Monday, October 03, 2005

Men in Space

I read the Washington Post editorial. They don't like the costs and lack of results from putting people in space. I think they don't much like space exploration at all.

So, why astronauts?

  • Science. Some claim that people can do things that robots cannot. It's true. But it's also true that robots have staying power, and people do not. Right now, the balance is overwhelmingly on the side of staying power. Michael Griffin himself has admitted that space science not focussed on people is best pursued without people.

    Consider: Apollo used a noticeable fraction of the U.S. GDP to put six pairs of men on the moon for a total of a couple of man-weeks. For three to four orders of magnitude less money, the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have gone much farther, and seen more, and are still working away more than a year after they landed. Apollo returned samples, which we have not yet done from Mars (but have from deep space). The thing is, sample return does not require people.

    The choice is not robots versus people, it's robots versus robots-and-people. Consider just the fingers of a glove of a space suit suitable for use on the moon. The stiffness from the pressure difference is so high that the hands of serious athletes are cramping and exhausted within hours. Next generation space suits may use mechanical hands outside the suit, operated from within. Such waldoes are already standard practice in many kinds of surgery, deep sea research subs, and some hazardous materials operations. Notice that the control for that waldo can go in the space suit, or in a vehicle, or in a spaceship, or in an office in downtown Houston. One of those doesn't require a mission-critical life-support system.

    In fact, there is no choice. There will be robots now, and there will be robots and people later. In between, we can launch people if we like, but they won't do much.

  • Prestige. Which event gained more international and domestic attention: Shuttle mission STS-113 to the ISS (which installed the P1 truss), or the Deep Impact comet probe rendezvous? Which cost more?

    The problem with manned spaceflight right now is that the next step is really hard. It will be a long time before we are able to do something obviously new and exciting. But for unmanned probes, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of interesting places to go, all within reach of rockets we have today.

  • Destiny. Sigh. The claim here is that humans will eventually populate other places, so we should do it now. I'm really bothered by this kind of reasoning. Karl Marx said that communism was the inevitable end of the evolution of nations. When the inevitable seemed like it was taking too long, Lenin and Stalin tried to hurry it up a lot, eventually by starving the peasants, destroying their economy, and nearly destroying the Russian culture.

    Our destiny will arrive on its own schedule. People will work in space when it makes economic sense to do so. Eventually those workers will have significant needs and desires of their own, best satisfied in space, and... off they go.

  • NASA's Mission. NASA's original mission was not to launch people into space. NASA's original mission (as NACA) was to do basic research on atmospheric flight. The goal of this research was to develop technologies that, while potentially useful to the U.S. as a whole, would not be pursued by private companies that need predictability and exclusivity to satisfy shareholders.

    When the U.S. and the Soviet Union began competing for world mindshare by pulling ever-larger stunts with rockets, NASA got the job of putting men on the moon (and returning them safely).

    The prestige mission of men in space can be retired, just as the B-1 bomber fleet was retooled to carry conventional weapons instead of nuclear ones. It was useful, and it is over. NASA should get back to doing basic space science. Telescopes, nuclear power and propulsion, extraterrestrial geology, that sort of thing. They will eventually find the killer app up there. They have not yet, but there is no need to be impatient. Meantime, we should enjoy the pretty pictures and exciting discoveries.

    P.S. If Michael Griffin ever reads this blog, can you please point out to your mission designers that the most important instrument on every probe is the high-resolution camera? The images returned are the data best interpreted by the people who are paying for all this science -- the U.S. public. The other science is important too but none of it matters if it doesn't matter to Joe Sixpack. Mission designers who do not agree should feel free to get private funding of their probes.