Or maybe there is no consensus developing on manned vs. robotic exploration of space

Monday, January 26, 2009

Victoria Crater on Mars again - 750 m in diameter and took the Opportunity rover over a year to explore; a human would take a day or two to accomplish the same thing.

Hot on the heels of an article advocating that space exploration be done mostly by robots, there's another article yesterday on space.com advocating the opposite point of view, that a human presence in space is necessary.
It is a serious dilemma that faces space exploration policy makers: establish a foothold in low-Earth orbit and plan new manned missions to the moon, or concentrate on robotic exploration of planets such as Mars? Multhaup's stance is clear: "We were cave dwellers, and now office dwellers. The next step is for us to become solar system dwellers." He believes that humans must progress into space, not only to advance science but to appeal to our natural sense of adventure and, ultimately, to ensure the survival of our species.

"Human spaceflight is not just about science," says Multhaup. "I see it as a driver for evolution. We are an exploratory species, and when we have the technology to go somewhere, we do. It's about culture and the human desire to evolve and expand, and to protect ourselves against catastrophes which can erase life on planets and end civilizations."
That's an interesting point of view, that we need human exploration in order to progress from a terrestrial worldview to a universal one (except now the word worldview doesn't really apply). That's a definite possibility, though I think it will only be accomplished by private industry as government always feels one step removed from the reality we experience every day, so even a ton more human LEO exploration probably won't feel all that much different if it's still carried out by people that receive a set amount of funding per year, approved by congress, and subject to all the diplomatic limitations (Russia: you don't approve of our conflict with Georgia? No launches for you! for example) that come with it. In private industry there's much less of that.

The other argument made for human exploration is that when on site humans are amazingly efficient compared to robots. Compare for example the Victoria Crater, 750 m in diameter and explored by the Opportunity rover over a period of more than a year. How long would that take a single human to accomplish the same? Perhaps a day, maybe two for some in-depth analysis. And a quick survey could be accomplished in an hour or two.

Here's my compromise: send humans on a few missions to check out near-Earth asteroids as they fly by, and see what comes of that. That's the best way to bring us out of this "visited the Moon once but going back to the Moon for the 2nd time might not be as exciting as the first and in the meantime we'll just stay in LEO and Mars is waaaay too hard to reach right now" rut we're in right now. An asteroid mission will be something completely new, and just as exciting as landing on the Moon IMO (especially considering how many people on the Earth weren't around for the first Moon landing, like myself).


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