Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates to Tread

When America collectively performs its morning ablutions and looks into the bathroom mirror, what sort of image do we see staring back at us?

Are we still the bold explorers who bravely stride where angels fear to tread? Or have we become a nation of slothful couch potatoes, doomed to settle for the status quo as we sit on the sofa  munching cheese puffs and watching the world pass us by? This is the essence of the question posed by former NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin in his July 19 editorial on the anniversary of man’s first historic steps upon the moon.

Griffin complains that the descendants of the pioneers who blazed the Oregon Trail, built a continental railroad, and flew across the Atlantic “gave up the frontier of our time.” In general terms, much to our well-deserved credit, he makes a valid point. America has always been a nation of explorers, pushing back boundaries and tackling death-defying odds to see what lay over the next mountain range.

However, after citing the great exploratory conquests of mankind on our home planet, the author paints a relatively cheap and easy picture of our bid to beat the Soviets to the lunar surface.

The United States spent eight years and $21 billion -- around $150 billion today -- to develop a transportation system to take people to the moon. We then spent less than four years and $4 billion using it, after which we threw it away. Not mothballed, or assigned to caretaker status for possible later use. Destroyed. Just as the Chinese, having explored the world in the early 15th century and found nothing better than what they had at home, burned their fleet of ships.

The facts and figures are accurate enough, but they fail to tell the entire tale. True, the soup to nuts idea of moving from the initial planning phase to the Eagle landing on the moon in only eight years was a technological miracle which shall likely never be repeated. But the reckless risks involved in our burning desire to one up the Soviets would be completely beyond the pale in today’s safety conscious environment.

In his incredible book, Failure is Not an Option, Gene Kranz -– the iconic voice of Mission Control through most of the space age -– described many of the hazards which were never revealed to the public. The families of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were told in no uncertain terms by NASA that they were realistically looking at nothing better than a fifty-fifty chance that we could get them back home alive, assuming they ever made it outside for a walk on the moon.

The ascent engine in the lunar lander, for which there was no backup, had been tested less than a dozen times on Earth and fully half of them had either failed to fire or hadn’t delivered enough thrust to get the astronauts back up off the surface. President Nixon even had a speech prepared in the event that the two explorers found themselves stranded there, watching their oxygen supplies slowly bleed down and awaiting the coldest, loneliest, most remote death imaginable by man.

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.