Human vs Robot

Fountains of Enceladus Recent Cassini images o...

Fountains of Enceladus Recent Cassini images of Saturn's moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. This image was taken looking more or less broadside at the "tiger stripe" fractures observed in earlier Enceladus images. It shows discrete plumes of a variety of apparent sizes above the limb of the moon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humans vs Robots

In this corner, weighing it at a certain range of kilograms (depending on its mission profile) is the robotic explorer.  Sometimes it takes the form of an orbiting probe, sometimes a rover, lander, or impactor, sometimes a mix of the above.  Most of its early achievements must be successful or the whole mission is a bust (remember Phobos Grunt?).  It starts off, like a bullet and once it’s gone…it’s gone.  There is no stopping it after launch to make adjustments (through the designers and mission control do some amazing things to save a failed mission remotely).

Once it is launched successfully and functioning correctly it does stuff like the photo above.

Its advantages, in spite of occasional losses, are cost.  It only needs to take what it needs to collect the science.  Plus it is one way, it doesn’t have to come back.  When we’re finished with it, we just crash it somewhere.  It seems almost cruel.

In this corner, weighing in at between 100something and 200something pounds, is the human explorer.  Their lives are precious and delicate, but they have the ability to make repairs and corrections mid-flight to ensure the success of the mission.  Once on the job doing the science, they can adjust their mission profile as needed in light of discoveries along the way.  They notice things that they weren’t looking for.  They can still carry with them all of the instruments that the robot can, but they use those instruments smarter.

Also there is no “light-speed-lag” when the human holds the instrument in their hand while standing on a distant planet.

Yet humans, being very valuable, must be kept alive on the mission and come back after the mission.  They have to carry along a lot of extra baggage to achieve this the most important part of the voyage is a safe trip home.  Human versatility does not extend to hard vacuum.  In fact our environmental needs are frighteningly narrow when compared to any known place except the very narrow layer of atmosphere that hugs the Earth’s surface.

There is something I heard somewhere, I wasn’t able to Google the quote so I must have it wrong somewhere.  I think it came from the Linus Van Pelt comic character on Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts“.  It goes something like this.

With every set of answers comes a whole new set of questions, so we find ourselves in a perpetual state of confusion.  However, we consider ourselves at a more informed level of confusion than before.

That is the way exploration and discovery goes.  I really like robot probes.  They can go places where no human can go (yet), and gather a lot of science ahead of time without risking humans.  However, they have their limits in flexibility.  Though they are remotely commandable and to some extent even remotely programmable, they are unable to grow very much beyond their design on the fly.  They are configured very specifically to collect a new set of questions for the next probe to answer a decade or so later.  That question-answer-question cycle spins far too slowly with robotic probes because they are (and need to be) too specialized.

Human’s on the other hand play the “What the heck is that?” game very well, cycling through the question-answer-question cycle very rapidly, often in mere seconds.  They extrapolate solutions to problems, imagine outcomes, and their eyes and ears are always placed just a few inches from their brains…instead of light-minutes away.

Can we think on our feet without leaving the ground?  Yes we can, but sometimes the opportunity cost for sending a robot to do a human’s job is higher than the dollars saved.  Soon, the cost of launching anything will drop dramatically and the envelope of human and robotic exploration will expand together.  What used to be places where we could only send cameras will become destinations for your eyes and mine.  Won’t it be great if the sphere of human elbow room doubled every eighteen months, like chip density did back in the 80s and 90s?

It can happen.

Robots will always go first.  One-way missions are a lot quicker and cheaper to build and fly and that will never change.  But humans must always follow…

…because exploration is what we do best.

~ by Bill Housley on April 21, 2012.

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