Topical Smorgasbord

I’ve been very busy, so today’s posts is a couple of links following up on previous posts as well as some shameless self-promotion.

In addition to my thoughts on the matter, here are some further arguments about why we need to be sending people and not robots to mars.

In the article, even Prof. Steve Squires, a Cornellian and prominent proponent of robotic planetary science missions admits the benefits:

 “The unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect sol [Martian day], a human explorer on the scene could do in less than a minute.”

The grasshopper flies again – higher and for longer.  Still the coolest inverted pendulum I’ve ever seen.

Finally, while significantly smaller in scale than the grasshopper, I made my own technological leap this week as well.

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Asteroid Capture

It looks like NASA will be getting funding for a proposed mission to capture an asteroid.  Space.com reports on it here.

I think the concept is very cool, and probably feasible given enough money.  However, I’m going to have to bet against the project making actual headway due to the scourge of NASA: politics.

One should notice two things about the politics of the mission:

  1. The main proponent in congress is a senator from Florida. Since the mission will require a large new rocket and thus infrastructure overhaul and additional employees at Kennedy Space Center a large fraction of the funding for the mission will be aimed in that direction.  You can put the two together.
  2. The president has created a timeline of the mission with a 2021 launch date. If you do the math, that is a guaranteed one and possibly two administrations after the current one. Given the track record for continuity of NASA goals between administrations (and even within them,) expecting a flagship effort to continue unaltered for so long is like making promises about the careers of your unborn grandchildren.   

 Political interests and politician’s short sightedness screwing over NASA missions (and wasting a lot of money and valuable research time) is a common story. These inefficiencies are a strong argument for both an overhaul of the relationship between NASA and the rest of the government as well as a shift in the balance of space exploration between the private and public sectors.

Columbus vs. ColumBot

It looks like Russia and the European Union are hopping on the “send robots to putter around Mars looking for life” bandwagon.

I don’t want to malign the technological advances spurred by these projects. If you have doubts, consider that they actually pulled off this plan without a hitch.  I would argue that demonstrating similar ideas that live just over the tinfoil hat line (many of my engineer friends were sure the skyhook was doomed to failure) is the sort of thing NASA should be doing.

However, the motivations behind these Mars life-seeking missions are flawed.

In this post, my former labmate Joe Shoer does a good job summing up the problem with the current wave of Mars missions from a science perspective.

Here’s my take on the folly of the current obsession with robotic mars missions from a historical and economic standpoint as well:

Imagine if instead of a profit-seeking human (Columbus), Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had sent a spice-finding robot (ColumBot) instead. ColumBot would have landed on Hispaniola, deployed its impressive array of spice detecting instruments and sent back messages that concluded that while it might be possible for spices to have grown in this environment in the past, there weren’t any there now.

Columbus landed on Hispaniola and came to the same conclusions as ColumBot after a few weeks, instead of months or years. Unlike ColumBot, he had a human brain, creativity, senses and need to validate his mission (he had skin in the game.) Driven by these uniquely human factors, he realized that while there weren’t any spices, there were many other exploitable resources* that he used to establish the monetary value of his discovery.

Which of these two explorers, Columbus or ColumBot, would have spurred further exploration by the Spanish and driven the French, English and Dutch all to compete with them? Do you really want waves of ColumBots to be the only explorers on Mars?

*These resources unfortunately included the people living there, but if we discover enslavable aliens, that shifts the conversation entirely.

Beware of Pretty Pictures

On space.com today, one of these reports is not like the others:

http://www.space.com/20449-swiss-private-rocket-plane-2017.html

http://www.space.com/20461-russia-moon-robots-missions.html

http://www.space.com/20452-scotland-first-satellite-launching-soon.html

The first two are articles describing a space mission or technology concept accompanied by a slew of excellent computer-generated graphics, an impressive description and an ambitious timeline. These hyped-up but meat-lacking reports are a strong indicator of being over the tinfoil hat line in the bad way. While I’m in favor of crazy ideas, portrayals of them as straightforward sure-shots without caveats is similar to crying wolf: it makes people more cynical towards way-out-there ideas with actual substance behind them. 

Contrast those to the last article, which shows a bunch of smiling researchers around a real-life piece of technology. While the actual mission (and graphics) might not be as ambitious and flashy, reports like this one are the real substance worth excitement.

 In short, beware of pretty pictures.