of humans versus robots in space exploration has made its way to the nation’s largest newspapers. Monday’s Boston Globe takes a fairly subtle approach, praising Stardust and New Horizons while mentioning only in passing that such missions demonstrate “the scientific value of robotic projects that do not bear the risk and expense of manned missions.” Another subtle dig: “Both Stardust and New Horizons have survived cost-cutting at NASA necessitated by its new mandate from President Bush to plan manned flights first to the moon and then to Mars.” Of course, Stardust launched five years before Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration, so it didn’t have to do much to survive. (Even New Horizons finally had its hard-won acceptance by the space agency when the Vision came out.)

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times is a little more direct in its criticism of NASA and the Bush Administration. The Times doesn’t claim to be opposed to manned spaceflight per se, but believes that “the agency’s priorities are badly skewed”, and that more emphasis should be placed on robotic missions like the aforementioned Stardust and New Horizons. Referring to President Bush’s speech introducing the VSE two years ago, the editors write: “Afterward, Bush dropped his proposal like a sizzling meteorite, having scarcely mentioned it since. Unfortunately, though, it still seems to be guiding the thinking of NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin.” What the editors don’t mention—perhaps because they simply aren’t aware of it—is that the Vision has been formally, explicitly endorsed by Congress in the NASA authorization bill signed into law late last year.

The core issue missed by editorials like those in the Globe and Times, not to mention those published last week, is this: is NASA a science agency or a space agency? If the former, then one can make a strong case for additional funding for robotic missions (although humans can do science that robots cannot, a rationale for the Vision for Space Exploration that has not been exploited to date by NASA, as Chris Gainor discusses in The Space Review this week.) But if NASA is a space agency, with many other priorities besides planetary science and astronomy, then the arguments of these recent editorials become much weaker. It will be interesting to see if anyone in Congress picks up on these editorials in the weeks and months to come and pressures NASA to shift funding between robotic and human spaceflight.

19 comments to Yes, more humans-vs-robots

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Strange that neither eidtorial refernced the study done on behalf of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society that concluded that astronauts are essential for exploring other worlds.

  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – is this about colonization, or not – our whole approach to space must be about that. This idea that we are going into space for science is a bad idea – we need to sell people on the colonization/business development aspect for space.

  • Dave

    Great comments, Mark and Ferris.

    The challenge now is to get comments like yours into the mainstream media.

  • Paul Niles

    I think the fundamental problem here is that there just doesn’t currently exist a document or person that coherently and logically puts together arguments for exploration that sufficiently contrasts arguments for science. They need to separated and identified for what they are, the different goals they are trying to reach, and how they complement eachother.

    It seems like whenever someone starts talking about exploration they start getting really fuzzy– talking about humankind’s need to explore, unnamed technology advancements that will result, and new frontiers.

    People are attracted to the clear concise goals offered by scientific missions and their tangible results.

  • Mike Puckett

    The same old tired complaints from the same old tired suspects. People wonder why the MSM print media is dying and and why the LA Times is losign its financial shirt. Not an original thought in the bunch, just knee-jerk formulaic reactionism.

    When I want opinions about happenings in the greater metro LA area, I ask the knowledgable people at NASA, When I want opinions on space policy, I ask the knowledgable people at the LA Times……………

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Dave, I demolished the whole “robots uber alles” argument in an oped in USA Today almost two years ago. Yet, it keeps cropping up.

  • The entire space exploration vs. science dichotomy is not only a false one, but a preventable one as well. I firmly agree that space exploration is not as much about science as it is exploration in general, and colonization/business development in the longer term.

    As such, I’ve long felt that NASA is an agency that needs to be divided for its own survival. Manned space exploration cuts into unmanned science budgets, thus increasing criticism for manned space exploration and leading to reduced future budgets. However, the manned side of the agency is not about to let its budgets slip that much, so science loses. This cycle could be simply interrupted by dividing the agency in two: unmanned science probes and manned space exploration; never their budgets shall meet.

    I wrote about this idea a little while ago over at my blog.

  • Anthony, while I am agnostic about splitting NASA in two, I think you’ve got it backword re. automated funding. I think the automated space program benefits greatly, at least financially, by being tied to the human space program. I suspect that automated spaceflight would see a sharp decline if it were a separate agency and had to directly compete with NSF-funded science. In spite of all my arguments in support of human spaceflight, this is an outcome that I would not support.

    — Donald

  • “The same tired complaints…”

    Maybe someone should sponsor a space journalism prize and build a space journalism association.

  • You fascists are into that ‘knee jerk’ thing, aren’t you.

  • Donald,
    Quite honestly, I had never really considered the possibility that human exploration bouys the automated robotic exploration part of NASA. I have always just assumed that the reverse is true and that assumption has been supported by the tone of the editorials we’ve seen lately.

    I would never support a NASA division if the demise of automated space exploration were the result, nor would I support it if human exploration would markedly suffer. But it seems to me that both would benefit from the divorce.

  • Mike Puckett

    “You fascists are into that ‘knee jerk’ thing, aren’t you.”

    You lunatics are into strawman piloted silo based SSTO phantom spaceships aren’t you?

  • Dave, look at my blog, you’ll see how im trying to push it into the maintstream

    Donald and Anthony,
    As far as breaking Nasa up, frankly, I think thats long over due. Whether it needs to be a full complete break, with different agencies, or clear divisions within the nasa structure, Im not certain, although I would tend towards a clean break, but the concept of nasa as “A space agency” is riduculus. The only comparitable agency is the entireity of the US government

  • Dave

    What I really want to know is…

    Who is that chick in the front row of the Pluto Fast Flyby photo? She’s cute.

    Jeff, could you help us out here?

  • Dave

    An argument for keeping NASA intact is that large agencies tend to have more clout and influence in Congress, making it more likely that the budgets for both manned and unmanned programs will increase.

    Now how about that chick, Jeff?

  • Dave, the problem is that larger agencies having more clout only proves true when each state, and frankly each congressional district, has to have direct, vital role in the agency. This isn’t the case with Nasa.
    And there is also the point about what the hell is the agencies purpose – Is it about science, exploration, opening space up, what? The agency has become something of a camel. Case in point – The new CEV stuff vs other/more robotic probes vs spending money on developing cheap orbital access. With the crap budget Nasa has right now, forget about trying to be all things to all people, and ends up not being able to do a damn thing.

  • sam hoffman

    Anyone who has ever done any real scientific field work here on Earth (ie, geology, archeology, hydrography, etc.) knows that man-in-the-loop, or even manual, labor is the only way to accomplish any reasonable amount of productivity.

    One field geologist with a hammer could learn more on Mars in a day than the rovers can in a year, even as impressive as their performance has been…

    Exploring our solar system simply to learn WHAT IS OUT THERE, at eye level, is pure science of the truest kind.

    Craters on the Moon.

    Mountains on Mars.

    Clouds on Venus.

    Faults on Mercury.

    Caves on Callisto.

    Volcanoes on Io.

    Ice caps on Europa.

    and much, much, more…all that automated flybys, orbiters, and landers can do is suggest what remains to be seen.. to see it requires eyes on the ground.

    But we’ll never know until we go.

  • Jeff Foust

    Sorry, Dave, I don’t remember her name; she worked at JPL. I didn’t realize readers here were so desperate for a Space Politics Dating Service.

    We now return you to your regular-scheduled humans-vs-robots debate, already in progress…

  • Jeff, it looks like maybe you’ve got a new business to add to the SpacePolitics empire! It looks like there is a demand for something that appears to be in scarce supply.

    — Donald