Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023
NASA argues that humans offer definite advantages over robots.

NASA argues that humans offer definite advantages over robots.

NASA/KSC

The dazzling sunlight that flooded the lakeside restaurant where I sat down with Chris Kraft in 2014 was nothing compared to the clarity in his eyes. He had just turned 90 and was frustrated that NASA had not flown humans beyond low Earth orbit since he was the agency’s first flight director and oversaw the Mercury and Gemini programs. Like everyone else, Kraft had built NASA and put people on the moon. You would think he would like to see humans on Mars soon. Instead, he spent the next 90 minutes eating pasta, explaining that Mars is best left to robots for now.

NASA’s justification for sending humans to Mars has something to do with kickstarting the search for life and advancing research and exploration on the red planet. But even under the space agency’s most optimistic plans, humans won’t reach the surface of Mars until the late 2030s. During his lifetime, Kraft has watched the increasing sophistication of robots and artificial intelligence. He envisions that this progression will quickly continue or even accelerate. With these trends, the robots and rovers of the 2030s are sure to have some impressive capabilities. If so, why would NASA spend 20 to 40 times as much to send humans to Mars when robots could do almost as well, at a fraction of the cost?

The human reasoning

It’s a question perhaps best answered by one of the space agency’s foremost modern explorers, John Grunsfeld. Grunsfeld was not only a five-time pilot on the space shuttle and chief repairman of the Hubble Space Telescope, he also served as the agency’s chief scientist. I had a chance to pop the question to Grunsfeld before he left NASA this spring.

“There’s a myth that you can do some things with robots and some things only with humans,” Grunsfeld replied. “All exploration is human research. Even if we use robotic spacecraft, it’s still human research. People into the action? And it’s also about the pace of discovery. When you have people on site, especially when you have planetary scientists, geologists , putting astrobiologists on Mars, it will really speed up the pace at which we can make discoveries.”

Rovers like Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity are great for doing initial, exploratory research, Grunsfeld said. But robots aren’t great with surprises because they’re optimized for a particular field of science. If there’s one thing engineers and scientists on Earth didn’t count on, the rover may miss discovery entirely because it doesn’t have the instruments or programming to respond to the situation.

“But if we have senior scientists with the right tools, they’ll be able to do a much wider range of science and discover things much faster,” Grunsfeld said. “And so it’s really this convergence of wanting people to go beyond low Earth orbit and the increased ability of scientists to make progress by working with robotic spacecraft that will be the real strength.”

Grunsfeld noted that Mars’ “recurrent oblique line” (or RSL features) was recently confirmed to be briny water that flows during the planet’s relatively warm summer months. If life exists on Mars today, he said, it’s likely at the ice-mineral interface near the planet’s surface.

“These are places where we have to be very careful if we don’t want to contaminate Mars,” he said. “Perhaps we will bring a small robot that is highly sterilized that we can deploy and then operate within visual range. This would allow us to access these sites that are very special regions instead of sending someone in a space suit that is relatively dirty.

What about colonization?

Besides science, there are of course other reasons to send people to Mars. SpaceX wants to colonize the red planet. Since the company is trying to make humanity into a multi-planet species, it makes no sense to send robots instead of humans.

Compared to SpaceX, NASA’s overall desire to expand human exploration beyond orbit seems vague. Perhaps the most politically expedient target the agency could adopt would appear to be an Apollo-like march to Mars. Over a decade, NASA was able to send four or six crews to stay for 30 days at a time. Such a “flags and footprints” effort would, of course, rank among the greatest human achievements of all time.

Yet that’s exactly the scenario Kraft and others are most concerned about. They’ve lived through more than four decades of continuous exploration by NASA since the last Apollo flight in 1972. NASA went so far, so fast, that there was no program left to run when it withdrew from the moon. Space historian John Logsdon chronicled some of these struggles in his book After Apollo.

For its part, Kraft would like to see a more sustainable and practical program. Start at Earth’s near moon, he says. Make use of the water ice and other resources to build a lunar colony with other interested countries. Humans could build a large radio telescope on the far side of the moon, or we could use the moon’s regolith and its abundant silicates to build a large solar farm to beam power back to Earth. Let robots explore the perilous frontier of the solar system while humans build a more permanent space presence closer to home.

After lunch, Kraft and I drove back to his home, which overlooks a golf course a stone’s throw from the Johnson Space Center. As we shook hands in his driveway, he repeated his closing argument to me, “Oh yes, I’ve heard the argument that we’ve been there before.” I know that better than most. But we have unfinished business on the moon.”

By akfire1

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