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Space Exploration: The Humans vs Robots Debate

RobonautThe suitability of robots for space missions is obvious: they're tough, they're precisely controllable, they don't sissy out and die without air and they can live for years on a battery. All the great big explorations recently - Mars, Enceladus, the Sun itself - have been conducted by our automated assistants while the wimpy humans potter around with their new garden shed in the back garden (aka "the ISS in orbit").  Since the machines can go so far, why do humans need to bother at all? 

First of all, they're not very smart.  Signals can only move at light speed, so communications with the Rovers (for example) take eight minutes back and forth.  They only program it once a day for safety's sake, so it's less "the ultimate RC car" and more "so carefully it makes chess Grandmasters look like skateboarding teenagers".  By the time computer minds are smart enough to work out what to do by themselves, well, by that point we won't be telling them what to do anymore.  We'll be asking if they could please send us back some data from where they go, and we'll be doing it politely.

The second and more important point, however, is that we HAVE to go. What's the point in space travel if we treat these incredible feats of space exploration as nothing but chores?  "Oh, send a robot up to fix the satellite signal please, American Idol XV: Swimsuit Edition is on soon."  One factor the book addresses is the critical loss of interest in space travel by the latest generation, aka "Them damn kids". Surveys have shown that many 18-25 year olds don't see the point in manned space exploration - the most convincing proof yet presented that many 18-25 years olds need a smack in the back of the head.  One reason they mention is that it's "too far", a terrifying indication that the sheer damn-the-consequences inquisitiveness that drove our species out of the water, down from the trees and from caves to two-hundred meter towers may have finally been crushed under the weight of reality TV and YouTube.  Too far?  That's the entire point!  Dismissing space travel as too much effort only encourages the image of the pasty, out-of-shape kid sloshing around a seat in front of a computer eating crumbs from their keyboard because the fridge is "too far" away.

Their other complaint was that it was too dangerous for the astronauts, whom they presumably think are poor innocent babies unaware of the risks of space flight.  This is the real danger to modern space travel: a claim-culture generation who've been raised to believe that anything with risk is bad and should be avoided.  No matter what the gains, or if the person taking the risk thinks its worth it.  These are people for whom "personal responsibility" is like the Atari 2600 - they've heard of it, a few nutballs keep going on about it, but it's not something they've ever had to deal with.  We live in a world where tag is banned in some schools because it's a game with losers - we've fallen a long way from the Saturn V heroics of men who sat on three-quarters of a million gallons of hyper-explosive liquid fuel to go to the moon, most of the extra thrust only required because their balls were so big.

The idea that space travel could be killed by modern hyper-caution isn't just sad, it's a goddamn travesty.  To have left behind the dark ages of history, to finally live in a world where science and research could lift us to the heavens and then stifle ourselves by deciding that the couch is more comfortable?  That a smaller iPod is worth more than a manned moonbase?  That we'd rather watch an idiot blubbing over a burnout pop singer than images from another planet?

Posted by Luke McKinney.

"Robots in Space" release

Gen Y Space Study

Comments

I completely agree with the writer. Space flight is about risk vs. rewards. When I see pictures of mars, I think "Man i can't wait until we go there." With everything thats happened in the past few years it's more like IF we'll ever bother going at all.

People act as we are forcing astronauts into space! As if they haven't spent their lifetimes devotated to this dream.

I fear that all of the achievements in the 20th century will not be carried over in to the 21st and to simply say that we should "just keep checking, rechecking, rechecking oh and go back and check again..." is utterly degrading.

Hi,
I'm 18 years old. And I want to be an Astronaut. And I am currently taking many steps to achieve that goal. Not all 18-25 year olds are idiots and have total disrespect for space travel and more. So please give us some credit.
However, I do agree that many people my age are dumbasses and force their opinions about space travel in an all-knowing manner. I have run into a bunch of people who have expressed to me their seeing no necessity in human space travel- and to some- space travel at all. Moreover, its discouraging to a person who's dream and main ambition is to one day be an astronaut- or cosmonaut- and whats even more discourging is to hear older generations aka people who have more power and say in the situation, make the SAME remarks and try to find many ways and reasons to avoid the space program-save money, protect astronauts, for instance- by sending robots up. Well, if something goes wrong, humans have a wider range of knowledge- not just facts- cleverness, reaction time, etc- than a piece of metal and wires of which could malfuntion and shut down due to a little scratch on its microchip. Robots will never know anything about resilience and battling through to get the job done despite pain or other problems. You are right, astronauts are not babies- the risks that lie ahead are well known to them, they chose to do this task, to take up the challenge- they WANT to do this.
I want to do this. And I just hope the opportunity is still available to me when my time comes. Because if some dumb piece of scrap metal (which could end up costing even more money on top of the shuttle/spacecraft expenses- hellooo taxpayers, might want to listen up!) takes over my dream, then this world will be doing an injustice to its people-being a BIT overprotective instead of letting its people spread their wings and fly.

"most of the extra thrust only required because their balls were so big."

From someone smack bang in the middle of the 18-25 year old age bracket I say space exploration rules.

But seriously i think we should combine all the good things of the past generation and this generation.

Combine Paris Hilton, Britney Spears et al and the Saturn V rocket. All those mindless drones strapped to thousands of litres of hyper explosive rocket fuel, going into space, and think of the money you'd save by not having to propel all that weight of balls.

I Agree with McKinney, we should keep exploring, just because we can! Hell I'd even go myself if I could!

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