The Astronaut Question
How long will humans remain better than robots at exploration?
- By James R. Chiles
- Air & Space magazine, September 2012
(Page 4 of 4)
Are astronauts comfortable with the level of automation provided by ALHAT? “As with Apollo, astronauts can take manual control, or choose to defer to the automated system,” Bailey says. “The astronauts say that they’re in support of this technology.”
“You can automate the piloting really well, such as for landing,” says Ed Gibson, who in 1973-1974 flew on the third mission to Skylab. “That you can do. The real question is the on-site judgment, to sense the situation and make rational judgments. Man’s unique ability is to assimilate data and make decisions, not to be an expensive replacement for robots.” Gibson recalled tedious jobs on Skylab: “We ran all the camera systems. We had a long checklist—every two seconds, push a button. But the best photography we did was with hand-held cameras out the windows…. There’s nothing worse than wasting men on doing robotics stuff.” As Gibson sees it, striking the proper balance between jobs for astronauts and jobs for robots depends on the mission. “If we think humans have a place on Mars and there’s a need to terraform it for colonies to grow, then getting men there is necessary. But when we just have scientific objectives, then we should use unmanned methods.”
Still, some fear that if only for budgetary reasons, humanity is going to be left at the spaceport, watching robots take to the skies and wistfully remembering Chesley Bonestell’s stunningly detailed, long-ago paintings of people hopping gaily across the moon and Mars.
That’s not what the robot-wranglers want. The day I visited Jet Propulsion Laboratory was also the day the last shuttle launched. Work on unmanned probes, rovers, and other automated gear came to a quick halt so staff could watch Atlantis lift off. The Von Kármán Auditorium rang with their cheers.
“Replacing scientists or geologists—that’s not what we’re about,” says JPL Mars mission engineer Ben Bornstein. “Absolutely, we need them. We need humans for exploration. I know for myself and my colleagues, we all feel the same way. We’re all very enthusiastic about space exploration.”
Or as JPL’s Erik Bailey phrases it, “We need to start projecting ourselves off this rock.”
James R. Chiles has been writing about history and technology since 1979. He blogs at Disaster- Wise.blogspot.com.