Would you go on an one way interstellar trip to Alpha Centauri? ( Or Proxima if planets were found there? )
The question was put out to the public about one way trips to Mars recently, but interstellar travel is an entirely different animal due to the infinitely longer distances and travel times involved.
But according to Paul Gilster on the Centauri Dreams web site, filling a crew roster might not be a problem:
If you were offered a chance to make an interstellar journey, would you take it? How about a garden-variety trip to low-Earth orbit? I’m often asked questions like this when I make presentations to the public, and I have no hesitation in saying no. Though I’m no longer doing any flight instructing, I used to love flying airplanes, but getting into a rocket and being propelled anywhere is not for me. To each his own: I’m fascinated with deep space and hope many humans go there, and you can count on me to write about their missions and robotic ones as well while keeping my office right here on Earth.
The point is, the percentage of people who actually go out and take the incredible journeys and fly the dangerous missions is vanishingly low. But throughout history, there have always been a few intrepid souls who were willing to get into the canoes or the caravels or the biplanes and open up new territories and technologies. Thank God we have the Neil Armstrongs and Sergei Krikalyovs of this world. And somewhere in England there are the relatives of some young 18th Century adventurer who signed up as a cabin boy and wound up living out his life in Australia. People like this drive the species forward and put into action the yearning for exploration I suspect we all share.
I’ve told this story before, but in the past few weeks a high percentage of the people coming to this site are coming for the first time, so I’ll tell it again. Robert Forward was the scientist who more than any other argued that we study methods for reaching the stars, saying that it could be done without violating the laws of physics and would therefore one day occur. Forward’s son Bob told me what happened one night at dinner when he asked his father whether he would get on a starship if it landed nearby and he was asked to go out and explore the universe, with the proviso that he could never come back. Forward’s response was instantaneous: “Of course!”
To which his wife Martha could only reply: “What about us? You mean you would just leave your family and disappear into the universe?” That made Forward pensive for only a moment as he replied, “You have to understand. This is what I have dreamed about all my life.”
To be fair, if an Earth-type world was ever found at Alpha Centauri, the chances of ever traveling there would be extremely low. It’s just plain cheaper to build super-telescopes to zoom in and literally “scope-out” any kind of life forms and biospheres there. No environmental issues, no contamination and no astronauts need apply.
The only way a planet at Alpha Centauri will be touched by human beings is like in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ An “unobtainium” element with extraordinary abilities would have to be found that would make the time, effort and investments cost-effective to exploit.
As in Solar System exploitation, the reasons to explore extra-solar worlds would have to involve a strong economic element. Even personal freedoms comes in at a distant second.
From Wired Science:
When a man tells you about the time he planned to put a vegetable garden on Mars, you worry about his mental state. But if that same man has since launched multiple rockets that are actually capable of reaching Mars—sending them into orbit, Bond-style, from a tiny island in the Pacific—you need to find another diagnosis. That’s the thing about extreme entrepreneurialism: There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and you need a little bit of both to really change the world.
All entrepreneurs have an aptitude for risk, but more important than that is their capacity for self-delusion. Indeed, psychological investigations have found that entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-tolerant than non-entrepreneurs. They just have an extraordinary ability to believe in their own visions, so much so that they think what they’re embarking on isn’t really that risky. They’re wrong, of course, but without the ability to be so wrong—to willfully ignore all those naysayers and all that evidence to the contrary—no one would possess the necessary audacity to start something radically new.
I have never met an entrepreneur who fits this model more than Elon Musk. All of the entrepreneurs I admire most—Musk, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Jack Dorsey, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a few others—have sought not just to build great companies but to take on problems that really matter. Yet even in this class of universe-denters, Musk stands out. After cofounding a series of Internet companies, including PayPal, the South African transplant could simply have retired to enjoy his riches. Instead he decided to disrupt the most difficult-to-master industries in the world. At 41 he is reinventing the car with Tesla, which is building all-electric vehicles in a Detroit-scale factory. (Wired profiled this venture in issue 18.10.) He is transforming energy with SolarCity, a startup that leases solar-power systems to homeowners.
And he is leading the private space race with SpaceX, which is poised to replace the space shuttle and usher us into an interplanetary age. Since Musk founded the company in 2002, it has developed a series of next-generation rockets that can deliver payloads to space for a fraction of the price of legacy rockets. In 2010 SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and bring it back; in 2012 it sent a craft to berth successfully with the International Space Station.
It’s no wonder the character of Tony Stark in Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., was modeled on Musk: This is superhero-grade stuff. I sat down with him at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory to discuss how cheaper and (eventually) reusable rockets might someday put humans on Mars.
Chris Anderson: You’re not a rocket scientist by training. You’re not a space engineer.
Elon Musk: That’s true. My background educationally is physics and economics, and I grew up in sort of an engineering environment—my father is an electromechanical engineer. And so there were lots of engineery things around me. When I asked for an explanation, I got the true explanation of how things work. I also did things like make model rockets, and in South Africa there were no premade rockets: I had to go to the chemist and get the ingredients for rocket fuel, mix it, put it in a pipe.
Anderson: But then you became an Internet entrepreneur.
Musk: I never had a job where I made anything physical. I cofounded two Internet software companies, Zip2 and PayPal. So it took me a few years to kind of learn rocket science, if you will.
Anderson: How were you drawn to space as your next venture?
Musk: In 2002, once it became clear that PayPal was going to get sold, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, the entrepreneur Adeo Ressi, who was actually my college housemate. I’d been staying at his home for the weekend, and we were coming back on a rainy day, stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. He was asking me what I would do after PayPal. And I said, well, I’d always been really interested in space, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do as an individual. But, I went on, it seemed clear that we would send people to Mars. Suddenly I began to wonder why it hadn’t happened already. Later I went to the NASA website so I could see the schedule of when we’re supposed to go. [Laughs.]
Anderson: And of course there was nothing.
Musk: At first I thought, jeez, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place! Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing. It seemed crazy.
Anderson: NASA doesn’t have the budget for that anymore.
Musk: Since 1989, when a study estimated that a manned mission would cost $500 billion, the subject has been toxic. Politicians didn’t want a high-priced federal program like that to be used as a political weapon against them.
Anderson: Their opponents would call it a boondoggle.
Musk: But the United States is a nation of explorers. America is the spirit of human exploration distilled.
Anderson: We all leaped into the unknown to get here.
To put Elon Musk’s astronomical goals in perspective, here’s a look at some of his stellar achievements so far.—Victoria Tang
At the age of 12, designs a videogame called Blast Star and sells it to a computer magazine for $500.
After spending two days in a graduate physics program at Stanford, drops out to start Zip2, an online publishing platform for the media industry.
Sells Zip2 to Compaq for $307 million.
Forms PayPal by merging his new online-payments startup, X.com, with Max Levchin and Peter Thiel’s Confinity.
Establishes the Musk Foundation to provide grants for renewable energy, space, and medical research as well as science and engineering education.
PayPal goes public; its stock rises more than 54 percent on the first day of trading. Eight months later, eBay acquires PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk founds SpaceX.
Invests in Tesla Motors, a company that manufactures high-performance electric cars.
Helps create SolarCity, which provides solar-power systems to some 33,000 buildings. Will serve as the company chair.
NASA selects the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the reusable Dragon spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttles retire.
Makes a cameo appearance in Iron Man 2. Director Jon Favreau cites Musk as an inspiration for Tony Stark.
SpaceX’s Dragon becomes the first commercial spacecraft to berth with the ISS
Few people change the course of human history and less realize that witnessing that change is important. Mainstream science is slow to change and it takes a hard-headed individual to fight against it.
Musk is such an individual and it will be interesting to see him outsmart ignorant public and political forces to achieve his stated goal of making mankind a multi-planetary species.
It will be fun to watch!
Hat tip to Nasa Watch.
A skydiver has made history by smashing the world record for the highest skydive after leaping from 128,097ft.
Daredevil Felix Baumgartner ascended to the edge of space in a pressurised capsule suspended beneath a giant helium balloon. He then jumped out, freefalling for four minutes and 19 seconds before opening his parachute.
The 43-year-old Austrian also broke the record for the highest manned balloon flight after riding with the capsule 24 miles above New Mexico.
He also achieved the fastest freefall after reaching a top speed of 834mph (1,342km/h) and broke the sound barrier, according to mission spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.
The speed – revealed at a news conference a few hours after the leap – was significantly higher than that given earlier by a spokeswoman, who had put his maximum speed as 706mph (1,136km/h).
A minor problem had developed as Baumgartner’s capsule ascended when a heater failed on his helmet faceplate, which meant his visor became fogged when he exhaled. However, it was not enough to stop him jumping.
In a nail-biting event watched live around the world, Baumgartner stepped to the edge of the capsule and saluted the camera, before saying: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to realise how small you are.”
The biggest risk Baumgartner faced was spinning out of control, which could have exerted enough G-forces to make him lose consciousness.
At one point he appeared to have become unstable, but he managed to get himself into a flat, controlled position for the rest of the skydive.
Temperatures of -68C (-90 Fahrenheit) could also have had unpredictable consequences if his suit had failed.
He had been due to jump from 120,000ft, but the balloon went higher than expected, to just under 128,000ft.
The previous record for the highest jump was held by Colonel Joe Kittinger, who jumped at an altitude of 102,800ft (31,333m) in 1960.
Bamgartner’s leap was watched by Baumgartner’s tearful mother Eva and by Col Kittinger, who co-ordinated the jump from mission control.
Col Kittinger told the man who went on to break his record for the highest jump: “Our guardian angel will take care of you.”
However, the Austrian was unable to break Col Kittinger’s record for the longest time spent in freefall. Baumgartner’s total of four minutes and 19 seconds fell 17 seconds short.
The reason for the shorter-than-expected freefall was not immediately clear, although live commentary during the leap suggested he opened his parachute at an altitude above the 5,000ft level that had been announced in advance.
The Red Bull Stratos mission was the second attempt for the skydiver. An initial bid last week was aborted at the last minute due to the wind.
Some folks dismiss this as a corporate shill act just to sell an “energy” drink that’s full of sugar and caffeine. And they’d only be partially correct.
The fact is that Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos had to design the “spacesuit” from scratch, and with no help from NASA.
There is no doubt in my mind that private launch companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Bigelow and probably even SpaceX will show interest in the modern design of the suit with it’s emergency egress capabilities.
Kudos to Felix and Red Bull!
The biggest challenge in mounting a space mission to another star may not be technology, but people, experts say.
Scientists, engineers, philosophers, psychologists andleaders in many other fields gathered in Houston last week for the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss launching an interstellar voyage within 100 years.
“It seems like it would be so hard, and the biggest obstacle is ourselves. Once we get out of our way, once we commit to this, then it’s a done deal,” said former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor LeVar Burton, who is serving on the advisory committee of the 100 Year Starship project.
The initiative hopes to spur the development of new propulsion technologies, life support systems, starship and habitat designs, as well as myriad other necessaryinnovations, to send a vehicle beyond our solar system — where no manmade object has yet traveled — and to another star. As the closest stars to the sun are still light-years away, such a feat will be daunting. [How Interstellar Space Travel Works (Infographic)]
But Burton wasn’t the only one who said the most difficult part of interstellar spaceflight may be corralling public and governmental support, and getting the right thinkers to work together to attack the problem.
“I think the greatest challenges are going to be what the greatest challenges in anything are, and that’s the people piece,” said former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel to space. Jemison is heading the new 100 Year Starship organization, which was founded with seedmoney from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The really exciting thing and the scary thing is I know I can’t do it by myself, but there are a lot of people who want to help,” Jemison added.
Interstellar spaceflight for humanity isn’t inevitable, she said — merely imperative.
“We could screw it up,” Jemison told Space.com. “We could decide not to do it. But I can tell you what, if we don’t figure out how to do it, then we probably aren’t going to be around to worry about whether the sun turns into a red gas giant. Unless we find some focal aspiration that pushes us further, that helps us see ourselves as a species that we should be cooperating with, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Plus, if human beings can solve the challenges of interstellar spaceflight, in the process they will have solved many of the problems plaguing Earth today, experts said. For example, building a starship will require figuring out how to conserve and recycle resources, how to structure societies for the common well-being, and how to harness and use energy sustainably.
Perhaps the 100 Year Starship Symposium should partner up with the Build The Enterprise Project? They have a 100 year timeline also and I couldn’t think of a better marriage.
From Citizens In Space:
This drawing, which appeared last year in a NASA presentation on the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System, says it all.
The Space Launch System is obviously far more capable than any other launch vehicle because it’s larger, right?
We can imagine a similar drawing produced by the US Army Air Forces during World War II:
The DC-3 (known in military circles as the C-47 Skytrain) was a tiny airplane by modern standards, smaller than many of today’s commuter jets. At the start of World War II, it was already considered too small and outdated by the military brass. Hence, the need for an aircraft like the Hughes H-4 Hercules.
Yet, it was the C-47, not the Hercules, that did the heavy lifting all throughout the war, and General Dwight Eisenhower named the C-47 as one of the four machines that won the war in Europe.
C-47s carried VIPs and paratroopers, spare parts, ammunition, and construction equipment. They carried pierced steel plate for their own runways. They carried horses and cattle, generators and gasoline. They carried complete fighter planes with the wings removed for transport. With the aid of the C-47, the United States built a string of air bases stretching all the way across the Pacific.
The Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose, never even made it into the air by the end of the war. So, which was the more capable aircraft?
Of course, the difference between the XCOR Lynx and Masten XA 1.0 (on the far left side of the drawing) and the Space Launch System (on the right side) is more than size alone.
The Lynx and Masten XA 1.0 aren’t even orbital vehicles. The difference in performance between a suborbital vehicle and an orbital system is enormous, like the difference between an Apple II and a Cray supercomputer. We can imagine that drawing, too. And yet, it was the Apple II and its successors that ultimately proved to be the more capable computers. Mainframe supercomputers had an enormous head start but microcomputers ultimately won because of the power of exponential growth, which favors technologies that have short development cycles and can evolve faster.
We recently visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California and saw a Cray 1 computer on display. It’s an impressive machine. It’s iconic appearance looks high tech even today, and it’s almost as powerful as the iPhone we used to take its picture.
That’s evolution in action. The suborbital vehicles of today are the space-transportation equivalent of the Apple II, laughably underpowered compared to giant mainframes like NASA’s Space Launch System, but they will drive down cost and open up space in ways we can barely imagine today.
Yes, we’ve said this before, and yes, we’re starting to sound like a broken record, but we will keep on saying it, because some things need to be said again and again, with fierce conviction.
NASA uses junk mainstream tech while the MIC uses tech that is at least 50 years into the future ( witness the recent NRO “gift” to NASA ).
In the meantime, private industry improves on the mainstream tech so the average citizen at least has a fighting chance to get to space.
Hat tip to Space Transport News / Hobby Space.
Inside of the Dragon module. Beautiful. Spacious, Modern. Blue LEDs. Feels a bit like a sci-fi filmset. Of course it is from Los Angeles.
He wrote more about the historic space milestone here, on his blog.
Last Friday was a special day on my mission. Don and I docked the SpaceX’s cargoship Dragon to the Space Station. Dragon brings new equipment for the crew. On the 31st of May it will return to Earth with supplies from the others and myself. The Dragon mission is the operational highlight of my mission. But it is also a milestone for international spaceflight. This is the first time that a commercial spacecraft has flown to the ISS and docked with the Station. You could say a new era of spaceflight has begun. Soon private companies will take people to and from space.
SpaceX has a long hard row to hoe as far as getting political support for its manned Dragon capsule in the future, in spite of this success.
But the future is coming and it’s hard to fight against the tide of history.
After many delays and much political trepidation, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was launched on top of it’s Falcon 9 rocket for NASA’s COTS 2+ test flight to the ISS.
The launch occurred at 3:44:38 a.m. in spectacular fashion and of course was instantly politicized and speechified:
The second demonstration mission for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program is under way as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifted off Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:44 a.m. EDT.
“I want to congratulate SpaceX for its successful launch and salute the NASA team that worked alongside them to make it happen,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration; a private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time. And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to good start. Under President Obama’s leadership, the nation is embarking upon an ambitious exploration program that will take us farther into space than we have ever traveled before, while helping create good-paying jobs right here in the United States of America.”
The Dragon capsule will conduct a series of checkout procedures to test and prove its systems, including the capability to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station. On Thursday, May 24, Dragon will perform a flyby of the space station at a distance of approximately 1.5 miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach. Live NASA TV coverage beginning at 2:30 a.m.
Following analysis of the flyby by NASA and SpaceX managers, the Dragon capsule will be cleared to rendezvous and berth with the space station on Friday, May 25, marking the first time a commercial company has attempted this feat. The Expedition 31 crew on board the station will use the orbiting complex’s robotic arm to capture Dragon and install it on the bottom side of the Harmony node. NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 2 a.m.
“This flight is an important milestone as NASA and SpaceX develop the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to carry the critically important experiments, payloads and supplies to our remarkable laboratory in space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration Operations Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which will perform its own test flight later this year, have been working under NASA’s COTS program, which provides investments to stimulate the commercial space industry in America. Once the companies have successfully completed their test flights, they will begin delivering regular cargo shipments to the station.
“NASA is working with private industry in an unprecedented way, cultivating innovation on the path toward maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration,” said Philip McAlister, director for NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development.
In parallel to COTS, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is helping spur innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from the commercial industry to develop safe, reliable and cost-effective capabilities to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station.
NASA also is developing the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.
I got up at 3:20 a.m. just to watch the launch again ( I got up this past Saturday early also, much to my wife’s dismay) and I wasn’t disappointed.
Any launch is a good launch using this dangerous mainstream technology. Hopefully in a couple of decades there will be a way to build “beanstalks” so the costs of lifting cargo and people to Earth orbit come down to the realm of ordinary working folks.
In the 1981 film Outland, Sean Connery stars as an old-school lawman who keeps order in a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons, armed only with his wits and a trusty Browning 2000 shotgun. Outland is set in a future that has commercial space travel and off-planet mining, and the latter took a giant leap forward into reality last week when the private company Planetary Resources announced its plan to start mining asteroids in just more than 10 years’ time.
While the space industry isn’t easily accessible to private investors, its prospects mean that one day the sector will become the toast of the stock market. So it’s something I keep an eye on, as I believe it will present some great opportunities in the future.
Money from satellites A few public companies have major interests in space, and the one that immediately springs to mind is the satellite communications specialist Inmarsat. Britain’s largest pay-television operator, British Sky Broadcasting (ISE: BSY.L) , is another company that relies heavily upon space; without its satellites, it would lose most of its business.
Many defense contractors, such as Boeing (NYS: BA) and Raytheon (NYS: RTN) , also have substantial satellite operations, though much of this business is military and therefore under pressure as national budgets are squeezed. Then there are the firms that provide commercial images from satellites, such as DigitalGlobe and RapidEye.
But so far the space industry is pretty much limited to satellites and getting them into orbit. I believe the real excitement will be found in the new industries that are starting to spring up — in particular mining, space tourism, and zero-gravity manufacturing.
Back to the mining Planetary Resources has a star-filled shareholders’ register, which contains names like Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google (NAS: GOOG) and the film director James Cameron. While its asteroid-mining plan seems to be the stuff of science-fiction, and there are many technological obstacles to be overcome before it is practical, it makes good business sense, because those metals that are rare on Earth are generally much more plentiful in space.
While the vast majority of asteroids are to be found in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, we know of at least 9,000 near-Earth asteroids that sometimes come close to our planet. These are Planetary Resources’ main targets, and at the top of the list are those that were produced by collisions between “planetesimals” — the bodies that combined to form planets in the early history of the solar system.
The reason for preferring these asteroids over the other main type of asteroid — those formed from the accretion of small bits of material — is that they contain vastly more metal. They also will not have undergone the same geological processes that occurred on Earth over billions of years, so their rare metals — including gold, platinum and iridium — will be more uniformly distributed.
In contrast, metals in the earth are disproportionately located within the mantle and core — well below the crust where we mine — because of the planetary formation process that stratified the earth into three distinct regions: core, mantle, and crust.
The economics of space mining Planetary Resources plans to launch several space telescopes in 2014 that will search for suitable near-Earth asteroids. These may be mined where they are or hauled back to Earth or lunar orbit for later dissection, but in any case the mining will likely be done by robots.
Of course, this is very expensive, and the Keck Institute for Space Studies has estimated that it would cost around 1.6 billion pounds just to bring a single 500-tonne asteroid back to the moon for mining. That’s before the cost of setting up the venture in the first place, which will probably run to more than 50 billion pounds.
Another problem is that rare metals go for high prices because they are, well, rare. So if these robot miners start to extract large quantities of them from asteroids, this would drive down their price.
Fly me to the moon Commercial space travel is much closer than you may think. Leading the pack is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has already sold more than 500 tickets for rides in SpaceShipTwo, on course to make its first commercial suborbital flight next year. If you fancy a ride, a ticket will set you back a cool $200,000.
Branson doesn’t have the field to himself, as there are several other companies also planning to take fee-paying passengers into space, such as Blue Origin (founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) fame), Space Adventures, and SpaceX.
The new manufacturing frontier Outer space offers two environments that are not easy to create on Earth: low gravity and hard vacuum. This holds great promise for manufacturing special objects such as perfect spheres and certain types of alloy.
Another field that will benefit is medical research, because purer protein crystals can be grown in space, as the distorting effects of gravity will have been removed.
Numerous experiments have already been performed on the International Space Station and space shuttles, so we know that the technology works and is available. As with most things, it all boils down to cost.
Space to invest? My gut feeling when looking at businesses that depend upon high technology is to steer well clear. That’s because the technology industry is notorious for seeing a dominant market leader overtaken by a rival with a better product.
Remember when Friends Reunited and MySpace were the big social networks? Nowadays they’re also-rans when compared to Facebook, which in turn has become yet another giant with the competition nipping at its heels.
That said, the space industry has tremendous barriers to entry. Launching stuff into space isn’t cheap, and first-mover advantage will count for a lot in this sector. After all, if a company already has a multibillion-pound manufacturing facility in orbit, then this will put off some of the competition. Sooner or later, big money is going to be made in outer space. It just may take some time.
Now mainstream space is realizing the dream of us nerds from so long ago.
Somewhere, Gerard K. O’Neill smiles knowingly.
The Apollo space missions to the Moon were the last Beyond Earth Orbit human explorations of Near space, the last being in 1972.
The main reasons being lack of public interest and funding, so any explorations beyond the Near Earth regions have been robotic due to their relative financial benefits and nobody worries much if a robot dies instead of a human being.
That issue might change in the future according to a paper written by Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary sciences at Birkbeck College (London):
…Out of necessity, all our missions to the outer system have been unmanned, but as we learn more about long-duration life-support and better propulsion systems, that may change. The question raised this past weekend in an essay in The Atlanticis whether it should.
Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary sciences at Birkbeck College (London) is the focus of the piece, which examines Crawford’s recent paper in Astronomy and Geophysics. It’s been easy to justify robotic exploration when we had no other choice, but Crawford believes not only that there is a place for humans in space, but that their presence is indispensable. All this at a time when even a return to the Moon seems beyond our budgets, and advanced robotics are thought by many in the space community to be the inevitable framework of all future exploration.
But not everyone agrees, even those close to our current robotic missions. Jared Keller, who wrote The Atlantic essay, dishes up a quote from Steve Squyres, who knows a bit about robotic exploration by virtue of his role as Principal Investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. Squyres points out that what a rover could do even on a perfect day on Mars would be the work of less than a minute for a trained astronaut. Crawford accepts the truth of this and goes on to question what robotic programming can accomplish:
“We may be able to make robots smarter, but they’ll never get to the point where they can make on the spot decisions in the field, where they can recognize things for being important even if you don’t expect them or anticipate them,” argues Crawford. “You can’t necessarily program a robot to recognize things out of the blue.”
Landing astronauts is something we’ve only done on the Moon, but the value of the experience is clear — we’ve had human decision-making at work on the surface, exploring six different sites (some of them with the lunar rover) and returning 382 kilograms of lunar material. The fact that we haven’t yet obtained samples from Mars doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do robotically, but a program of manned exploration clearly points to far more comprehensive surface study. Crawford points out that the diversity of returned samples is even more important on Mars, which is more geologically interesting than the Moon and offers a more complicated history.
Image: Apollo 15 carried out 18.5 hours of lunar extra-vehicular activity, the first of the “J missions,” where a greater emphasis was placed on scientific studies. The rover tracks and footprints around the area give an idea of the astronauts’ intense activity at the site. Credit: NASA.
Sending astronauts by necessity means returning a payload to Earth along with intelligently collected samples. From Crawford’s paper:
Robotic explorers, on the other hand, generally do not return (this is one reason why they are cheaper!) so nothing can come back with them. Even if robotic sample return missions are implemented, neither the quantity nor the diversity of these samples will be as high as would be achievable in the context of a human mission — again compare the 382 kg of samples (collected from over 2000 discrete locations) returned by Apollo, with the 0.32 kg (collected from three locations) brought back by the Luna sample return missions.
It’s hard to top a yield like that with any forseeable robotic effort. Adds Crawford:
The Apollo sample haul might also be compared with the ≤ 0.5 kg generally considered in the context of future robotic Mars sample return missions… Note that this comparison is not intended in any way to downplay the scientific importance of robotic Mars sample return, which will in any case be essential before human missions can responsibly be sent to Mars, but merely to point out the step change in sample availability (both in quantity and diversity) that may be expected when and if human missions are sent to the planet.
Large sample returns have generated, at least in the case of the Apollo missions, huge amounts of refereed scientific papers, especially when compared to the publications growing out of robotic landings. Crawford argues that it is the quantity and diversity of sample returns that have fueled the publications, and points out that all of this has occurred because of a mere 12.5 days total contact time on the lunar surface (and the actual EVA time was only 3.4 days at that). Compare this to the 436 active days on the surface for the Lunokhods and 5162 days for the Mars Exploration Rovers. Moreover, the Apollo publication rate is still rising. Quoting the paper again:
The lesson seems clear: if at some future date a series of Apollo-like human missions return to the Moon and/or are sent on to Mars, and if these are funded (as they will be) for a complex range of socio-political reasons, scientists will get more for our money piggy-backing science on them than we will get by relying on dedicated autonomous robotic vehicles which will, in any case, become increasingly unaffordable.
Will the Global Exploration Strategy laid out by the world’s space agencies in 2007 point us to a future in which international cooperation takes us back to the Moon and on to Mars? If so, science should be a major beneficiary as we learn things about the origin of the Solar System and its evolution that we would not learn remotely as well by using robotic spacecraft. So goes Crawford’s argument, and it’s a bracing tonic for those of us who grew up assuming that space exploration meant sending humans to targets throughout our Solar System and beyond. That robotic probes should precede them seems inevitable, but we have not yet reached the level of artificial intelligence that will let robots supercede humans in space.
Currently in mainstream space activities, commercial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, etc., are taking the lead in the future exploration of Near Space and the Solar System vice any future explorations by NASA, inspite of what parochial politicians in certain states try to do in Congress.
Of course this precludes any gains made by secret black projects in the military-industrial-complex in the area of any secret space programs.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons politicians aren’t too worried about sending manned NASA missions back to the Moon?
Many thanks to Paul Gilster and his great site Centauri Dreams.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has certainly taken his lumps lately in his quest to launch cargo and eventually live astronauts on his Dragon spacecraft.
Old line space companies such as Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and Alliant Tech Systems have bought right-wing polititians in NASA Red States in order to slow down commercial cargo and crew development in order to spread the meme that old fashioned cost-plus contracts to the aforementioned entities in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida and Colorado (Red State NASA Centers) are the only credible companies able to construct space vehicles, totally on the taxpayer dime.
What they fail to mention is that commercial cargo and crew receive only 1/10 the money that the old contracts receive and only after they reach certain milestones. Most of the equipment that companies like SpaceX, Sierra-Nevada, Orbital Sciences and Blue Origin foot most of the cost of their space equipment.
This is mainly a political issue and has nothing really to do with putting man into space at all; it just political party propaganda.
Below is the link to the 60 Minute segment on 3/18/2012 in which Scott Pelly interviews Elon Musk and gives him a mainstream media audience exposure that could help him politically. Maybe.