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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Send Robots, Save Money, Save Lives

Not entirely an automotive post, but sort of an engineering post.

I recently read about NASA's plans to send astronauts back to the moon. I was floored.

The moon program is estimated to cost about $100 billion, which means that it will actually cost more like $200 billion--which is about how much the U.S. military spends a year on R&D, personnel, and procurement combined. It's a lot of money.

And what are we going to learn, by sending humans back to the moon, that is worth over $100 billion?

The highly successful Mars rover mission, by comparison, cost about $900 million. Not cheap, but only about 1/5th the cost of a nuclear aircraft carrier. You could pepper the solar system with robots for the cost of another moon landing.

We have gotten very good at building robots. NASA should stop wasting money and human lives on glorious but risky missions. There would be much more bang for the buck in robotic missions, space telescopes, and fundamental research down here on earth.

The manned space program has become something of a pork project. It is sexy to send people up in a shuttle, so they can live in a space station. But most of the science that is being done is focused on improving or developing man's ability to survive in space. When was the last time you heard about an amazing find aboard the ISS? The ISS is basically welfare for Russian scientists, to keep them from moving to Iran and building bombs. It eats $1.6 billion a year--one and a half Mars rover missions. Why not contract some of the robots out to Russia, instead?

Think of what kind of work could be done with $100 billion. For example, how much improvement in hydrogen fuel cell efficiency, or hydrogen generation and storage could we buy for $100 billion?

Or deep sea exploration? Particle accelerators? Cancer genetics? Applied zymurgy...


The Angry Engineer said...

My take on this is that we're going to send humans there because eventually the Chinese will, and we want to show them that we can still compete.

I agree that this task could easily be completed with robots, but I'm guessing that there's a public perception issue with going that route.

Frankly, I don't think that any of our elected officials should be allowed to so much as leave their yards until they figure out how to fix our current budget problems. This does not seem like the right time to be talking about a $200B effort to repeat something we did 40 years ago.

Ray said...

So I take it the Prophet will not be volunteering for the next rock collecting expedition to the earth's satellite?

The thing that disappoints me is that the NASA pictures show an almost clone of the same old Command Module/LEM configuration they used almost 40 years ago. How about some innovative new styling, cupholders or something?

Anonymous said...

Agreed the space station is a glorified high school science trick of almost no value. But the $100B NASA wants to spend on a moon mission - that's their multi-year budget. They're going to spend the money anyway. They're simply redirecting it to a moon mission, which is fine by me. ANYTHING that defends the miserable ISS is good news.

Anonymous said...

I am curious, but are you even aware of the things that have been discovered as part of the manned space program? Are you aware that the government knows that it is spending too much money on launches and has therefore handed over to private industry the task of building the next generation of launch vehicles? Have you paid any attention to anything but the costs? Like so many people spouting the "let's fix our problems here before we go there" philosophy, do you realize that making space a priority is the one sure way to improve education, jobs, and the general standard of living on a planet that is going to be saturated with people in a few short years? From your posts it is easy to tell that you are from a place where jobs are disappearing faster than Granholm can say Gitchiwamma, but that doesn't mean that the universe should sit still while the Union boys try to figure out why they're losing thier jobs to cheaper labor. NASA is not the thing. Get with the times.

Here is a list of reasons why we should be thinking of ways to send robots into space only to supplement the human presence there.

1) Because it causes most of us to lift our eyes up from the ground and look outwards, something we humans have done for a long time.

2) If the first exodus from Africa had never happened we would never have been so successful a species as we are now. We also would probably not be here now.

3) Because it is the highest cause to which we aspire.

4) Because it is exciting for the human spirit.

5) Because it challenges us to push the envelope. If you don’t push the envelope you stagnate and eventually retreat to insignificance.

6) Because of what happened to nations in the past who turned their backs on exploration, two names Portugal and China show how a nation can go from preeminence to almost irrelevance in a short period of time.

7) Because it is the greatest experiment that requires all nations to participate together. What better way to come together?

8) Because we will eventually, one way or another, need to defend ourselves against some solar system detritus. Only a strong presence in space can do that.

9) Because robots cannot be inspired.

10) Because sending my 35mm Instamatic to the Grand Canyon does not a vacation or expedition make.

11) Because I do not wish to spend any more of my life in virtual reality. I want real reality.

12) Because sending robots will produce new technologies in electronics, materials and a few other disciplines, but sending people will result in thousands of new technologies and disciplines, from medicines to zero-g flower arranging.

13) Because if we send anything less than all that we are to the stars then we are diminished.

14) Because Robots don’t write poems or paint pictures.

15) Because I would not have liked to see Star Wars with just R2-D2 in it. ;>)

16) Because humans make robots look like what they really are, just souped up toasters.

17) Because I know of no robot that has actually expressed an interest about going into space.

18) Because I am human and I want to go.

19) Because it’s NOT just about the science.

Unknown said...

So... you are willing to spend huge sums of money, which could be used to solve real terrestrial problems, to send humans into deep space, for the romance and adventure of it all?

I should fisk your comments... maybe later.