Why robot missions are better than manned missions

With the success of Curiosity everyone is calling for manned missions to Mars by 2030, but I take the opposite view – let’s do more sophisticated robot missions. Is having some people walk around the most ambitious thing we can do? Or is having a really powerful AI robot explore for us the most ambitious and most useful? Which will have the most bang for the buck here on Earth?

Space missions are expensive and there is no money, in our now diminished and small-minded politics, to pay for them. Right now in the glow of the success of Curiosity many are pointing out how these accomplishment “inspire” us (and they do) but it’s unlikely we’ll tax the rich just for some inspiration, esp. when science is under attack today by religion. Those who try to justify the missions from a practical POV always bring up “spinoffs”, IOW, spending 2.5B$ to put something on Mars created right-here-on-earth economic opportunity. Fine, I think this is over-hyped (is Tang all we got from moon landings?) but in fact now let’s go all in. Build a rover that can drive itself, decide for itself what to look at and analyze, get itself out of trouble when it gets stuck or at too steep an angle. Program it to figure out the best way to climb a mountain or descend into a crater.

I’m thinking of the DARPA contest for self-driving cars. In the first year the cars were awful and none finished the “race”. But in the second year multiple cars did finish and even under the required time. That accomplishment has practical spinoff applications, which in fact Google is even exploiting in a limited way. Imagine the fortunes that can be made from self-driving cars. The interstate highway system opened up modern transportation but it’s time for an update. Imagine how we can unsnarl the traffic jams and save countless deaths by replacing this now-antique technology.

Robotics is not a poor substitute for human exploration, it is a superior way to do exploration. The technology we’ll have to develop for robotic missions is more sophisticated and I’ll argue, more useful, than sending people there. And because it’s cheaper we can do more of it. Just look at the progress in Mars surface explorers – Viking, Rovers, Curiosity. These were just the start, let’s keep it going. A true very smart AI rover on Mars or on Titan or in the oceans of Europa is a bigger challenge and a more useful one to accomplish.

In the early days of the space program it was decided people had to be the explorers because that gave a human dimension to space exploration and thus the public will be thrilled by “heroes” and support the program. That was probably true. But it’s 2012, not 1969, and now with millions of people excited by Curiosity, following it through Twitter and Internet video streaming, that didn’t even exist in 1969, it’s clear we’ve changed. We can get very excited about an SUV-sized robot rolling around and telling us what it found just as much as we can about Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Sending people does have a certain of drama (primarily because the public likes crashes, which is the appeal of NASCAR) but we can also be excited by a machine, built by incredible human ingenuity that can go where we can’t.

Let’s let the human body excel at what it can do, amazing Gold medal feats and let’s let our minds explore the universe.

Robots rule!


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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72 Responses to Why robot missions are better than manned missions

  1. douq says:

    Here’s a good post about the benefits of space exploration (without being manned-centric), http://theopedproject.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/a-humble-case-for-space-exploration/ I especially like the idea “a refocusing of cultural energy from fear and pessimism into practices of progress, action, and well-placed optimism” since I’m working on the same theme.

  2. douq says:

    Note: I reply to my own posts to add information I found after the post because I’m treating posts not as static writings but as on-going dialogues.

  3. Interesting perspective…I can honestly say I’ve never considered the advantages of robots over humans, but I definitely see your point.

    And I have to say that I LOVE that you add replies to your own post to add info. And that you explained it! 😉

    • douq says:

      Thanks for your comment. In terms of me commenting on my own posts I figure why not. If they’re not interesting enough to me to read again why should I think anyone else would find them interesting. Blog features are fine, but some posts are a bit more like Wiki pages and so should change over time.

  4. iwpchi says:

    We heartily agree. But it is quite beside the point whether or not manned missions are necessary: human beings have yet to rise culturally and socially to a level in which they can handle the enormous responsibility of taking every precaution not to destroy the fragile biospheres of the planets and satellites we intend to visit. Until our so-called civilization can prove that it can handle the responsibility of its custodianship of the environment here on Earth – something we strongly believe is an impossibility under the capitalist economic system – it is absolutely out of the question that we permit our greedy capitalist ruling class to continue the process of destroying the Moon, Mars, Europa and every other economically exploitable “wasteland” in the Solar System.
    And DARPA – holy shit! Keep those military cretins out of the rest of the Solar System!


    • douq says:

      Totally. Mars and Moon have already been contaminated, if that’s possible, but Europa is the one to really protect. Once reading an article on that the international scientific community were concerned about drilling in a pristine and ancient lake in Antarctica (until the technology to avoid contamination was perfected) but the Russians went ahead and did it. Who knows what weird things would happen if Earth lifeforms actually survived and spread on these places.

      I don’t worry too much about commercial exploitation, not because it wouldn’t be done by greedy capitalists, but simply because it’s a hugely expensive way to get relatively low value materials that can be obtained here more cheaply. Unless someone actually does find unobtainium (clueless what that could actually be) the greed will prevent spending the huge amounts to even try mining. Admittedly we’ve done enough in near earth with the debris field, much of which does owe to commercial exploitation, but I’m relatively confident that won’t, at least for a century or so, spread very far.

      And finally on DARPA, there actually is a long-standing tradition of someone (just happens to be DARPA for self-driving cars) to use prizes as incentive, esp. to the smaller and less commercial enterprises, to develop big jumps in technology. I heard once this started with British Admiralty offering a prize for best chronograph (obvious needed for anyone to navigate accurately, but esp. for the military). The first human powered aircraft came from non-military prizes. My point was that robotics can undergo huge jumps, not just incremental improvement, when there is enough incentive. I think robotics is underfunded since it doesn’t have the IPO potential of another Facebook or Groupon, so even VCs are reluctant to fund it. But a Kennedy-type challenge, put a fully intelligent robot geologist on Mars and return it and its samples safely by 2030 would create more new technology, actually useful here on Earth, than figuring out more radiation shielding and urine recycling that manned mission would require.

  5. Pingback: Need to read again 026 « Mirror Universe

  6. kollshi17 says:

    thank you

  7. Jimbo5050 says:

    Huray for NASA, and the U.S. it truly was a scientific feat to land curiosity on Mars. What are they really after? proof that martians exist? I think that the world should have a fully manned deep space platform in which to explore the universe. Yes robots are safer and cheaper, but with any risk comes rewards. There are things that can be accomplished with robots, but think about what can be learned from a scientific platform that can travel around for years and years. And with the landing of curiosity, that answers the question about propulsion. If they can do it with a rover the size of an suv, they can do it with a deep space roving labratory.

    • douq says:

      The idea of manned space platform for long duration missions excites me as well, but I’m just looking at the engineering and economic problems to accomplish it, versus other potential missions. Humans require a lot of resources to just exist (I’m ignoring some fanciful suspended animation or such) and so much of the engineering and budget has to go into that. Anything that isn’t recycled then has to be replaced, with stores that require a huge energy budget (and $s) to just get off the Earth. Nothing can be harvested from space itself and so far we haven’t figured out Star Trek replicators. So any long duration mission requires solving many expensive problems of just how to keep humans alive and so the science part of the mission will be compromised.

      OTOH, developing truly capable robots, truly capable instrumentation and imaging systems, and the communications that we can get as much information on a screen here on Earth as a set of eyeballs in space could take in is also an exciting challenge, IMHO. And the benefits from accomplishing that are enormous whereas radiation shielding, urine and C02 recycling, both requiring huge cost in space, are relatively unimportant technologies.

      Already something like Hubble shows us images our eyes could never see (those beautiful photographs are synthetically produced since often the actual electromagnetic radiation being imaged is out of the range of eyes). The machines can actually show me more, sitting at my computer, than if I were out there (which of course, nonetheless I’d love to do, but nobody is going to spend trillions to send me). But machines, present ones like Curiosity, are “dumb”. They have to be told precisely what to do. I want machines that are autonomous and make good decisions for themselves. Also our machines are often single purpose and single sensor platforms so literally if a little green man walked in front of one of them they wouldn’t notice. We need to put curiosity in robots instead of saying machines are too limited and thus sending people to make up for the shortcomings in machines. So let’s use our wonderful brains to invent those machines and reap many benefits from doing so.

      • iwpchi says:

        Here’s another thing to ponder: since the human race (if it doesn’t exterminate itself first in WWIII) must eventually colonize other solar systems in order to survive after the death of our Sun (and Earth), and since human beings are fragile and needy creatures utterly too short-lived, dependent on food and water and easily damaged by radiation, unable to live long enough to complete long interstellar journeys, etc., it appears obvious to me that the human race will eventually evolve into machines. We will engineer robotic, vastly improved versions of humans, with amazing eyesight (macro-zoom-microscopic visual ability, etc.) strength and durability. Our brains will be replaced by advanced data storage devices which will enable us to “download” all the data in our brains into computer storage and then we can “live” forever. This would solve the problem of “forgetfulness” and death: just keep that “mind” stored in the cloud and if you get hit by a falling piece of space junk, you just get a replacement body (completely updated with the latest gadgets) and download the backup copy of your “mind” and voila! Better than ever!
        All this silly talk about making our frail bodies capable of living for 150 years and going into suspended animation in order to survive long space journeys – it’s so 1960s! You can replace human organs all right, but what about the plumbing (blood vessels, capillaries, etc)?
        Humans will eventually evolve into machines and live for as long as they’d like, trading in their old bodies as the newer models come out.
        What this means for the future of sex is… that we will evolve beyond the biological necessity of it. Talk about a “strange new world”! But don’t worry – it’s only a hundred years (give or take a decade) into the future!


        • douq says:

          The good thing about Sun dying is it’s so far in future we’ll either be gone or have unbelievable technologies by then. While I have no idea how we’ll get around limits of physics (as known now) I suspect given a few billion years, again if we survive in short-term, we have long settled other places. But when I think that I also therefore suspect there is some flaw in the reasoning because some other civilization, if it existed, that had a head start on us would have exponentially expanded by now and bumped into us (UFOs would be real). So the absence of any evidence of others suggests maybe we are stuck with limits of physics. So your idea that we have to recreate ourselves into non-biological beings is probably correct, but again if some other civilization reached the same conclusion why haven’t we seen them.

          I’ve been very skeptical of the downloading ourselves into synthetic intelligence, but I think it’s impossible to put bounds on what another thousand years of advances could do. The idea of downloading into machines is what we can grasp now and see as a linear projection. But I’ll bet there is some jump, rather than linear extrapolation, that may accomplish the same thing. That’s what’s cool about the future and my only regret is that I’ll miss out on most of it (plus the bad parts as well which threaten to overwhelm any positive future).

          Developing synthetic replacement organs is tough, but doable I think, but since it’s medical stuff (and thus very cautious) probably no one reading this blog will see much of it (plus, frankly, I doubt it will happen in the U.S. at all due to the anti-science attitudes as mucking around with living tissue really gets people riled up). So a longer duration lifetime seems reasonable, but keeping brain going is tough.

          But what I’ve always wondered is whether immortality is such a great thing. Being a quite a bit closer to the end than the beginning I find it challenging to keep interested. Many of the things I wanted decades ago I’ve gotten, so it’s getting harder and harder to find new stuff. Now immortality in poverty (or even modest means) would clearly be pretty awful, but even with means eventually there won’t be new stuff to do. And same-old, same-old day-after-day is no fun. Plus, entire many centuries of progress we’re going to do body replacement parts, which will still be high risk, only to old or damaged people, and so that keeps me alive. I watched medical technology keep my father alive for years, but they couldn’t make him healthy enough to even go outside for a short walk. So obviously only immortality in good health and with means would be much fun. And if we could pull that off the drain on Earth’s resources would be so high we’d definitely need more real estate.

        • Jimbo5050 says:

          My oldest son just told me that the U.S. and Germany have just anounced just that, a half human half machine by 2025. In that scenario, they would just transfer all of your brain information into a huminiod body, and it could live forever. But giving up sex? I guess I’ll opt to stay human.

  8. waterlexeme says:

    Could not agree with you more. What we need to focus on is science, and the best way to explore the solar system is with machines. Biologically we are not really well equipped to go into space. However, some people really, really, really want to go in the same way Scott wanted to go to the Antarctic. That has value, but if we really want to learn more about our solar system I think machines are more efficient. NASSA already know this. What would we actually learn from a (wo)manned mission to Mars? Not a lot about Mars that a machine could’t do. We would however learn a lot about how we respond to space travel and living on Mars. I guess the question is what matters more?

    • douq says:

      I understand the urge for human exploration, not just for PR purposes, but to actually thrill all of us. I see people climb Everest, knowing I could never do it, but get a little vicarious thrill from it. Having the astronauts in the early days of space did generate interest and then our ability to actually build good robotic explorers was too limited. But times have changed.

      The sheer maintenance, keeping the people alive, for a long duration space mission will require vast amounts of resources. That translates into huge amount of $s to get consumables outside earth gravity as well as huge amounts of $s to develop the life support systems. All that money spent to do that will be subtracted from the science part of the mission. And in today’s world of limited funding the tradeoff is too costly.

      But I think the public has also seen the benefits of the existing “dumb” robots in space. Hubble is taking pictures our eyes can not see and via Internet distribution we’ve gotten used to then. Imagine an astronaut with a Hasselblad vs a 100 megapixel, multi-spectral, 32bit deep imaging device.

      But I even think setting the goal itself would unlock a great deal of potential. I was old enough to watch Kennedy throw down multiple challenges to America and I think we responded. The inspiration to accomplish a hard goal brings out the best. So, simply, set a very high goal, a robot that can navigate a difficult extraterrestrial environment as effectively as any human could and be equally (or I think even better) observer and exercise autonomous judgment about what tasks to perform, data to collect and solve problems of the unexpected. Imagine that – not space travel or science per se, but building a better us to take the trip.

      Clearly the robot then offers the opportunity for superior science. With lower costs and less payload dedicated to the “intelligence” more can be devoted to the instrumentation. With the time lag imposed by speed of light and distance to Mars the current method of controlling very active and mobile missions is too confining. And since we spend 2.5B$ getting MSL up there we’re going to be very careful about not getting it stuck or turning it over climbing too steep a slope. But making those decisions in Pasadena instead in real-time on Mars limits what an exploration device can do. So I still believe the goal to create really good robots, assuming we succeed, creates a lot more progress for both space exploration and down-to-Earth application than the investment to send humans.

  9. ghassankhan says:

    For a layman like me, the reason simple. Robots replace people. So they actually save lives.

    But if it were drones we were talking about, I’d beg to differ.

    • douq says:

      I assume by your negative view of drones you’re referring to the military type. It is probably true that any technology developed by space exploration might feed into next generation drones, but right now military and homeland security is the major use of robots and is driving much of the development and I’d like to see that development aimed at different goals. You can’t invent generally useful technology without it showing up in multiple applications, but you can focus that development on the applications that inspire us and push back the frontiers of knowledge. Maybe drone technology or the lightweight technology of human powered aircraft could provide even better exploration approaches, so we need to consider them all (I’ve heard of the fanciful “tumbleweeds” for Mars which actually doesn’t sound any more crazy than sky cranes). Robots do save lives, but they have the potential to accomplish tasks no human could accomplish, which is very relevant to scientific exploration. In fact the same intelligence that could explore Mars could probably also do long duration undersea missions here, another area where sending the human means many of the resources are expended just keeping the human alive.

      • morganhendry says:

        This reminds me a lot of Norbert Wiener’s “A Scientist Rebels” (below). I consider it one of the guiding principles for my engineering career.


        I have received from you a note in which you state that you are engaged in a project concerning controlled missiles, and in which you request a copy of a paper which I wrote for the National Defense Research Committee during the war.

        As the paper is the property of a government organization, you are of course at complete liberty to turn to that government organization of such information as I could give you. If it is out of print as you say, and they desire to make it available for you, there are doubtless proper avenues of approach to them.

        When, however, you turn to me for information concerning controlled missiles, there are several considerations which determine my reply. In the past, the comity of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may inquire of him. The interchange of ideas which is one of the great traditions of science must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death.

        For the sake, however, of the scientist and the public, these limitations should be as intelligent as possible. The measures taken during the war by our military agencies, in restricting the free intercourse among scientists on related projects or even on the same project, have gone so far that it is clear that if continued in time of peace this policy will lead to the total irresponsibility of the scientist, and ultimately to the death of science. Both of these are disastrous for our civilization, and entail grave and immediate peril for the public.

        I realize, of course, that I am acting as the censor of my own ideas, and it may sound arbitrary, bu I will not accept a censorship in which I do not participate. The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that that weapon will be used. In that respect the controlled missile represents the still imperfect supplement to the atom bomb and to bacterial warfare.

        The practical use of guided missiles can only be to kill foreign civilization indiscriminately, and it furnishes no protection whatsoever to civilians in this country. I cannot conceive a situation in which such weapons can produce any effect other than extending the kamikaze way of fighting to whole nations. Their possession can do nothing but endanger us by encouraging the tragic insolence of the military mind.

        If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples–and I most certainly do not–I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.

        I am taking the liberty of calling this letter to the attention of other people in scientific work. I believe it is only proper that they should know of it in order to make their own independent decisions, if similar situations should confront them.


  10. I wholeheartedly agree with your points. I was 5 years old in 1969, but I remember seeing the images on a black and white tv of the moon landing. It seems such a wonderful and natural progression of science to have exploration done remotely by scientists safe on earth. Congrats on being FP!

    • douq says:

      Thanks. I was actually remembering 1969 (I was a bit older spending the summer between terms in Boston and watching that fuzzy TV image) but contrasting it to the Curiosity landing. Without the people it wasn’t going to be primetime TV, but interestingly all sorts of new technology filled in to possibly have us better informed than we were when Buzz and Neil stepped out. That is actually what inspired my thought of this post, how much we’ve done with information technology since then. The computer in Eagle was so primitive it was overloaded on that mission (not much known by TV viewers at the time but had the control room people sweating) and it probably couldn’t even power a watch today. OTOH, rocketry is not much different. So for silicon technology we have advanced literally millions of times since 1969, but the mechanical technologies not so much. So we’ll have to spend a huge amount of resources keeping a few people alive for a Mars mission whereas OTOH we could spend that same resource building fantastic new computing capability, which not only could do the Mars or other missions but would have many applications here.

  11. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing. You have a wonderful blog here. Can’t wait to see what you write next.

    Have a great day – Easy Lifestyles

    • douq says:

      Welcome back anytime. I hope I can continue to contribute something.

      • iwpchi says:

        Uh, Doug – that’s a spambot that “wrote” that post.

        • douq says:

          Really, thanks for the tip. I’m still new at this and don’t quite know what to expect from comments from real people so it seemed real. Reading it again it is a bit too flattering so I shouldn’t have fallen for it. I actually had a course with Weizenbaum (Eliza shrink script creator) and thus should have known better so I guessed I flunked my side of the Turing test.

  12. drachefly says:

    Tang is not what we got from the moon missions. They caused significant advances in ceramics, new plastics, and of course to build the computer that went in the command module required new levels of integration beyond what there was any other demand for at the time…

    • douq says:

      Agreed, I later thought there was also Velcro. But I have a hard time picking many developments that wouldn’t have happened anyway. Many pointed to computers but the IBM 360/75 already existed when NASA adopted it for control use and while primitive by today’s standards most of what we do in hardware and software today is merely better, not radically different, so I don’t credit space program with any of the development of computing.

      I was actually studying materials science exactly during that time. The heat shield, first the use of beryllium in Mercury and Gemini pushed the state of the art. The much more clever use of polymers and lightweight honeycomb structure in Apollo was more clever. But little of this made it outside the space program and the reason I switched from materials science to computer science was that even by the time we were stepping on the moon funding had dried up for advanced technologies in the materials area. From my POV it wasn’t until carbon fiber was adopted for bicycles (and much later cars, and still mostly only race cars where price is no object) that materials science did anything very interesting.

      The part of the space program that is often overlooked is not visible technology but management technology, how to coordinate a huge program over some much geography, different enterprises, and a huge number of people. When I saw the set of programs on the Airbus A380 I was again amazed at the logistics management involved in that. Before the moon program we simply had never put together some a complex program to be executed over such a short time and actually have all the bits work together, yes, as you say, integration.

      But that’s again where I’m going with throwing down a great challenge for robotics, just as Kennedy did for the moon program. Today we can manage programs that have people all over the world working in synchronized effort, but even more importantly we build the entire Internet without any single centralized control, at least equivalent to what NASA did. Distributed management, independent but coordinated development, standards, international cooperation – these are all things we’ve learned to do. And while everyone today marvels at entrepreneurial activity that created Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, that was largely unknown at the time of the moon program. And except for the military competition with the Soviet Union, the moon program was mostly a U.S. affair, whereas today one positive consequence of outsourcing is now there are many nations fully capable of working together to advance technology rapidly.

      Mechanical/physical technology has never had the rapid growth rate that information technology has exhibited. Perhaps, even though based on hardware, the fact that so much of the advancement is “soft”ware we’re freed of some of the constraints related to inventing a new alloy or building a better rocket motor. So I’m positing that a moon program (or what Mars would cost) expenditure today, but concentrated on advances in robotics comparable to Atlas vs Saturn V would be the best investment. Humanity would benefit from practical spinoffs, but also from actually accomplished more space exploration and better science than manned missions could provide.

      • waterlexeme says:

        That’s a really interesting perspective on what the Space Programme contributed to the management of large scale, complex projects. But the same could probably be said for the pyramids. It is one of the truly remarkable traits of our species that we can pull together and create something far beyond ourselves if the scope of the desire or goal is strong enough. We may not be so impressed by the pyramids these days, but given the context of the times it was a little like missions to Mars.

        I think that we are just at the beginning of something extraordinary in terms of what the Internet makes possible for technological, cultural development and knowledge jumps. I am not sure we will even recognise ourselves in 100 years. In terms of robotics, this is already happening. I know people who spend most of their spare time collaborating with people all over the world to come up with a better robot, usually to beat up another robot, but still – the potential is still happening.

        As far as I am concerned, the only justification you need for space exploration is that it’s space exploration. It’s there, why wouldn’t we want to know more about it? That other things come from it is a happy consequence, but it should not be the reason we do it.

        • douq says:

          The management aspect was an “invention” and today we can invent yet again now using the wired technologies we have. For instance why do all the people have to sit in the control room together instead of being spread over the globe. If there is some feature of human collaboration that occurs in that room and doesn’t occur remotely, then let’s invent that. If the control room could be spread all over the world and the project is managed globally that alone would be a tremendous accomplishment that would have other benefits.And let’s incorporate crowdsourcing on top of a professional staff so the rare truly creative idea, which could come from anyone, makes it into the mix.

          I saw an article once (don’t have the reference) that the pyramids were built as a kind of make-work project in between wars to keep the bureaucracy (aka management), the military command, and the skilled workers busy so that when war came these resources could be quickly repurposed to the war effort. It’s clear the early days of NASA were strongly tied to military and Cold War thinking but today I think we should tie NASA more to economic thinking. The Internet, source of substantial jobs and profits, was developed (I know this as a certainty since I was there) by the government (not just paid for, but also visualized and directed in partnership with business and universities). At the time of the first network (aka ARPANet) the concept was wildly expensive and unprofitable so no business, even a long-sighted one, would never have invested. Robotics is moving along at a slow pace, esp. in comparison to other areas of computing technology and I believe it is largely a funding issue – government can’t (due to all the cutting in long-range technology initiatives) and business won’t (no profit in it soon enough to satisfy quarter-to-quarter focused shareholders). So there is a little money and a little effort, but this effort could be significantly accelerated.

          One thing that gives projects focus is to lay down a very ambitious goal. Today few know that Xerox PARC invented much of the basic personal and mobile computing and internet technology. That was a visionary project of a company, that at the time was flush with capital and also few opportunities to spend it in their existing businesses, so they invested very long term. It did Xerox no good (for reasons not connected to PARC) and so today no corporation would do that. Apple and Microsoft have vast amounts of spare cash yet what are either of them doing in really advanced research – nothing. They’d rather use their cash to buy back their stock than to hire some people and try to hit one out of the park. And if some CEO somewhere did all of a sudden become a visionary he wouldn’t last beyond the first quarterly results that didn’t meet expectations so the investment community has told corporate management not to try any of those bold technology goals. What drove PARC was a vision, to create Alan Kay’s Dynabook. For those of you so impressed with an iPad go back and look at what an true pioneering effort was thinking in 1968! Jobs and Apple copied from PARC (in fact, harvesting the profits Xerox never made) so someone has to do that pioneering work.

          I think only the government can and will (if government were not so timid today due to the attack on it by the right) push a 10-30 year development program. But that program needs a very specific goal. Once military goals were the motivation, but fortunately today perhaps we could have a civilian goal. So let’s define a very difficult to achieve robotics goal, tied to space exploration, that results in different payout down here and kickstarts our economy back into another 50 year boom.

      • fireandair says:

        “But I have a hard time picking many developments that wouldn’t have happened anyway.”

        What would have prompted their development had the space program not done so? I’m serious. There would have to be some sort of catalyst for their development, so if not the space program, then what?

        • douq says:

          Good old fashioned greed. Much of the materials technology that didn’t end up so specialized it wouldn’t be used anyway now makes lots of corporate profits. Computing and even the communications nets NASA had to invent would have occurred anyway because there was too much immediate profit in it. Even rocketry itself since various near-earth missions are commercial and need those boosters or maneuvering thrusters. Cryogenics was a big part of the challenge and most of that would have occurred. Even the crawler to move vehicle to building, the big mining guys would have developed.

          All that said, though, it gets difficult to deal with chicken-and-egg issues, i.e. who did it first and thus the other is derivative. One thing that I completely concur was just the spending itself promoted advances. It didn’t necessarily have to be the moon program to get the same results, but it was a lot easier to get the public to spend on R&D for a big flashy program. Plus in many cases the commercial exploitation of very expensive space technology took time, esp. to cost-reduce to market requirements, so I’ll agree that perhaps that gap was too large and short-sighted greed would never have tried to begin with (or it would have been decades later).

          But much of the specific stuff, esp. for the manned part, just got thrown away. How much did it cost to invent and build the backpacks the astronauts wore to walk around the moon and who uses any of that now? Given we’re still fairly hesitant to use fuel cells commercially, yet they still hold promise for the future, this is one area where NASA had to use expensive technology to get the performance and no greed-based effort would have even tried that.

          So a complete accounting would be difficult and I certainly am not saying that manned missions (also the shuttle) didn’t do anything and I do concur in some cases the manned missions provided the necessary critical mass to pursue certain technologies. But looking forward, at what the expenditure would be for Mars, how much of that would have spinoffs. Getting people there and back is hugely challenging and doing it would be cool and undoubtedly would have some spinoffs. I just think it’s even more ambitious and more useful to use all that resource and creativity to develop the machines that can do it as well, if not better. I like the human element, the drama, the courage, the humor, but getting the funds to do space is going to be tough and human adventure probably isn’t going to be enough this time.

        • fireandair says:

          I guess I’m not buying it. These are many things that we know are profitable NOW … but no one had any idea that they were profitable or would be before they were created. They had to be created with an attitude of, “What the devil is anyone going to need this for?” before they sat around for a bit and then became moneymakers. It took a long time for these things to be profitable, and long past the point where “good old fashioned greed” would have been happy to wait patiently.

          Greed results in things like the global economic collapse and very little else, really. Most good technology was initiated in science, and was done so long before anyone had any idea that it could be monetized. Honestly, if it takes longer than about two weeks to turn a profit, most greed-driven types aren’t willing to wait around. And they aren’t willing to listen to some nerd tell them, “No seriously, it sounds implausible now, but in ten years, this will be worth billions!”

          I remember a talk I saw once by Larry Smarr, the super science dude in San Diego. He said that the hardest talk he ever had was with a bunch of bankers to whom he was giving a presentations about the usefulness of the web. At the time, the only RT video up was the historical coffeepot, the first webcam ever. They were completely incapable of understanding what he was saying, and greedy as all get-out.

          Greed is too shortsighted to make decisions like this. It’s fashionable to think of it as sufficient for many advances, but it simply isn’t. It doesn’t think far enough ahead, and it has no patience.

          • douq says:

            I hear you and agree more than perhaps it sounds (I know of few who were predicting, accurately, what would be profitable in just twenty years, much less 40). I once had the thrill of trying to explain to the CEO of a very large tech company why 24bit color would prevail over 3bit color and got nothing but blank stares and “3bit is good enough and it’s cheaper”. And, it’s worst today than it was in the 60s when at least some companies had some vision and desire to invest longer-term. But I’ve also seen VCs support technology that I, as one of many, thought was way before it’s time (and many did fail) so bold long-term government programs are not the only incubator.

            But OTOH I think there has to be commercial exploitation for any technology to go very far. I remember, in my 60s materials science classes talk of carbon fiber (more theoretical then than actually produced, even in a lab). NASA never pursued that, although as you first pointed out did pursue polymer for a much better heat shield in Apollo CM. And the first applications were rather exotic, but gradually moved into price-insensitive but performance-demanding applications like bicycles and racecars and now gets more and more common. That was an “exotic” technology with a very long cycle before any payback (or at least very much payback).

            But using your example of the first webcam, while government funding of universities played a role (wasn’t one of the first sites a fish tank at CMU?) nonetheless no space program or even some other government program, AFAIK, was required to get the tiny camera I have in my laptop or iPhone. Pure commercial development, even with short-term mentality, has done a lot. And, unfortunately, as a practical reality of today’s world, selling anything requires putting the argument on the greed path.

            I’ve worked for several leading tech firms (HP, DuPont, EMC) and they’re not entirely stupid. They are short-sighted and it’s hard to sell any program with payback in less than 9 months, but sometimes that actually helps. The urgency of having to meet difficult time and budget constraints sometimes becomes its own source of inspiration (I’ve seen very well-funded long-term government or private efforts produce absolutely nothing because they got too bloated). And those companies and my job wouldn’t have existed without some lip service, at minimum, or slavish devotion, at worst, to feeding the greed motive of the investors.

            Another thing I’ve observed is that in fact once a thing becomes obviously doable it gets done. I often thought I (or some colleagues) were doing something terribly clever only to find someone else announcing it first. Competition, often ego-based (of the developers) rather than purely greed-based of the investors, drives a lot. I would still claim that any useful spinoff from the moon program would have happened, sooner or later, because: a) it could, and, b) it would be profitable. Now I’ve also lived through early generations of products that were unprofitable (the first two generations of laser printers) and only vision carried them through, not short-term greed. But it’s also true had these things not been invented when they were, that (assuming other technology advanced) they would have been invented eventually. I worked with the earliest CCD imaging components and they were awful and horribly expensive and almost no one made anything practical or profitable with them and so one might have expected those to die out, but in this case, simultaneous and only indirectly related developments in profitable areas of semiconductor technology created the infrastructure that CCDs could advance.

            But one other idea I’ll concur is that a big program represents a focus for many breakthrus. I was all hot for space when I started in college and took a seminar where each of us had to look at specific areas of the Apollo program. I was assigned the crawler, a great disappointment to me since that seemed like a very mundane thing. But as I studied it it was an amazing gadget and now you see, in mining, and moving huge things, some of those same ideas. In the documentary on the Airbus A380 being able to move the large components was critical to the overall project and certainly critical to the international production. While it’s not clear there is any connection to the launch pad crawler, I’m willing to bet there is some. Some of the fabrics and sealing technology of the suits had to affect other areas. And that’s a key point of a big program, who knows what has to be invented to make the whole thing work, not just the big glamorous pieces and then who knows how perhaps some minor part of the program may have huge consequences in the “real” world.

  13. Richard Hain says:

    Maybe a 2012 SUV-sized robot can give us the learning we need to bring, say a 2022 bus-load of people? All depends on what precious minerals they could mine there. I’d just be glad with a self-driving car by that time, should come much sooner, right?

    • douq says:

      One thing we’ve learned from space exploration thus far is that distant objects are made of the same stuff as Earth is. It’s fun to think of new elements or even exotic compounds for science fiction but Mars has nothing that we don’t have here. Now many as we explore we might find some crystalline compounds that occur in sizes larger than here but a new bigger ruby or sapphire will just go around some trophy wife’s neck and do the rest of us little good. Resource exploitation of space seems very unlikely and when it is sometimes used as a justification for space exploration I think that’s just a stretch to squeeze funding out of some politician who thinks we’ll find vast amounts of gold or oil that corporations can exploit.

      But we find something far more important in space, knowledge. How much would we have the “greenhouse” effect as a metaphor if it weren’t for understanding Venus. How much do we now realize the gas giant planets protect Earth from a lot of debris? And if we ever find signs of life, this will be the most amazing discovery of all. While many fear it diminishes us (just like some much science before) I feel it will enrich us because we’ll know we’re not alone and the natural processes that created us are at work elsewhere in the universe. I’ll never live to see the consequences of that but I expect great-grandchildren might.

      Self driving cars, esp. that can handle unexpected hazards and difficult terrain (admittedly sending a robot to Mars doesn’t require that it be very good at traffic jams) are a great challenge, but also a huge reward down here. Human drivers cause many of the inefficient traffic patterns we see whereas a far better driver could pack existing roads with more vehicles, traveling at high speeds, packed closer together, and simultaneously with greater safety than we have today. And someone is going to invent that. And I hope it is the U.S. because an advanced economy can only be sustained through technological superiority, otherwise we are in a race to the bottom (which is great for other countries and I’m glad for them, but at the moment I’ll selfishly think of our own). I don’t want the self-driving car, which will happen, to come from somewhere else when we had the opportunity, if we matched it with the vision, to develop it.

      In some ways my post was about optimism and frankly that’s what Curiosity meant to me. I saw people celebrating again. The can-do spirit was back. The U.S. has fallen into such a slump where the only thing we think we can do is cut budgets and transfer wealth to the top – what puny goals. We dreamed once upon a time and we made it happen. Let’s do it again! But if our dream is just a recycled old dream (repeat the manned moon program) I doubt that will happen. Let’s fire up people’s imagination so that the idea of a robot walking around on Titan can translate to a robot that can take care of the elderly here or provide safety to our children.

  14. Interesting post…you’ve already addressed it but sending humans to Mars is part of the sell…while the mission’s purpose is science, telling the general public that we’re going to Mars for science isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the PR angle of exploration and human achievement…there aren’t a lot of places left on earth that humans haven’t set their foot on, ‘space’ really is the ‘final frontier’…the Curiosity landings audience seemed to be limited to science and technology ‘geeks’…you put a human on Mars everyone will be watching

    • douq says:

      I agree that adding humans to the mission enhances its appeal to the public, but also I think that may be the conventional view which might now be different in this wired era. Imagine now that the public can itself participate directly in the mission via the Internet at their home. We sit around watching our screens, see a rock that looks interesting, and tell the robot to go check it out (maybe by consensus vote via social media techniques). If the public could become the explorers themselves, rather than fixating on a few right-stuff types, maybe that could have just as much appeal. Maybe sell lottery tickets to decide who gets to “drive” the robot at a particular time. Instead of a handful of humans experiencing the exploration, let’s all go!

      I agree it seems to be the geeks who were holding parties and cheering for Curiosity but one benefit of being old was that I saw it was the same crowd that was doing it before Sputnik and I was probably the only space nut in my whole town. The public hardly knew or cared and so was largely recruited into space over the usual fear, the enemy would get there first. Now the U.S. might be able to create that again, given the space ambitions of China and India, but we’ve also seen the benefits of collaboration and most space missions today are multinational. So I’d hate to see another Cold War just to get the motivation to go into space and I’d like to see all the advanced nations contribute so we get the best from humanity.

      That’s why I’m tying this so much to economic benefits, instead of military ones. Tell the public the spinoff of a robot that can really handle hostile space environments can mow your grass or fix your car or plumbing and clean house (interesting thing, will a robot as capable as I’m visualizing have “attitude” and be unwilling to do such chores?). Sell the chicken-in-every-pot argument, in a time of recession or economic stagnation. Now I know that in today’s political climate this sounds unlikely, but perhaps the Repugs can be brought along on this “stimulus” because corporations will make billions off of it. Why are we out-sourcing U.S. jobs to cheap somewhere in the world instead of too cheap robots we invent and build here? Maybe the next Harvard Biz fad can be robotics instead of outsourcing.

      So I agree there has to be fairly direct and obvious human benefit but perhaps we can be more creative. Maybe, given the public could remotely drive it, we even throw some entertainment into it, Mars dune buggy racing if we have to. Selling science alone (enough for many of us here) won’t sell the public, but if we’re creative I think we can sell the public without having to have a bunch of swaggering guys and fortunately now gals strutting to get the rest of us excited.

  15. techzealot says:

    One thing that can be tried, in a very cost effective way, is sending swarms of small robots for space exploration. Just like the proverb “Do not put all your eggs in a single basket”. Technology (especially sensors) have come a long way and can be fitted in much smaller robots. Sending a “swarm” also means that the failure of a few will not jeopardize the entire mission. It will also result in exploration of much bigger areas.

    On a related note, sending humans to deep-space exploration mission is not totally useless. Perhaps they are necessary for studies on long-term space colonization.

    • douq says:

      I think the swarms idea is terrific, thanks for bringing it up. I’ve seen a few of the more far-out proposals doing exactly that, a bunch of small rovers instead of one big one, then we can take more risks with the small ones, since losing it isn’t the end of the mission.

      But we’ve also seen how mass production works. When I started with computers we had a few large ones and today we have billions of small (only in the size sense) ones. But what are we using as servers? The same technology as the mass market stuff. We build huge storage arrays from just cheap consumer disk drives not just single monster drive running at hypersonic speeds or something stupid like that. Small and numerous has conquered computing, we could get really creative and see how it might conquer space exploration.

      The main drawback, AFAIK, to small is power. It’s very cold most of the places we’ll go and getting enough power just to keep the device warm, much less operational is a challenge. Plus a bunch of small devices have to communicate and typically that significantly increases the power budget. The main reason Curiosity is such a leap in size over the first rovers is the nuclear power plant, solar panels just weren’t cutting it (it’s a huge credit to the rover teams that they creatively got as much as they did out of the panels). Once you go nuclear size and weight shot way up, so now you might as well throw on more instruments and so there is a tendency for the whole things to bloat. Then the landing technology has to be more complicated.

      While I really wanted Curiosity to work I feared that it had undergone the typical “creeping elegance” syndrome and thus was now so complicated the chance of it succeeding is low. Even though it stuck the landing it still has plenty of pitfalls to survive (for instance, can it still move with a stuck wheel like the rovers did). I think I was also feeling that sometimes engineering has a bias toward too much complexity and perhaps even some of that ties to budget (for instance, did the makers of Curiosity make more money than some cheap and numerous rovers might have cost). So we need to guard against this tendency toward too big, so also considering on small and numerous is great. The kind of AI I’m suggesting we invent can probably scale to fit on a relatively small (in weight and volume) package so the “intelligence” of the robot could probably be mated with the mechanical part suitable to the mission.

      • scitemplar says:

        Regarding the power issues, maybe it can be transmitted wirelessly from a group of generating units or from the orbiting ship? The advantage of swarms is that we can build specialized units and send them to their specialized terrain. So we need not build a “jack of all trades”. Would love to here your views on this,

        • douq says:

          Don’t know much about transmitted power but I assume a couple of things: 1) probably unlikely to penetrate solid matter very far, 2) unlikely the energy density (relative to size of receiving device) is much better than solar, and, 3) probably stuck with 1/r^2 issues so orbiting ship would have to be really huge and/or receiver on explorer would have to be large. So I suspect each device would have to have its own power source.

          Second, I suspect the benefit of swarms does accrue to jack-of-all-trades, i.e. lower production costs come from standardized unit just as consumer computing products vs highly specialized one-of-a-kind computing products. And a specialized device has to then go to exactly where it’s needed, whereas with homogeneous swarm devices any can do the task (I’m thinking of the “tumbleweed” idea where movement of the devices may be fairly random). And if a specialized device fails then it can’t so easily be replaced as a general purpose device.

          • scitemplar says:

            Re the 1/r^2 problem, I believe it can be solved by using Lasers for power transmission. Laser from generator -> Photo-diode on receiver. Lasers are fairly directional. The Wikipedia says “Microwave power beaming can be more efficient than lasers, and is less prone to atmospheric attenuation caused by dust or water vapor losing atmosphere to vaporize the water in contact.” Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wireless_energy_transfer

            The same generating unit can double up as the coordinating unit for the swarm. The only problem with homogeneous devices is that they will not give enough bang for their buck. Given enough diversity, specialized units can be dispersed for their respective roles: e.g say you want to sample the ice in a crater. Equipping all bots with drills will not be efficient. Rather a group of bots may have the required equipment. The composition of the swarm and proportion of different robot types will be an important mission criteria.

            Alternatively, the entire group may be built of different modules and will be able to re-assemble depending on the situation, kind of like Lego blocks. That way, the bot will only fail at a modular level and the remaining parts can be salvaged.

            All this may be just theory-crafting 😛

          • dmill96 says:

            I know about zilch on wireless power systems, but it seems like basic engineering reasoning requires a couple of things:
            1) the total weight/volume (i.e. shipping cost from Earth) of the orbital power station plus the receiving end on the rovers has to be less than just equipping rovers with their own sustainable power source. So a complex orbiting station that has to supply a large swarm might itself be very large and thus costly to ship.
            2) the orbiting station, whether microwave or laser, probably wants to be in relatively low orbit (not like geosynchronous orbit) to avoid dissipation. Thus: a) it is only over a rover for a fairly short time, and, b) with a single station many rovers would be out of range of the orbits over some time period, say a sol, and thus the rover would have to have substantial batteries (to sustain it between “refuelings”) and the energy transfer would have to be high enough, in the short overhead time, to provide a lengthy supply of power
            3) at least for Mars, the limited atmosphere (although dust is an issue too) doesn’t reduce sunlight as severely as a dense atmosphere so the collector area in space to get the same energy as a collector on the vehicle is not a lot smaller (unlike Earth where space-based arrays are much more efficient than ground-based). So the total amount of collector area on the orbital power station is not hugely less than collectors on each vehicle so again the shipping cost of the required array area is not that much less for orbital than per vehicle arrays.
            4) AFAIK I believe you’re correct that lasers are much more directional than microwave and thus potentially more efficient, but lasers being such a small beam would mean each rover you’re trying to recharge at the same time (those in line of sight of the orbiting station) would each require its own laser and aiming system and that might require a lot of hardware. Microwave could be wide array and thus charge multiple rovers but that also means it’s wasting power just heating up a lot of dirt instead of charging the rovers so then again we need excess power in space.
            5) I don’t know enough about photovoltaics but I would assume there is some threshold of power production. What the laser from orbit is doing is just making for “brighter” sunlight and thus raising the output of the cells. But the factor of additional brightness probably has to be quite high, like say 100x (I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to do the math but don’t have the time). IOW, since the orbiting station is only overhead a small fraction of the sol (and might go multiple sols before it’s back overhead) a lot of power must be transferred to the onboard storage system fairly quickly (say 2 sols requirements in only 30 minutes). That’s a huge increase required from the solar panels (even assuming the laser is that powerful) and I wonder if that is so bright it just hits the threshold of panel’s current capacity.
            6) Now if we’re talking something way beyond Mars, like say Titan, then solar for the orbital station itself is problematic, so it probably has to be nuclear. I don’t relish launch vehicles taking a couple of tons of enriched uranium or plutonium into space with each launch having some probably of failure.

            This is an interesting speculative conversation and I would imagine engineers with far more knowledge about it than me have considered all these things, more accurately. But I would think, just with this broad reasoning, that, a) remote power is very challenging to make it work cost-effectively, and, b) something even more exotic to extract energy from materials on the surface would be better. Too bad Mars doesn’t have more atmosphere because I can see this science fiction style poster of a huge station near the ice caps using solar arrays to do electrolysis on the ice and then blimp type airships to haul the hydrogen and oxygen to refuel the swarm that would use fuel cells.

          • scitemplar says:

            Thanks for your reply. It put a lot of things into perspective.
            Let’s hope Mars has some Unobtainium. 😛

            PS: Hope this is the right comment. WP is showing no reply option for your latest comment.

  16. edgeledge says:

    There is another problem that human travel to Mars adds. The time it takes to travel to Mars and the supplies required for the two and from journey, plus the time whilst there. The payload alone for this aspect makes it inhibitive. Whereas a robot requires power and communication only, no food or supplies…

    • douq says:

      And a one-way trip only for the robots as another comment pointed out, so huge savings on not having to bring anyone back. If we could magically teleport humans to Mars in hours instead of months, fine, let’s send humans, but the flight duration is long (and imagine what back and forth to Europa or Titan would involve). Even with very effective recycling (and that technology then requires a lot of payload budget) there will still be losses and these have to be replenished from stores. And the idea that we’re going to send the people to Mars and then have then create rocket fuel on the surface to get back is way too fanciful (how much payload will that refinery take?)

      No, humans are very expensive to move through space. And there is the risk too. How much shielding has to be included to keep them from being fried (or develop tumors) when the solar flares (CME) kicks up. Or in the vicinity of Jupiter it we wanted to go take a look at Io.

      Now the optimists and proponents of human travel will say we can invent solutions for a lot of these challenges. I agree, we can, but that’s going to cost a lot as well. Does the money we spend on a urine or excrement recycling system do us much good here on Earth when we have far cheaper ways to do it? When you look at the cost of these programs the vehicle and launch is actually only a relatively small fraction of it – the R&D to create the vehicle and mission, plus the control once the mission is in progress are the biggest chunk of the budget. A smarter exploration device can probably reduce the control room costs (sorry, guys, I know you have great jobs, but we do need to consider the big picture) since the device can be more autonomous. So it comes down to that initial R&D investment and my proposition is that by focusing that money on developing really good robot that investment has payoff here. Plus, it is a challenge. So let’s let the CS folks have the fun instead of the rocket guys. As a practical issue any program does have competition within it about which technologies dominate and thus which practitioners get the jobs and dominate the project. So I just giving a push to the compsci crowd.

  17. I agree that robotics and technology contributes greater and make our lives simple. But keep in mind that if there are no human minds technologies cannot be made.

    • douq says:

      I didn’t actually watch the celebrations (saw some stills) but saw debate in other blogs that the celebration was somehow too U.S. centric and given that most missions do involve international participation this was offensive. I was ambivalent about the charge because everyone who was involved should be recognized and frankly I do consider this a success, and hopefully an inspiration, for all of humanity. But I thinking a little cheering for those who did most of the work and did pay most of the bills is OK. When China or India lands their missions somewhere I suspect they’ll exercise a little national pride too.

      And, again just from reports I read, it seems the looser dress (and hair) code of modern NASA was generally appealing even if the old-timer purists still longer for white shirts and ties (why did we ever do that anyway? isn’t comfortable clothing a plus for better human performance?)

      • I actually have no problem with the casual dress code. I got rid of all my suits 3 years ago and I agree with you, it makes me happier and makes me perform better.

        I just mourn that there aren’t any cigars involved in the celebrations nowadays.

        • douq says:

          Funny! I don’t mind, even though I was smoker too, the end of smoke haze. The celebratory cigar was fine, but the steady smoking, in hindsight, was awful. Like most of the rest of the world I’m glad there are some women in the mix too, cuts the geekishness a bit.

  18. Un punto de vista muy interesante.

  19. i think the biggest advantage of robots is that you dont have to bring them back…..but then if we just change our mindset a little ….neither do you need to bring humans back……now getting humans living there permanently is, as far as im concerned the whole point……….just another take on your article………….

    • douq says:

      As cool as visiting Mars might be I sure wouldn’t want to be stranded there. Now, OTOH, you could always provide hope new technology would allow picking them back up again, much as those who painfully crosses prairies later rode trains to return for visits.

      And I like the idea that someday humans could live elsewhere but I also still am concerned about the practical matters, no so much “let’s spend the money here [i.e. don’t do space at all]” as “if we can solve problems for living on Mars let’s spend it on solving problems here [like adapting to (and better, preventing) global climate change]”. I saw some article about permanent colony on the moon that would somehow mine and produce what it needs to be self-sufficient. Frankly, I think that’s fantasy. To extract metals from ores takes a lot of equipment. We could better just send tons of raw titanium stock to the moon than the refinery to produce, roll, shape, and heat-treat it. And people forget most metals we use are alloys, not pure elements. So now we have to have mining and refining for dozens of elements not just iron or titanium. Building the entire mining and refining infrastructure for just metals on the moon would take a huge amount of launch missions to get all that equipment there.

      But let’s shift to the people. Not much chance of agriculture on Mars or the Moon so now we ship up complex (and heavy) technology for that, hydroponics for plant matter, what about protein (all the people that will go live on the moon have to be vegans!). And what a bland diet that would be, eating some sort of gruel every day, year after year. Where would they get a nice Cabernet to go with their tofu burger? Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

      I think we’re talking centuries before we could develop technology we could ship enough infrastructure to another celestial body to provide even a fraction of the life here. And even when we’ve done that, what about gravity and radiation issues. Will bones and muscles degenerate, even with exercise equipment? Will the people have to constantly live underground to avoid cancer? Perhaps someday we can invent the force fields and “inertial dampners” so commonly used in science fiction to enclose a space that resembles life here on earth, but that’s a long time off.

      Now, imagine instead, that we put that same effort in here. Would living under the sea (not sure what the point would be anyway, but just as a comparison) be an equivalent challenge, or perhaps even easier to solve. Given it’s considerably warmer and there is a lot more water available how about colonies in Siberia or northern Canada instead of Mars; if all we need is living space we’ve got plenty here we don’t use. Would setting up a colony in the middle of Australia and supplying it to be at least a pleasant place to live as the moon cost more or less than the moon.

      So I think human colonization will have to wait until we have the means to do. Meanwhile we have opportunities now and that was my point of advocating robots today as the next step.

      • actually living on planets does not really make sense…..exploiting them for their resources does though……its silly burning millions of tons of fuel to blast out of earths gravity hole with the sole intention of falling into another gravity hole………living on artificial mobile “planets” make much more sense…………….

        • dmill96 says:

          I agree that artificial planets for residence would be superior but unless population is gigantic and literally won’t fit on Earth I would suspect that colonizing the more difficult environments on Earth (deserts, tundra) would require less resources than artificial planets, certainly than real planets.

          As to extracting resources it would seem that some very unusual (and extremely rare, yet useful) substance would be required to justify that. I’ve most often seen arguments for nickel or titanium, both of which are relatively plentiful on Earth and cheaper to extract here. Of course 1000 caret diamonds might be interesting, but other than baubles for the rich those might not have enough value to justify the cost. But who knows, maybe there is unobtainium somewhere.

  20. I agree. I’ve always thought that manned missions were more about science fiction than science–but unfortunately the two are somewhat inseparable in the mindset of the sort of geeky guys who excel at designing the technology.

    • douq says:

      As I read it, the decision to go with manned missions early in space history was mostly political. The public wasn’t going to spend 20B$ (in 1960s dollars) to send a little rover to the moon. They wanted heroes and so the whole “right stuff” legend was born. Frankly I enjoyed it; the astronauts did give us drama. But it also seemed like there was a negative side – did we sit there glued to TVs just because it was such a human triumph or was it partly we thought the whole thing would blow up. Unfortunately we do like an element of danger and the possibility of carnage to get our attention. If Curiosity went splat people would complain about wasting 2.5B$ but not grieve very much.

      And the early days of space were so completely intertwined with the military (if not, why did all three branches have their own rocket programs). And military meant heroic pilots. Even today the military resists the drones program because they still want a pilot in the seat (is that because a pilot can perform better? or just because it’s more fun and is the path to promotions? I doubt it’s morality because the pilots push the button to drop the bombs just as much as the robot does).

      Anyway, perhaps we needed that in the 1960’s, but part of what struck me about Curiosity is that things have changed. Many people were talking as much about how we were using Twitter to discuss what Curiosity was doing as about Curiosity itself. So maybe what thrills us today is different and thus to gain popular support for space today requires something different than it required in the Cold War era.

      The more I think about it, how would it “sell” today, to advertise a future program to Mars that anyone has the opportunity to participate in controlling it via a social media type site. We all put in our $0.02 and somehow the crowdsourcing Ouija board software translates inputs of millions into the actual next thing the robot does. By having the robot smart enough to not get in trouble then we wouldn’t (at least some of the time) need the highly expert controllers in JPL driving it. It’s just humor, but the TV series The Big Bang had Howard using driving the Mars rover as a date incentive, why not actually do that? Or a lottery, you win, for a day, you get to drive the robot. Or even do some thrill stuff and turn it into a video game, see how fast you can race the thing up a hill. These ideas probably drive the science people crazy, but folks, where is the next 2.5B$ going to come from if we don’t compromise the science ideals to a little bread-and-circuses for the masses.

  21. Andrew says:

    I am appalled that you see benefit from reviving the war twixt Robotic and Human spaceflight departments. The two are complementary. The biggest 1960s/1970s spin-off was extra taxation derived from commercially applied Human-derived products. Congress listened to misled Robotic people and cut BOTH sides, BUT MOSTLY Robotic.

    • douq says:

      What immediately provoked my post was that others had already started the war “twixt Robotic and Human”, the calls for manned landing in 2030 were riding off the glow of Curiosity.

      If we had near infinite money, the political will of both parties, and an end to the anti-science attitudes of certain reactionary (and unfortunately large) segments of the population then perhaps we do continue the complementary approach. But I don’t think putting an astronaut in a mission is going to sell to the tea baggers. And any science at all isn’t going to sell to the religious right and putting a human hero in it (who would have to be man for them) isn’t enough to get them excited. No, we live in a difficult time of small vision and petty sniping and timid goals and anti-progress (technological or scientific). Science is under attack because science tells us things we (some of us) don’t want to hear.

      So selling space today is tough. If putting people on the moon was mostly in tune with the Cold War and “space race” times then perhaps we need to do a ‘scam’ today to sell it for today’s mindsets. People are old school and I don’t see anyway to spin it differently (unless we send preachers to do sermons from Mars or say “we” get there first and deny Sharia law), so we need a different pitch that will work in today’s poisonous politics.

      Well, greed is still popular, so let’s sell greed. The robots for space exploration will make corporations a fortune so sell space exploration just as corporate subsidies and at least we shake a few votes loose in the Senate. But having done the cynical things necessary to sell the political establishment, how do we sell to the public?

      Well, the public likes its tech toys. iPads or games seem to appeal to all of the political spectrum. Developing the robotic technology for space exploration and doing both the technology and science parts would provide us something the public can relate to, if nothing else, better Disneylands.

      I’m sorry to be so cynical about this but I fear space exploration, at least in the U.S. is just going to get 100% lost in the anti-government and anti-progress mentality political opportunists are selling today. I want more missions and wildly expensive manned missions have no more chance than a person walking around on Mars without a protective suit. So what do we do?

  22. eao says:

    have you heard of a company called Liquid Robotics? http://liquidr.com/ They’re making autonomous aquatic robots, almost entirely powered by the kinetic energy of ocean waves – four are swimming across the Pacific right now. Two are headed to Japan, and two to Australia. They’re collecting all kinds of fascinating data on currents, critters, and so forth in the open ocean.

    • douq says:

      No, I hadn’t heard – thanks for pointing it out (took a quick peek at the website). I’ve seen a few things about building swimming robots but the power problem is always a tough one to solve so this sound really ingenious.

      I think we’ve only scratched the surface with robotics. From the perspective of having entered technology in the 1960s I am impressed by how much more information technology advanced, than was expected, and also how little robotic and AI has advanced than expected. It seems that having to include real mechanical systems or real hard AI has been a lot slower going than just purely “virtual” technologies (a bad term, but I’ll lump personal computing, social media, gaming, etc., under it, i.e. no physical aspect to it).

      The mission people consider for Europa sounds staggering. Who knows how thick the ice is, even assuming there is liquid water underneath, and how do we get through that! But once we puncture into the liquid water what kind of device is going to explore? It took us a very long time to find the mid-oceanic ridges and thus the hydrothermal vents which we expect might exist on Europa and harbor life. How long would the robot have to scan the oceans before it even finds a candidate spot to look and what does it use for power during that long mission.

      I actually believe we will have to use some sort of biochemical metabolic process. Slowly we’re discovered life that uses unusual energy sources, like rocks, and somehow extracts energy from the plentiful but unlikely sources. So perhaps a Europa device has to actually “metabolize” something in the ice (so kind of impurities???) to get energy, but maybe the penetration itself can be done via nuclear. But then what about the years in the ocean searching. And then how does the thing communicate back through miles of ice (presumably it might bring a small cable with it while boring through the ice but a few miles of that sound likely that cable would just freeze up again, so probably something different than that, like a chain of wireless repeaters that also get their energy directly from the ice).

      Who knows, real practical answers must be found instead of my scifi speculation, but that’s my point. Let’s spend whatever money we can get on these technologies, many of which would then apply to on-Earth problems (and thus profits to somebody and therefore support to do it). Liquid Robotics is one of those creative out-of-the-box things we need more.

  23. fireandair says:

    We’ll go there with humans if there is a compelling need, or we find something we want to bring back. Otherwise, we probably won’t. Going to the Moon was something we did to do it first in the middle of the cold war, but once we got there, we found out that there just wasn’t much there. There are no people on the Moon because there is nothing but boring, dry rock up there.

    In other words, I agree. It’s all well and good to talk about exploration and all that hoopdeedoo, but the old European monarchies didn’t send ships to the new world for floofy philosophical reasons. They sent them for spices and gold, and if they hadn’t found anything worth selling, they also wouldn’t have gone back.

    We’ll have people on Mars once we find a reason to have people on Mars, and “because it would be cool” just isn’t a sufficient reason.

    • douq says:

      I agree, cool will never justify the cost. But the technology debate of man vs machine is more that our (current) machines are way too stupid and humans can actually do the job far better. For the moon mission era and even today I mostly agree. But that’s the point – there is the challenge. Instead of spending the money to send the people let’s spend the money to invent robots that can perform as well as people! (or at least mostly).

      Most instruments we send today are very focused and only can find what they’re looking for. If a little green man walked up to our rover and touched it, the rover would never know (and the person in the control room in Pasadena might miss it). Our current machines have superb analysis capability, but, despite the name (and pun) not much curiosity. On one of the moon mission Harrison Schmidt, due to his training as real scientist, noticed rocks that either untrained space jockeys or a robot would have missed.

      Fine, I accept some of the superiority of humans. But I also see some of the superiority (not just being able to survive in harsh environments) of the machines, better vision, more precise mechanical abilities, actual analyzers and such. So let’s take everything a human can do better than today’s machines and make that a goal. Obviously we won’t get it all, but we can do a lot. For instance, I compared to the DARPA contest for self-driving cars; they didn’t do that in a simple and benign environments but on a tough desert course. Every move Curiosity makes will be carefully considered and programmed by the controllers (and I hope they do it right, since they’re going to climb a mountain, I hope they don’t drive the thing off a cliff). But I’d like to see a rover be far more autonomous so if the controller gets it wrong or some adjustment is needed in real time (like the time they got the rover stuck in sand, an autonomous rover might not have blindly kept spinning its wheels).

      Imagine how hard it is to build such a thing. If we knew exactly what conditions it would encounter climbing that mountains it’s hardly worth climbing the mountain. Or imagine sending a rover over the ice camp, slippery and full of crevices and other obstacles, that could shift between the time commands are sent from the controllers to when the movement actually occurs.

      But I also wonder about the decisions controllers make for the path of the rover and what it might miss along the way, esp. with Curiosity that is faster and travels further between earth-based micro-mission uploads. I remember once visiting Mt. St. Helens not long after it erupted. The ground was grey and barren. I was walking along a path worn by other feet and just happening to look back. And on the back side of a boulder, almost out of sight except at a very specific vantage point, there I saw some plants growing. Ground based controls looking through all those cameras will see a lot, but as Curiosity rolls by the vantage point will change and perhaps something unexpected will be hidden behind a rock, that the controllers didn’t see when they programmed the movement. That’s (part of) why the rover itself needs to be “smart” and autonomous.

      If we let the calls for manned exploration win out (which in my cynical view means we’ll do nothing since we can’t afford manned mission) we won’t push to enhance the robotic technology as much as if we set the bolder goal to build a robot that is as capable as the person. If an astronaut were walking on Mars she wouldn’t have to have every step pre-programmed and would be both autonomously navigating and moving as well as on the lookout for the unexpected. Plus perhaps a more autonomous device could take a few more risks (I’m sure a bunch of rock climbers would love to be climbing Mt. Sharp and I suspect the route they’d take might be a lot more interesting).

      And as to your point we will send people when it makes sense, yes, I agree. At the moment I can’t see any “makes sense” reason but who knows what time will tell. I think if we find life (not extinct) then we will want to send people. Life there could represent an entirely different biochemistry and who knows what possibilities (and threats) that could hold. Of course Mars life might be hazardous to us and we to it and so only sterilized machines can go, but it will take something very unexpected to do it.

  24. douq says:

    Here’s a new article emphasizing the story about how the landing was covered, going so far as to use the term: NASA 2.0, presumably coat-tailing Web 2.0. http://www.khou.com/news/local/NASA-20-Space-agency-for-a-new-generation-165579666.html

  25. douq says:

    Weird, the guy who supervised the engineering for the landing is out of a job (no more to do on Curiosity, needs a new project) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19198189 Meanwhile the article is describing him as “rock star” who got his moment of fame

  26. douq says:

    Here’s a case where a science resource (telescope) is allowing the public (in very constrained way) to choose what it views. In my comments I suggested that robotic exploration could be crowdsource controlled so apparently these people are already doing that: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/eso-vlt-anniversary-vote/

  27. dmill96 says:

    Here’s a new update, great satphoto of landing site, plus more information on mission plan. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19262486

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