Getting robots and humans to get along

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Published on: March 4, 2012

It seems that on any given topic, our nation is split down the middle in its opinion of which side is right, or the best, or should win. Who we vote for, where we shop, what we eat – no matter what the question is, two major choices seem to rise to the top of the opinion polls, leaving other options behind in the noise of statistical insignificance.

This week we all lived through leap day; that once-every-four-years adjustment to our calendar that, I am convinced, was created to give politicians an extra day to campaign during a presidential election year. And it is politics that seem to divide us down the middle, both numerically and ideologically. Republicans vs. Democrats, take your pick. Make another choice and we’re told it’s a waste of your vote.

But of course, there are other choices to make, many more directly relevant to our everyday lives, even if they are not quite as weighty as picking the next president. For example, we go through our lives choosing between Coke or Pepsi, Target or Wal-Mart, Ford or Chevy, paper or plastic, McDonalds or Wendy’s – yes, that’s right, in 2011 Wendy’s finally knocked Burger King out of the Number 2 spot, so perhaps there’s still hope for Libertarians everywhere.

Then there is the most profound choice to be made, at least in our house. Do you root for the Minnesota Vikings, or the Green Bay Packers? There is, of course, only one correct answer. Go big purple…

And since the beginning of the space age, right up to this very minute, the debate over how to best spend our time and energy in exploring the final frontier continues to rage on and traditionally has been splintered into two camps: robots vs. humans.

On one side you have those that say all the work that is required to launch humans into space, keep them alive, and safely return them home, costs too much money and isn’t worth the risk when you consider robot probes can do the same job as our astronauts. And when faced with shrinking budgets, robotic spacecraft can give us more bang for our buck by leaving Buck Rogers at home.

Proponents of robotic spacecraft point with pride to the Voyager probes now at the very threshold of true interstellar space, a place in our universe that humans aren’t likely to reach for many, many decades. The robot community can boast of successes like Galileo at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn, and the incredible Spirit and Opportunity rovers at Mars.

On the other side you have those that say humans are the most essential part of any effort to reach toward the stars. After all, the survival of our species depends on us being able to leave this planet, and find a way to live out there. Going out there gives us new ways to live better lives back here. And when faced with shrinking budgets, human spaceflight must remain a priority; no bucks, no Buck Rogers still holds true.

Proponents of human spaceflight point with pride to the Moon landings of Apollo, the winged wonder of the Space Shuttle and the engineering and diplomatic marvel of the International Space Station. Human spaceflight makes us all feel a part of the adventure, and promotes our nation as a world leader. Time and again we see evidence that astronauts are inspirational to children and power their dreams for the future; and my dreams too.

Both sides have incredible stories to tell and rationale arguments for their continued support. And both sides can tell tales of tragic failures, resulting in the loss of huge investments in time and money, and the heartbreaking loss of life.

So why does one have to be at the expense of the other? Why do we have to make a choice between the two and declare one the winner over the other?

The answer, of course, is we don’t have to. Our space program is not the Super Bowl, where one side is declared victor and the other is dismissed as the forgotten loser. I believe there is room for both sides to claim the winning trophy. As just one example, data from robot probes like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can help pinpoint locations for astronauts to set up a future Moon base, just as probes like Ranger and Surveyor from a previous century helped us select the Apollo landing sites.

Making this happen, getting these two sometimes bitterly divided sides to stop blaming the other every time their budget is cut and agree to find a path forward in which they see each other as complementary, well that’s far more difficult than simply and naively asking the question, why can’t we all just get along?

Moreover, the answer, especially in NASA’s case, isn’t as easy as just giving everyone more money. Priorities need to be set and funded appropriately. As much as we all would love to see NASA’s budget doubled, that isn’t realistic. And even if it did happen, unless there was a fundamental shift in attitudes, I suspect the robotic and human spaceflight communities still would argue over their share of the pie. (It’s bad enough there never seems to be consensus within each segment.)

In my opinion, the choice isn’t between funding robot probes or daring astronauts. Instead, the choice should be for both sides to do a better job in speaking as one voice in support of a coordinated and robust space exploration program that will benefit all of us, right here on Earth.

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