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(NASA / WALL-E image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures /Pixar)

Humans vs. Robots

Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.

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.

Launius: We’ve attached all these hopes and dreams to Mars from the very beginning. And we’ve modified those hopes and dreams, but not all that much. We’re still talking about Mars as a place where we can live, and we still think we’re going to find evidence of life there. We have these preconceptions about Mars that go back more than a century, to the canals and all the stuff that Percival Lowell talked about. When I was kid in the ’60s, my science book said almost as a certainty that there had to be life forms on Mars. Then Mariner 4 went there, and sent back pictures of craters. And it wasn’t that we abandoned our hope of finding anything intriguing. We just said, “Well, okay, we’re looking in the wrong place.” So the Viking landers were designed to look for signs of biological life. They found nothing. And, again, we didn’t abandon the idea altogether.

McCurdy: We just didn’t dig deep enough.

Launius: Didn’t dig deep enough. So now we’ll look for evidence of past life. Leon Festinger’s book, When Prophecy Fails, is about a millennial group whose prophet predicted the end of the world. Well, the date came and went, and nothing changed. Logic would suggest that maybe these people would realize this is all nonsense and leave. No, they didn’t! Not at all! They simply modified their beliefs slightly. You know, maybe they got the date wrong, or maybe the world did end and they just didn’t realize it. Any number of explanations. But they didn’t abandon their idea. And that’s what we’ve seen with Mars over and over again.

McCurdy: The idea of extraterrestrial life is very compelling on all levels, from intelligent life down to the microbial level. We would really like to know whether we’re absolutely alone. We’d like to know the answer to the question of whether or not Earths are rare. And then there’s the whole flying saucer thing, which has mystical and religious connotations that somehow there are greater powers more technologically advanced than we are. So at all levels, it is one of the most powerful social factors supporting the space program. Some of it’s pretty outmoded. But, like Roger says, if it’s outmoded, all you have to do is to change it slightly.

A&S: Let’s talk about a recent case where NASA compared the capabilities of humans versus robots in space—the question of how the Hubble Space Telescope could be repaired without jeopardizing the lives of astronauts. They asked a National Academy of Sciences panel whether robots could do the repair. And the answer basically came back, “no.”

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