Humans vs. Robots
Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 27, 2008
NASA / WALL-E image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures /Pixar
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A&S: Another argument for humans in space is that we need to move “off planet” because Earth could be destroyed at any minute—either from an asteroid strike or from our own doing. I have to say, that argument has always bothered me. I don’t like the idea of having a “backup planet” that gives us license to do whatever we want with this one.
McCurdy: Roger and I are very clear on this: The notion that humans are stuck on this planet is a very disappointing one to us. I built rockets when I was a kid, and was a space exploration fan. We would very much like humans to diversify, to spread themselves galactically. But I find the “asteroid strike” argument a bit strange. If we have a trillion dollars to defend ourselves against an asteroid strike, why would we move a couple hundred people to Mars instead of spending the money to protect the eight billion that are already here? That doesn’t seem very democratic to me. I think you’d invest your resources in asteroid deflection.
As a species, we have prospered because we have dispersed, and there’s no reason to think we can’t continue that in the interstellar realm. But you’ve got to get into the question of exactly what part of humanity is dispersing, and how does it happen. The von Braun paradigm says you take a human being, you put him on Mars, you have a colony, and all of a sudden Mars becomes the second Earth. Well, that’s biologically unreasonable. It’s not likely to happen.
The people who live on Mars won’t be Homo sapiens. They will have their roots in humanity, but they will be something different—Homo cosmos. You’re not going to move humans off the Earth like fish in a bubble. Transformations will occur, either planned or unplanned.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when NASA had a lot of money and no one was looking, the agency sponsored a series of studies on how humans might speed up the process of evolution if we spread to other planets. Why rely upon the forces of natural evolution when you’re a technologically advanced society? Why wait ten thousand or ten million years for nature to make these adjustments to different planetary conditions when you can speed it up? It’s biological engineering, some of it mechanical, some of it genetic. You can hardly avoid reading about the transhumanism movement on the Internet these days. Some people believe that within 30 years, humans will have control over their own biological makeup through genetic engineering.
A&S: I hadn’t known about those NASA studies. My first reaction is, “Wow, they had a lot more imagination back then!”
McCurdy: Well, they had a lot more money (laughs).
Launius: But they had more imagination as well. I mean, in the 1960s, the two scientists who coined the term “cyborg” were operating under a NASA grant. They conducted a study that asked which was easier to do—create an environment where humans can survive in space, or change the humans so they can survive there naturally? And they thought, actually, it might be easier to do the latter.
A&S: If NASA took your “alternative paradigm” to heart, what should they be doing now to become a modern, forward-thinking space agency again? It seems to me they’re still playing out the old von Braun script.
McCurdy: Well, the current paradigm still has legs. I mean it’s not over today. It could be 30 years, it could be 300 years. But ultimately it’s a dead end. And the question is: Why can’t we start laying the groundwork for what lies beyond? It’s because the fiscal demands of sending astronauts to the moon and all the science projects are basically driving out the innovative work to lay the groundwork for what lies beyond.
A&S: You have specific recommendations in the book for what might be done. You talk about making a big push to identify earthlike planets around other stars.
McCurdy: Yeah. If Mars didn’t turn out to be the Mars we imagined, then where is Mars? If that’s not too Zen-like for you, that’s the question. Where is the Mars we thought Mars was?
Launius: Or, frankly, where’s the next Earth?
A&S: Your other priorities are bringing down launch costs and developing new propulsion systems. What if NASA were to focus on that kind of research and leave human spaceflight to the private sector, now that space tourism is starting to develop? Would NASA still get $17 billion a year from Congress? Some defenders of the traditional astronaut program say it would be, “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.” NASA’s budget would be cut, and none of the forward-looking things would happen.
Launius: I’ve heard over and over again that it’s the human space program that floats all of NASA’s boats, and that you wouldn’t get political support for these other, more mundane things. I don’t think the other things are that mundane, to be perfectly honest. I think what we’ve seen is a transformation of society in the last 25 years. We’re so much more technology-savvy. We’re used to machinery that does all kinds of things for us, and to robot explorers that go out and are connected to our computer workstations at home or in the office or in a coffee shop. It’s a new way of looking at it. And I think you find, especially among young people, that they don’t have any issues with [robotic exploration]. In fact, they look at the human program as being kind of boring and passé.