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
(Page 3 of 5)
A&S: Another quote from your book: “The civil space program works best when it is pursuing the next big thing. It does not lend itself well to repetition.” But here we are, going back to the moon, with hardware that looks a lot like Apollo hardware. And even that won’t happen, optimistically, until after 2020. A moon landing may seem pretty dull in 2020, given other technological and cultural changes likely to be happening by then.
McCurdy: The whole idea of going to the moon was to prepare to go to Mars. Which, in itself, is exciting because we haven’t done that before. But, now, since it’s being stretched out and NASA’s running out of money, the moon’s becoming an end in itself. And the technology being developed to go back to the moon is not going to get us to Mars—not within NASA’s budget. It’s just economically infeasible. It’s the wrong technology.
A&S: Here’s another common argument for sending humans to Mars: Even though robots have the huge advantage of being cheaper and safer, an astronaut geologist on Mars could accomplish in 15 minutes what it’s taken the Mars rovers five years to do.
McCurdy: Well that’s true...
Launius: But it’s a false dichotomy.
McCurdy: Sending astronauts is going to cost a trillion dollars.
Launius: One thing we haven’t discussed yet is why do we want to send people? Howard and I are children of the 1950s and ’60s, the heroic era of spaceflight. And we think it’s cool. But the fun factor probably isn’t a sufficient reason to support it.
McCurdy: The military doesn’t have the “send humans” point of view. In the book we get into the robotics work being done by DARPA and other military organizations. Their attitude is completely the reverse of NASA’s: Send no soldier into harm’s way.
Launius: If you can do it with a robot, do it with a robot.
A&S: Ocean exploration went the same way. In 1960 two explorers went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a bathyscape. They took a little flag down there and everything. But nobody ever felt compelled to go back, or to build a colony on the ocean floor.
Launius: We have not really come to grips with what is it we’re trying to accomplish. Why do we want to send these people into space? I would contend that if it’s not to become a multi-planetary species, then there’s really no point.
McCurdy: And if that’s your goal, let’s start thinking about what part of humanity is going, which gets us into these transhumanist questions immediately.
A&S: If it’s transhumans who are going to colonize space, then maybe the real space program is happening today in the Human Genome Project, not NASA.
Launius: Yeah, conceivably.
McCurdy: John Glenn was not launched on a NASA rocket [but on a missile developed by the U.S. military]. So the real work today may be being done at DARPA and the Human Genome Project, which NASA will eventually have to tap into. In the next White House, whoever’s elected in November, there will be tremendous pressure to cut the federal budget. And my warning to fans of [traditional] human spaceflight would be: You’re putting yourself into a dead end because you’re doing things that don’t have a long-term capacity for generating public interest.