A silly debate

Sunday’s edition of the Cumberland (Md.) Times-News promised a “faceoff” between two newspaper staffers on hoary question of whether space exploration should be done by humans or robots. If you’re looking for insightful commentary on the (space) age-old question, keep looking. The pro-robot argument reads as much like an attack on President Bush as a defense of the capabilities of robotic spacecraft: “Not satisfied with screwing up the nation and the world, George W. Bush has extended his foul reach to the very heavens with a backward-looking plan for space exploration that harms science and threatens the U.S.’s pre-eminent role on the final frontier.” The pro-human argument isn’t much better: the best it can do to defend sending humans in to space is that “by placing astronauts and scientists on manned space missions, we are able to more accurately conduct tests and experiments for the purpose of gaining more accurate results that provide us with information that is exponentially greater than if we simply collected samples and brought them back to earth for study.” The humans-versus-robots debate is a tired old argument, and neither Times-News writer does it much justice.

26 comments to A silly debate

  • James C. McLane’s suggestion of a one-way mission to Mars by an extraordinarily small crew is very much in line with my own thinking of getting things started with the smallest possible up-front investment. I think a one-way government mission is politically improbable. However, an ideologically-motivated private mission by the likes of SpaceX or Biglow is worth some thought. My biggest question would be how could it ultimately lead to routine transportation and trade, which are prerequisits to a truly spacefaring civilization.

    (Yes, Shubber, James and I are dreaming. However, if no one dreams, nothing gets invented. Even if it never happens, James ideas are worth thinking about — and thereby constraining what is possible and probable.)

    — Donald

  • Oh, yes, the above comment references one of the articles in this week’s articles from Jeff’s site.

    — Donald

  • Sam Hoffman

    Donald –

    Do you really think “Man on the Moon and Let Him Rot” is a viable approach? Project Pilgrim?

    Even the Russians at their most desparate weren’t going for that architecture…

    I’m pretty hard-nosed on being realistic about risk factors, but a one way ticket pretty much guarantees some very real crew psychology issues.

  • Attempting to give your question a serious answer, Sam, I don’t know, but on reflection I do agree it is very unlikely. Your objections are why I thought a government project is unlikely in the extreme. However, Elon, et al, are not driven by conventional politics or economics, and, spending personal fortunes, they don’t have to be. Who knows what one of them might finance? People are paying to send their ashes to orbit, and their personal junk, why not move it up a few years and send your body while it is still alive?

    Under the right conditions (say, all my friends were dead, I was diagnosed again with cancer, and my chances of long-term survival were low), I sign up for such an “opportunity,” either as productive scientist or as a tourist.

    — Donald

  • Monte Davis

    IMHO the biggest reason “humans vs. robots” is pointless is that >90% of it is actually “bigger vs. smaller payloads” — in other words, the ancient, boring, intractable challenge of launch costs.

    Nobody wrangles endlessly over manned vs. unmanned Antarctic research, or manned vs. unmanned deep-sea exploration. Not because there aren’t trade-offs worth evaluating, but because in both domains, both alternatives are (broadly speaking) within our means.

    So change the domain to space — and suddenly a qualitatively new dichotomy arises? I don’t think so; I think what happens is that space adds 2-4 zeroes for robots, and 4-6 zeroes for humans… and “pretty soon you’re talkin’ real money.”

  • Sam Hoffman

    Donald –

    I suppose I ca see that sort of “Requiem” approach, but I think we’re still a long way from the reqired technology, certainly in any sort of “private neterprise” endeavor.

    Monte –

    Good point on the “zeroes for heroes” hurdle…but I think it was Steve Sqyres who said he could have done more field geology in an afternoon than Spirit and Opportunity together could in a week – IF, of couse, he was on Mars.

    Having done some field geology, I agree with him wholeheartedly. Automated exploration, whether via robots, drone, RPVs, or what-have-you, however technically impressive, can not substitue for having a trained individual on the scene.

  • Interestingly, Britain — whose government has long opposed human spaceflight — is re-thinking their position. Even more interestingly, the renewed debate was initiated by none other than the Royal Astronomical Society.

    Some of the resulting papers are here,

    Royal Astronomical Society report

    Humans in Space

    — Donald

  • Monte Davis

    Sam: Squyres is right, of course. But over the long term, compare the slopes of the bang per buck, payoff per kg curves:

    – Curve A, from a kg of Explorer I to a kg of Spirit or Cassini

    – Curve B, from a kg of Alan Shepard to a kg of STS-121 (or VSE) astronaut.

    It’s inarguable that A has a steeper slope: hardware and software have become more capable faster than people have become smarter, lighter, smaller or easier to keep alive in space. Unless and until we can drive both curves way down by reducing launch costs, the argument for pursuing A over B is going to have some force.

    Understand: I want people in space as much as anyone here; I just think the “people are more flexible/capable” argument — while still true — is getting relatively weaker, decade by decade, based on the track record so far.

  • Another interesting item out of Britain. They are experimenting with having “users” pay for their own research. That is, the weather reporting agencies would determine how much money Britian contributes to the European Space Agency’s experimental weather satellite programs. The money would have to come out of their own budgets.

    The interesting thing is that at least the weather reporting agencies are declining to pay. Britain is on the edge of losing her leading role in building ESA atmospheric and Earth observation satellites because they have declined to contribute as much as expected. The lesson appears to be that scientists want space applications research as long as someone else pays the bills.

    — Donald

  • Edward Wright

    > So change the domain to space — and suddenly a qualitatively new dichotomy
    > arises? I don’t think so; I think what happens is that space adds 2-4 zeroes
    > for robots, and 4-6 zeroes for humans…

    Thinking so doesn’t make it true.

    In the 60’s, General Dynamics did a study comparing the development of two vehicles with similar size and performance — the X-15 and the Atlas A.

    The manned vehicle did not cost 100 times more. It cost 40% less. This has been confirmed many times since.

  • Ferris Valyn

    The thing is, this debate – its not about humans in space – what it really is about is President Bush – he even gets a mention in one of them. Maryland is a heavily lliberal area, in fact so heavy that there is a real fight going on to kick out Joe Lieberman, a moderate democrat. Again, what we are really seeing is a much more politicized debate. (GO NED !!!)

  • Edward Wright

    > compare the slopes of the bang per buck, payoff per kg curves:

    > – Curve A, from a kg of Explorer I to a kg of Spirit or Cassini

    > – Curve B, from a kg of Alan Shepard to a kg of STS-121 (or VSE) astronaut.

    That’s a meaningless comparison, unless you think the only reason for going into space is to get pretty pictures of Saturn and Mars. Spirit and Cassini may have taken more pictures per kg, but what Alan Shepard did is qualitatively diferent.

  • Sam Hoffman

    Interesting discussion, and if true AI ever arises, we’re probably all out of our jobs…

    But that being said, I once flew transpacific with a command pilot who had started out in props; he made a point – even after fuel tank status was entirely automated – of making sure someone he trusted went out and dipped the tanks, and he wasn’t above doing it himself.

    Likewise, as useful as automated/robotic/remotely-piloted vehicles undoubtedly are, they still suffer from the limitations of their programmer’s imaginations, time/distance equations, or both.

    The Cassini generation descendant of the Mk. I Sputnik/Explorer can record amazing amounts of data; but even the basic Mk. I Yuri/Alan can intepret what is being gathered, select targets of opportunity, and investigate them in real-time far more intelligently than Cassini can…

    Interesting that the British are officially agreeing…

  • Monte Davis

    even the basic Mk. I Yuri/Alan can [function] far more intelligently than Cassini can.

    Absolutely. And when we can afford to send a Mk. I Yuri/Alan where Cassini has gone, s/he’ll prove it again there.

    Until then, treating “robots vs. humans” as a deep and meaningful debate about our ineffable specialness — instead of as a restatement of “smaller payloads we can afford vs. bigger payloads we can’t” — will doubtless continue to eat up column-inches and bandwidth without getting anywhere.

  • Sam, first, the British have not yet “officially agreed.” They’re still debating the issue and, as of this point, there is no change in policy (though it does seem to be softening somewhat in practice).

    I think true AI — as in duplicating the immaginative and cognative and “leap-of-logic” abilities of the human brain — are far further into the future than most people (especially AI researchers) like to think. But, even once that is achieved, we still may be a long way from being put out of our jobs. Finding a fossil on Mars does not involve intelligence alone, nor manipulative ability, but the interface between the two, and that is where robotics most clearly has the longest way to go. A single human geologist can, in a few hours and with a few simple tools, pick up hundreds of rocks of many different sizes, textures, and cohesivenesses; cut them at any angle while analyzing on the fly how to apply the exact forces and angles required to achieve that while simultaneously planning the next cut; do near-instantaneous pattern recognition to determine whether there is a fossil there; protect both the rocks and themselves from damage through, say, the application of too much force; quickly sort the resulting selected samples in order of likelyhood of significant results versus difficulty of transportation for lab analysis; and so on. Think of all the things your arm does to pick up a rock, near-instantaneously and without conscious thought, even with extremely poor data processing and mechanical abilities.

    To the degree that, with huge amounts of effort and expense, robotics have been able to automate individual tasks, it is largely wasted effort: it is the combination and simultaneous execution in finite time of all these tasks that is required to do field geology or paleontology. It is the interface between mind and body that robotics cannot come close to duplicating. I’ll bet anyone a large some of money that no robot will be able to duplicate the skills of a geologist (even a barely trained beginning student) for many decades (and probably centuries) into the future.

    The ability to, say, use brute force mathematics to play chess, or to manipulate an egg, or to recognize a pattern, or to use waypoints to drive between rocks, are amazing achievements. However, equating those achievements to the combination of mammalian intelligence and tool use is a vast inflation of what has actually been achieved.

    It took biology half the lifetime of the sun to come up with these skills. It is the height of unjustified arrogance to think that we can duplicate them in decades.

    — Donald

  • Sam Hoffman

    Apparently we all agree.

    Three down, 290-odd million to go…


    Very valid point on the technical requirements for a manned planetary mission; at this point in my life, I would be extraodinarily heartened by continuing to be part of putting a permanently manned research station on the Moon; I expect to still be around for Mars and beyond, but I think it will be my children’s generation doing the grunt work. I expect to be sipping a cold one by the pool and telling the grandkids stories about working on the Connies…

    Donald –

    Very nicely put. You have a way with words.

  • Thanks, Sam. (blush)

    — Donald

  • Gene

    It is unfortunate that the issue of space exploration is getting bogged down in the debate about Bush. Humanity’s exploration of space is bigger than W or any other politician.

    As for the man vs. machine debate, I think it is misguided because both are key components of space exploration. Machines can be great for making initial attempts at exploration, scouting for sites, etc (think of all the good work by the Spirit and Opportunity or the Soviet Venera missions). But mankind does not truly explore unless one of its own sets foot in a new world.

    I recently watched “From the Earth to the Moon”, where the last episode about Apollo 17 shows that even for certain scientific experiments, machines are not better than humans. I am certainly not a scientist, but I found the episode convincing.

    I also found myself hoping I am around to see humans come back to the Moon and go to Mars

  • Gene: I recently watched “From the Earth to the Moon”, where the last episode about Apollo 17 shows that even for certain scientific experiments, machines are not better than humans. I am certainly not a scientist, but I found the episode convincing.

    Exploring The Moon: The Apollo Expeditions by David M. Harland is a must read for anyone interested in these issues. It covers both the exploration and science that was done on the moon with a day-by-day travelogue of exactly what the astronauts did and how they did it. In the process, it demonstrates why so much of what has been achieved in planetary science actually dates to Apollo (the only extraterrestrial surfaces anywhere in the Solar System with absolute dates are from Apollo; all other dates are educated guesses based on crater counts which in turn are based on the Apollo record), and why robots aren’t going to be duplicating what Apollo achieved any time soon.

    — Donald

  • sam hoffman

    YAQW, Donald.

    Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt make similar points in Cernan’s book; there’s really no way to do the amount of in-depth geology (selenology?) they did over the course of three days without boots on the ground.

  • Ferris Valyn

    I wish it were the case that space could rise above an idividual – that isn’t gonna happen in this day and age.

    Of course, it becomes the natural outcome when a party puts idealoges in power. It is one of the reason I worry about space.

    For a uniquely liberal perspective on what I speak, I suggest hear (the section Adapt we must)

  • Ferris, if you’re not familiar with it, you may be interested in my take on that issue, which was published by Space News shortly before Mr. Bush’s second election. While Mr. Bush has obviously preempted this specific idea, I stand by the general argument.

    — Donald

  • Edward Wright

    > Oops, here’s the link, I have a Dream for the Democrats.

    Hardly original. The Democrats have had that same “dream” for 40 years. (You even quote Kennedy’s absurdist rhetoric about doing things not because they’re cheap but because they’re expensive.) So have the Republicans.

    The “dream” of using NASA money to buy votes in the general election is why NASA has made so little progress in opening the frontier. NASA will continue to go downhill, as long as the two parties continue to regard space as just another welfare program and support expensive solutions just “because they are hard.”

  • Chance

    “Maryland is a heavily liberal area, in fact so heavy that there is a real fight going on to kick out Joe Lieberman, a moderate democrat.”

    Yeah, we Marylanders are so liberal we are pushing to kick out a CONNECTICUT senator. I’ll be sure to vote against him whenever he moves down here.

  • Matthew Corey Brown

    I have nothing tieing me down to earth. Few friends (just co-workers), no striong family ties. Recently divorced with no offspring. I’d go now one way. If there was reasonable support structures in place. I’m not suicidal, but a change of pace sounds good right now.