Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Space Exploration: Are Humans Necessary?

by Eric

Mary and I don't write science fiction but we're still excitedly awaiting pictures from New Horizons' Mars flyby.

As an sf reader during my youth I was thrilled with the manned space program leading up the moon landing but manned exploration of the solar system hasn't gone the way a lot of us expected back in the sixties.

We were supposed to be building bases on Mars by now. That's what I imagined, more than fifty years ago, when I watched Alan Shephard's small hop into space on my family's first color television set. Today the manned space program is older than television was back then and where are we? Still floating around in earth orbit and not even doing that very well.

On the other hand, the saga of the Mars rovers and unmanned missions to the planets and asteroids has been just as exciting as manned flights and probably contributed more to scientific knowledge.

I used to think manned space exploration was vital but technology has changed my mind. It is grossly expensive, and still unsafe, to send people physically into the hostile environment beyond our planet. Given advances in computers and robotics, what is the point? Man's genius isn't what he can do with his bare hands but with tools. A human being can't scoop up Martian earth in his hand anyway. What's the difference if a man wields a shovel held by the gloves of a spacesuit encasing his hands or orders a robotic shovel to move by sending an electronic command? A Mars rover is just a shovel with a very long handle.

The only real limiting factor in unmanned space exploration would seem to be the time it takes for distant sensors to send their findings back to the human operator and the operator's response to creep back at lightspeed. How often would a catastrophic emergency arise that could not be coped with by computer intelligence, but would be solvable, by human intervention, within a few minutes? I would think in the hostile environment of space, where a spacefarer is utterly dependent on machinery and computers, such a situation would be unlikely to ever occur.

So I'm content for future space explorers to depend on tools. I can't say I'd achieve more if I tried to write without wearing my eyeglasses, let alone trashed my computer, and eschewed a typewriter, or a pencil. Part of our genius is that we invent tools to extend our abilities. .

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