Who will be the “ultimate space operator?”

Rockem sockem

Most people might agree the ultimate space operator is the astronaut (cosmonauts for those Russian fans).  But according to this Slate article (posted today), the space operator will be robots.  Fair enough.  Satellites are a kind of robot, or at the very least, a drone.  They have sensors, CPUs, power supplies, etc.  Many things akin to a robot.  Even the Chinese are trying things out, as my asides, and others, have pointed out, that make them seem more robot-like.  And of course, Earth’s citizens have sent robots to other planets as explorers-in-proxy.

But the arguments within the article for why robots instead of humans seem to come from a very narrow, perhaps NASA-pushed, agenda.  Here’s the essence of the three arguments:  1) Man is built for Earth, so we shouldn’t be out there, 2) Robots are being used and built now, and so will be the inevitable best replacement explorer for man, and 3) space program PR never got people excited anyway, so using robots won’t negatively impact the program.

So now I will opine against them.

The first argument the author poses for his argument against–expanding the human race across the stars because the Earth may be snuffed out–is a strawman.  Humans typically don’t think in this way.  We think more in terms of:  what will make us famous, rich, happy, “because it’s there,” etc.  The Portuguese didn’t move towards the West because they were thinking they needed to survive.  They wanted gold, land–Empire.  And that kind of thing still drives a lot of people today.

And the author’s argument against his strawman of why humans shouldn’t be exploring is weak and ill-thought-through.  “Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet “Earth.””  This is the author’s primary argument against human astronauts exploring space?  So, humans don’t have wings or wheels.  Does that mean we should give up our flight and cars?  It’s been proven that in both circumstances things happen faster than we can react–but this “design-flaw” does not keep us from either activity.

Such an argument should stay in the history books and never come back.  We have learned a lot and should know better than to make such statements.

The second argument–another strawman “Human eyes are more thorough.”  Um, okay.  Fish in a barrel have a better chance of surviving than this argument for why humans are explorers.  I stand by my primary reason of what drives mankind to explore.  Human eyes or not, we have always used the tools at our disposal to help us better understand our environment.  For the longest time it was just our senses.   Robots will be a part of that “sensory toolset,” but not as the only space and planetary explorer.

But his reason for why robots will be the only appropriate explorers is tinged with technological determinism.  It will all happen because it’s inevitable–we’re building them now.  Hmmm…it’s great we build these robots, though.  They will be helpful, as intended.

And let’s not forget one of the main reasons NASA is using robots is:  money.  The lack of it.  Robots are cheaper, not necessarily better, than humans when it comes to their missions.  This is why they are used in factories (and they do repeatable work precisely).  NASA has a very constrained budget, one that is subject to very political agendas.

The third reason and argument against is just absurd, and why this article stems from a very NASA-centric point of view:   Human exploration as only a PR opportunity for a space program.  A very cynical argument.

As noted before–one motivator for exploration is fame and the rewards derived thereof.  We like our heroes and reward them when they accomplish the extraordinary.  But it’s difficult to see an agency in the same light, and the words “PR opportunity” just rankle of exploiting a gullible public.  It’s difficult for a public to get excited about an agency spending tax-dollars in any manner.  And if these arguments are the best that NASA’s scientists (the best and brightest) can come up with, I fear the government program is not going to fare well.

As a counterpoint, look at SpaceX.  Their ultimate goal:  “Enabling people to live on other planets.”  Most literate folks will note there’s nothing about enabling robots to live on other planets in this statement.  And anyone who is aware of the news, knows Elon Musk‘s name.  His first astronauts will be famous.  He is the modern-day ship-builder.  And the explorers will use his ships, and others, in the future to get their fame, their fortune.  This is why humans will be the star explorers.  The science and tech (and robots) will come as a result of those efforts, not as the result of the plodding of some agency with an agenda driven by some administrator.

What is that administrator’s name, anyway?

4 thoughts on “Who will be the “ultimate space operator?”

  1. If people want to explore other planets in search of Empire, gold, spices, trade routes, and slaves, that’s fine but I’m not going to invest. There’s no fortune waiting on Mars for bold humans to scoop it up. Even if Mars had a tonne of gold nuggets peppering every hectare, glittering on the surface, try designing a commercial venture to retrieve them that becomes profitable before the original investors die of old age. The only valuable thing beyond Earth orbit that we can’t produce cheaper terrestrially is scientific knowledge of space beyond Earth orbit. This cannot change unless launch technology becomes radically less expensive.

    Is there a budget threshold where humans become more cost-effective at generating scientific data than robots, and NASA is just stuck below that threshold in the post-Apollo era? That’s a pretty good argument for bigger budgets and manned space missions if you can muster the evidence. But maybe it turns out that $100 billion of robot missions returns more science data than $100 billion of manned missions even if you can get all $100 billion in a single year, so it really hinges on what evidence there is.


    1. That’s the great thing about private ventures–you don’t have to put a single penny towards someone else’s folly.

      Also, keep in mind fortune isn’t necessarily gold–as we’ve found it’s whatever we creative monkeys make of it.



    1. Well, yes–the arguments on Slate are not great arguments. That’s the point. I’m just amazed it was published (maybe not on Slate). I am suspicious of articles like that because they appear to be parroting something else (say successful PR statements from NASA programs and contractors). No thought was put into it. Not disagreeing that NASA would rather pursue manned space programs either–but it’s a money issue for them, followed directly by politics.

      I don’t think NASA is the way to go for manned space flight. If such a thing is folly or expensive, let someone who is motivated, a dreamer, and has the money try their hand at it. You won’t have to spend a dime.

      I did state mine was opinion, didn’t I (with basis on experienced perception of what motivates people)? You have obviously thought this through more thoroughly, and anyone who wants to see some good arguments should go to your site. I’m surprised you didn’t choke on your coffee when you originally read Slate’s posting;-).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s