Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sending People

The Space Shuttle will once again be leaving for the International Space Station on Saturday morning, assuming the weather and equipment cooperate.

I get puzzled by many things. One question that I’ve never really quite fathomed goes like this: "Given the success of the unmanned space probes, such as the twin rovers on Mars, or Cassini and Huygens at Saturn and Titan, or the Hubble Space Telescope, what is the point of sending people into space? People are expensive. They have to be fed, and they require complex life support systems. Can’t we get enough science just from our unmanned probes? They only cost a fraction of a human crewed system, they don’t eat, and they don’t need life support."

While it is true that unmanned spaceships are less expensive, and while it is certain that they have been marvelously successful, I’m not sure why some conclude from that, that we have no reason to be sending people out there, too.

It’s like asking your neighbors, after they come back from their summer vacation, “Why did you waste all that time and gas actually going to see the Grand Canyon, when lots of people have already been there and brought back perfectly good videos and photographs? You really thought you could do any better than everyone else who has gone there before? Think how much you’d have saved if you had just ordered a DVD off of Amazon! No traffic to fight, no bad weather to stand in, and you wouldn’t have had to worry about you or your children falling into that big hole. Quite a dangerous place, after all.”

Those who think sending people into space is wasteful apparently believe that robots are the equal of humans, or perhaps even better than humans. So I have to wonder, would they likewise suggest to your boss that you be replaced with a machine? After all, a machine would be a lot cheaper in the long run. The machine won’t get sick. It won’t expect to get paid. It won’t take coffee breaks. And it would never think of wasting all that time on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

I just don’t understand how someone can imagine sending robots is enough. Don’t you believe that a human being on Mars might be a bit more versatile and a bit more valuable than a small wheeled vehicle that can travel only a few dozen feet a day? Not to denigrate the robot, but why do those who ask the question seem so pleased to underestimate human capabilities?

Humans are a bit more adept than machines, and more easily adapt themselves to the unexpected. And even with our machines that we send into space, they are hardly autonomous. They require a lot of careful handling by a team of scientists back on Earth, who work feverishly night and day to try to keep things working, who not infrequently have to try to puzzle out what might have gone wrong a hundred million miles away and hope that their radioed commands will save the day. If there were people on the other end, it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult. “Hey Joe, could you try plugging that cord into the power supply? It seems to have fallen out.”

I love computers and use them every day; but I’m painfully aware of their limitations. When I search my hard drive or the web for a specific file, I’ve got to be very careful about how I word my request and how I spell everything. Otherwise, I am simply not going to get what I’m looking for. How intelligent is your computer at home, after all? Do you really want to leave the exploration of the universe up to that thing on your desk?

Why go to watch the Super Bowl in person? Isn’t seeing it on TV just as good, or even better than being there in person? Why would you be excited if you won free tickets to see the game? If you went to the game in person, you’d have to sit on hard benches, sit in the sun or cold or rain, struggle with parking, pay an arm and a leg for bad food and tiny drinks, and have to put up with the noise of a stadium filled with people. And then you’d just be squinting down at the ant-like figures on the field far below, in desperate need of binoculars just to figure out what was happening. So just stay home, where you can stretch out comfortably on your nice soft couch, with close up views, and instant replay, and all the munchies you need.

It is, quite frankly, not nearly as stirring to watch R2D2 stride across an alien landscape as watching a human being do it. Our memories of Neil Armstrong taking that first small step should be enough to remind us that there is much more to exploration and space travel than just the science. Odd how that part of the equation doesn’t figure in to those who question the need for people.

And if all the people who have already signed up to ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is any indication, most of us would jump at a chance to go into space ourselves. Virtual reality and video games and movies and TV are fine, but we’d really like to experience it. We kind of like reality, I think. Isn’t it a good enough reason to send people into space just the simple fact that we want to go?

But, if you think watching the Super Bowl on TV is good enough, then please send me your tickets. I’ll be happy to endure all the hassles of reality in your place.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I agree that we should keep send people into space, although you raise some interesting questions.

Your Super Bowl analogy is interesting. I've actually felt many times that I'm better off at home. Last year Dan and I saw a Laker game. It was a great time, especially spending time with my son. However, I felt it wasn't worth the cost and hassle. Of course, if the tickets were free ...

To me it's a bandwidth and technology problem. Why go to the Grand Canyon if I can truly recreate the same experience at home. Of course videos and picture fall far short. Perhaps they always will. But what if they didn't? What if we had the "bandwidth" to truly mimic the experience of being there?

As to technology, what if robots were as dexterous or more so than humans? What if their intelligence began to approach human?

I think the argument changes as our technology increases, however we are obviously a long way from the technology and bandwidth needed to approach the proper human experience.