Saturday 1 January 2005

No Buck Rogers, No Bucks

From a recent analysis by Robert Zimmerman :
In August 1968, less than seven weeks before the first manned Apollo mission, the National Academy of Sciences urged NASA to eliminate almost all manned exploration and replace it with unmanned missions.

"The ability to carry out scientific observations at a distance is developing so rapidly that I don't see any unique role for man in planetary exploration," noted Gordon MacDonald, chairman of the academy panel that issued the recommendation.

The 1968 report had enormous impact. Interest in human space exploration waned and the space program stumbled. By the late 1970s, the United States essentially had no operating program for astronauts, who flew no missions from Apollo-Soyus in 1975 until shuttle Columbia's first launch in 1981.

Ironic, but the lack of human missions did not translate into increased spending for robotic scientific missions, as the scientists had hoped. By 1979 NASA was able to launch only three satellites: two small short-term atmospheric research probes and one astronomical X-ray telescope.

The scientific community effectively had shot itself in the foot. Without the excitement of manned missions to whet the public's appetite, there was little interest in funding any space research -- human or robotic. Only when the U.S. manned program was revived in the 1990s with missions to Mir and the International Space Station, was there also a revival of space science.
Fast Forward 34 Years :
On Nov. 22, less than three weeks after Bush's convincing victory in the presidential election, the American Physical Society published an analysis of the administration's proposal to refocus the U.S. space program away from the space shuttle and International Space Station and toward a return to the moon and further human exploration of the solar system.

The APS report was bluntly skeptical of Bush's initiative and feared its impact on science research funding.

"The scope of the moon-Mars initiative has not been well-defined, its long-term cost has not been adequately addressed, and no budgetary mechanisms have been established to avoid causing irreparable damage to (NASA)'s scientific program," the report said.

APS also questioned the basic practicality or usefulness of sending humans to either the moon or Mars.

"Astronauts on Mars might achieve greater scientific returns than robotic missions, but at such a high cost and technical challenge that one could not expect to justify their presence on scientific grounds alone."
My own views on the subject have been described before. They can be summarised as follows:
  1. A human crewed expedition can do more than a robot expedition.
  2. A human crewed expedition costs as much as 10eX robot expeditions, where X is somewhere between 1 and 3. In other words, you can get 10-1000 robots per crewed expedition
  3. 10 Robot expeditions can do more than a crewed expedition
  4. So robots are the way to go, right? Well..
  5. Without crewed expeditions, only enough funds will be made available for 1 robot. If you're lucky.
What we've been able to do with robots has been wonderous - but my own experience on FedSat indicates that we could do even more. Certainly, with the right planning, Fedsat could have been a lot more autonomous than it is. Though it works well enough, so the people who made the call to limit its intelligence and reduce costs got it right.

At the risk of being repetitious, we should use robots for Science, humans for colonisation. We need both, and in parallel.

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