Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates to Tread

These early trips to the moon were relatively short in duration. Modern plans currently under discussion involve permanent stations and prolonged stays by the workers there. A manned mission to Mars would take well over a year -- and possibly three under some proposals.

This fact gives us cause to revisit the examples Mr. Griffin cites of early explorers. When you sail across an uncharted ocean to unknown lands, if your ship springs a leak you are certainly in trouble. But at least you can still breath the air, drink the water, and eat the local foods. In space, as well as on the hostile surfaces of the moon and Mars, there are no such second chances. Each and every mechanical system crafted by the hands of fallible humans must perform flawlessly for the entire time or the results are complete and total disaster. A more cynical observer might refer to this as “mechanical failure is not an option.”

It’s not that American heroes are in short supply. The waiting list of brave, daring professionals hoping to enter the space program is massive, and many stand ready to risk their lives to advance the cause of science and push mankind past any and all boundaries. But is this really the way we wish to spend those lives?

Robotic exploration delivers countless advantages. It is true that there will always be situations where a live human being will be able to adapt and think through situations which would leave a machine crippled in the dust. But have we done so badly with the robots currently in service? Two rovers on Mars are still trundling along, dragging disabled wheels and running on low power due to dust covered solar panels, but performing their mission years beyond initial projections. Also, unmanned missions are free of the burden of delivering air, food, water, and all of the other requirements for keeping humans alive. They weigh less, cost less, and can take all the time they need to arrive at their destination.

When the Mars Polar Lander entered the Martian atmosphere in 1999, it immediately fell silent and was never heard from again. It is now believed that it crashed into the wall of a canyon, smashing on the rocks far below. It was a terrible loss in terms of technology and discovery, disappointing many, but imagine our reaction if that had been a landing craft with five astronauts on board. Some risks are still best left to our machine surrogates.

And finally, what of the cost? The Mars Express plan is conservatively estimated to carry a price tag of more than 100 billion dollars. Many observers feel this is only a down payment, with the eventual bill coming in closer to one trillion. As much as we may yearn for bold adventure and discovery, we are currently watching Congress burn through imaginary cash as if it were the last known fuel source on the planet. Is this really the time to consider incurring such a debt load?

Human beings are explorers by nature. It’s built into our genetic code. But we also need to be aware of our practical limits and avoid having our reach exceed our grasp. Future generations may well overcome these obstacles and continue our trek to the stars, but reality needs to have a seat at the table. I can sympathize with Michael Griffin’s lofty, noble vision for the future of American space exploration, but given the costs and risks involved –- both in dollars and human blood -– this may be a time for robots to run where man fears to tread.