Archive for January, 2009

This week’s question revolves around near future spaceflight, should it be manned or unmanned?

In case you’ve missed them Jose’s original piece is here and Charlie’s is here.

Ken Macleod:
In terms of immediate priorities, there’s no question that unmanned missions are far more cost-effective. At the moment Cassini is showing us yet again that every planet, moon and lump of rock in the Solar System is not only unique but has surprising features. The Mars robot explorers have shown us the same. But they’ve also raised questions that would be very easy to answer if only we had people there. In the longer term, we have to go ourselves.

Ken MacLeod is part of a new generation of British science fiction writers, who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera.

Alan Bond:
Ask an antarctic researcher if he/she could be cost effectively replaced by a robot without any loss of understanding of his findings. It is the cost of space transprtation which drives this sterile debate and it is that problemwe need to solve. Robots should always remain our assistants, not our substitutes.

Alan Bond is Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd [1] and associated with Project Daedalus, Blue Streak missile, HOTOL and Skylon.

Robert J. Sawyer:
Well, I agree with Charlie. Spaceflight isn’t just about economics; indeed, I decry the worldview that says that all things should be reduced to the bottom line. Space travel is an ennobling adventure; it’s part of our reason for being as a species. As the closing title card of Star Trek: The Motion Picture said, “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning.”In fact, I sum up a lot of my thoughts on this in my own novel Hybrids, which contains this speech on this topic from a fictitious US president.

Robert J Sawyer is a rockin Canadian hard SF writer

Joe Haldeman:
Being an astronomer by training, I’m prejudiced in favor of unmanned exploration — the scientific return per dollar is orders of magnitude greater than you can expect from manned spaceflight.

Add to that the near certainty that George Bush’s “return to the moon” pledge is just so much vapor. There’s no money. There wouldn’t be enough money even if he rescinded the tax cuts his wealthy pals enjoy.

Add to _that_ the fact that the shuttle has always been a dangerous juryrigged compromise vehicle, and now it’s a geriatric one. Incredibly, there’s no real successor on line; it will be at least eight years before one leaves a launch pad.

I’m greatly in favor of eventual manned flight, and I do believe that the ultimate destination of humanity is space. But the next step is a technology that will allow the transfer of large masses to Low Earth Orbit economically — perhaps the space elevator; perhaps something else — because nothing permanent is going to happen until cislunar space offers goods and services that can’t be had more cheaply on Earth.

I’d like to be proven wrong.

Joe Haldeman has been shot on three different occasions. We don’t know why, he seems nice enough to us.

Larry Niven:
You and Charles are rehashing an argument I’ve watched develop over many decades.

In the 60s I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t land on the Moon with Apollo 1. Why wait until 11? Okay, that was naive. The machines have to be developed and tested, and the men don’t get there without the machiness. What I notice is that your arguments (for the machines) are clear, precise, and rich in hindsight. Charles’s arguments (for sending astronauts) are very much based on postulates and theory, and lead way around Robin Hood’s barn.

And what I notice from my lifespan is that the machines, from magic telescopes to rovers and Voyagers, have shown us the universe in detail I could only imagine, and wrongly. Today’s plans don’t put men on Mars within my expected lifespan, and they could be cancelled at the stroke of an election.

But maybe I can hang on long enough to see Pluto. I’ve come to bet on the machines.

Larry Niven’s Science Fiction classics delayed the loss of Jose’s virginity

Greg Bear:
Robots will not have the capacity for a sense of wonder for many decades, I suspect. This aspect of human experience in space–the prospect of personal awe and discovery in the midst of infinite mystery–will propel funding far more over the long haul then robotic exploration, as marvelous as that is. People want to go and explore, not just sit and watch.

Greg Bear is a science fiction author. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (Forge of God books), artificial universes (Eon series) and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children).

John Baez:
As we speak, unmanned space missions are exploring the moons of Saturn, heading to Pluto and the dark reaches of the Kuiper belt, and finding evidence that the Universe is mostly made of stuff we don’t understand: dark matter and dark energy. Meanwhile, people aboard the International Space Station have a full-time job just keeping the thing repaired. Promised technological spinoffs like crystals grown in space aren’t really amounting to much. The crew made news recently by throwing a space suit stuffed with rags and a radio transmitter into Earth orbit, just so ham radio fans could track it: a clear sign of diminishing returns.

Why are we even bothering with manned space flight? As a character says in Charles Stross’ wonderful novel Accelerando, “NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!”. This stunt, which will cost billions if we don’t stop it, is the scientific equivalent of putting a goldfish bowl on top of Mount Everest.

It would be much smarter to spend the money creating cyborgs who don’t breathe and can stand hard radiation; these guys will actually enjoy space travel. We can do this and we can do it quicker than you might guess. In the meantime, let’s send machines into space, like the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. This project, if funded, has a decent chance of seeing gravitational ripples left over from the Big Bang. It’s the only known way to see through the wall of fire that cleared up when the Universe was 400,000 years old, back to the first microseconds of history. And it’s cheaper than sending canned primates to Mars.

John Baez is a a mathematical physicist who specializes in quantum gravity and n-categories.

Bill Gawne:
As a one-time Astronaut Applicant, and a working space scientist who
works with unmanned science missions, my opinion is that the best space policy is to embrace the power of “and” when it comes to the manned/unmanned mission question. Unfortunately, it has become customary to pit the one against the other. Right now good unmanned missions are being cancelled and delayed because the Powers that Be have decided once again that “science must bear the cost” of the manned space program. This is short sighted, and among many bad things it turns the space community upon itself. We’re being divided in order to conquer us. I’m confident that President Bush’s Moon/Mars initiative will go nowhere, but in the process of going nowhere it will cause a number of good science programs to be cancelled.

There *are* scientifically sound reasons to put people into space. As others have pointed out, there are also reasons which transcend science. All of these are legitimate reasons to expend our time and treasure on a progressive and reasonable manned space program. It would be nice if someone had such a thing. The current US manned space program suffers from a number of
accumulated problems which have origins back in the late 1940s, and which have become entrenched policy over the course of successive administrations.

Space scientists resent the long-standing practice of raiding the space science programs for money to support the manned space program. Space scientists rightly point out that the International Ultraviolet Explorer accomplished more, at lower cost, than the two ASTRO missions flown aboard Space Shuttle flights. This is but one example of misguided efforts to tie science missions which could be performed by unmanned spacecraft to the manned space program.

NASA is fundamentally an engineering establishment. Scientists have always been in a minority at NASA, and science has never been the main driver in NASA organizational decision making.

While I’m not entirely sure that transfering space science funding to the NSF would be the best solution, I think it would be better than the status quo. NOAA has a nice partnership with NASA whereby they get NOAA weather satellites launched and into orbit. The NSF and NASA could develop a similar partnership that would insure continuting integration, test, and launch
support from NASA while moving the mission operations and data analysis funding out of NASA’s budget into the NSF where it more naturally belongs. NASA would be left with manned spaceflight and its too often neglected aeronautical research mission.

Bill Gawne works for a NASA contractor in Maryland and teaches physics and astronomy at Towson University and is a top bloke


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by Jose Garcia

The last twenty years of spaceflight have been a mix of wonder and frustration. Manned spaceflight, once an inspiring force for all mankind in the heady days of Apollo, has been taken over by white elephants like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Meanwhile unmanned spaceflight often seen as a bit part is now stealing the show. While astronauts on the space shuttle have been making conference calls to school children the Hubble Space Telescope has changed the way we look at the universe. And as robotics steathily advances at a breathtaking pace that disparity will grow even larger.

The main problem with manned spaceflight isn’t one of technology but of finances and politics. Manned missions require massive spending commitments that span administrations. This ensures that they become political footballs to their detriment. JFK’s famous rallying cry for a manned mission to the moon came at the height of the cold war and enjoyed broad support that transcended political factions. A manned mission to Mars enjoys no such advantage. Several american presidents have uttered their own rallying cries for a mission to Mars which have all invariably dissipated only to be co-opted by future presidents with equally vacous calls. This situation isn’t likely to change until manned spaceflight either becomes dramatically less expensive or as high a priority as a nation arming itself. I don’t see either happening any time soon.

Unmanned spacecraft on the other hand are growing in sophistication. Deep Space 1 used a novel solar electric propulsion system while manned space propulsion seems to have advanced little since 1970. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, will be constructing their Furoshiki satellite using two spider like robots. Nasa is developing a robonaut with an eerie resemblance to Boba Fett that promises a level versatility once thought the exclusive domain of humans. Meanwhile manned spaceflight has been preoccupied with spending vast amounts of resources delivering humans into orbit only for them to hit the on switch on otherwise automated experiments.

For the cost of a single manned Mars mission we can deploy an armada of robots and unmanned spacecraft throughout the solar system. While none of these missions taken on their own is as inspiring as a video of astronauts walking on another world they’ll net us much more science and trial more technologies. These unmanned missions also give us room to take risks and make mistakes that we couldn’t with missions carrying human cargo.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingRobots aren’t taking the place of humans in space. Cheap spaceflight will eventualy arrive and when it does humans will eventually be leaving their footprints all over the solar system. Until then robots will be paving the way, exploring and allowing us to test new technologies. And when humans do move out into the solar system they’ll undoubtedly be accompanied by a host of indispensible robotic familiars. It won’t be a question of humans or robots but how we can make best use of both. For the next few decades though, the stage belongs to R2D2.

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Why is it more important to get people into space than probes?

By Charles Robinson

Human history has, to a large extent, been the story of our expansion into new environments, and our adaptation of and to those environments. Human expansion, technological change and social change all go hand in hand, driving and drawing momentum from each other. These three interconnected, interdependent factors are, in various ways, responsible for the rise of both human intelligence and human civilisation. So, the evolutionary impetus given by the tension between expanding geographical, technological and social frontiers is what has set the human species apart from other life on this planet and is what drove the increase in intelligence and subsequent arousal of culture that has brought us to our current situation.

That position is one from which we risk losing everything that we have gained in the past hundred thousand years…but also one from which we could, as a species, change so much as to make human history up to now no more than a prelude.

Space is the critical factor in deciding which way these events will play out. Not just physical space, not even primarily physical space, but mental, cultural, idea space. The noosphere, the sphere of human thought, culture, of mind, is the space which must expand, and be expanded into.

How to expand the noosphere? Expand the possibilities available to the human species, by changing the geographical, technological or social boundaries which define the noosphere. Of course, change of the technological or social kind is happening all the time, probably faster now than at any other point in human history. However, these changes do not seem to be being reflected in changes in the underlying structure of human societies. This partially explains the continued failure of technological democratisation, the ‘rising tide’ effect touted as a justification for the growing divisions of wealth and opportunity in the world.

So, despite apparently the apparently fertile soils of technological and social change, cultural change seems to be slowing or stopped. This is because human culture exerts a kind of homeostatic force on itself; like a living creature, a successful culture evolves out of a balance between conflicting forces, to an equilibrium whose effect is, somewhat paradoxically, to stifle change. So the changes which advance a culture have to come from places where the cultural homeostatic forces are weakest. And that means the fringes of a culture, the places where the institutions which evolve to inhibit change are weakest, and also the places where a culture is coming into contact with other thoughts, ways and means of being. Contact with, or the creation of, new cultural memes result from the chaos, the changes, of the fringe, and these memes can then propagate inwards to the heart of a culture and introduce new tensions, which will, in turn, cause change and move the whole process on.

The problem that arises from this scenario, is, of course, that eventually the space, whether physical or mental, in which these changes can arise, ceases to be outside the normal mechanisms which police cultural change. Eventually a successful set of memes (a culture successful under biological terms, at least), will reach a point at which it can either stop expanding, or compete directly with another culture with the same ability to resist change. The grey areas, the gaps and cracks in which new memes could prosper or die out, have gone. The noosphere is almost full, and the energy which could take us in new directions is siphoned off into a conflict between the existing memetic organisms which populate human cultural space.
This is the state that the world is rapidly approaching, one in which every culture is pressed hard against another, a state in which cultural homeostatic mechanisms, reactionary forces, normally weaker at the fringes, instead must be as strong there as anywhere else, one in which the cultural immune systems of the world are inflamed and enraged, and in conflict with each other. A state from which change, and thus progress, becomes increasingly difficult to initiate, and a state in which all change has got to be to the disadvantage of someone.

Sound familiar at all?

That’s why we need to get people in space…the human species needs fringes, it needs places where the noosphere is thin and new, and where exotic ways of being, of living, can succeed or fail without competing with the existing monolithic, hundred thousand year old aggregates of memes that are the cultures of earth. If the fringes of a living organisms range are where speciation and diversification take place, then it is to the fringes of human experience that we must turn if we hope to change things on this planet. So, unless you believe that this planet isn’t going to the dogs, the best possible hope for a few new ideas which might change the way people see the world around them and each other, is to put people into novel situations, equip them with technologies to manipulate those situations, and give enough cultural distance and freedom to those people that new ‘ways of being’ can prosper or perish by their own merits.

We need space, not to escape from this planet, or to save it, but to save ourselves from stagnation, war, and eventual cultural, spiritual and physical starvation.

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