Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Columbus Conundrum

January 14, 2004 ... Physicist Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver appear on the “PBS NewsHour.” Original video source: PBS NewsHour.

“If Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.”

— Professor Robert L. Park, “PBS NewsHour,” January 14, 2004

It's an argument as old as human spaceflight.

Why send a person, when a robot can do it more safely and cheaply?

The Project Apollo astronauts were preceded by robotic spacecraft. Project Ranger probes relayed pictures and science data as they approached and crashed into the Moon. Project Lunar Orbiter photographed potential Apollo landing sites. Project Surveyor robots landed on the Moon from 1966 to 1968, photographing the terrain and sampling the soil.

While NASA sent humans to return regolith samples, the Soviets sent robots.

Starting in September 1970, fourteen months after Apollo 11, the Soviets began returning samples from the Moon using robotic spacecraft.

Not all Soviet Luna missions were successful. Luna 15 landed on the Moon on July 21, 1969, the day after the Apollo 11 landing, but crashed on impact. But no lives were lost, much less risked.

Apollo astronauts returned 382 kilograms, while the Luna probes returned only 226 grams, tiny in comparison.

But Apollo was not intended to be a science mission. It was to demonstrate to the nations of Earth that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson's April 28, 1961 memorandum to President John F. Kennedy recommended a manned (not crewed, as in 1961 only men were in the American astronaut program) lunar excursion in response to the recent Soviet achievement of orbiting Yuri Gagarin.

Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.

During a November 21, 1962 meeting with Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb argued for increased funding for science programs. Kennedy replied, “I'm not that interested in space,” that the only justification for the fantastic expense was “we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.”

Project Apollo's objective was to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, proving that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. Once that objective was achieved, no political will existed in the White House or Congress to continue, as the mission had been accomplished.

In the decades since, several Presidents have given speeches announcing new programs to resume human deep space expeditions.

None had the political, and therefore financial, support of Congress to succeed.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration.

January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush delivers his Vision for Space Exploration speech at NASA Headquarters. Original video source: C-SPAN.

The VSE was a response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which stated that the “lack of an agreed national vision for human space flight” was a contributing cause to the loss of the orbiter Columbia on February 1, 2003. Bush's VSE was an effort to provide that vision.

Among the goals he articulated in his speech was, “we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

To pay for it, Bush said he would reallocate $11 billion over the next five years from other NASA programs, and ask for a $1 billion increase over that same time.

VSE evolved into Project Constellation, which a 2009 commission found was “on an unsustainable trajectory.”

But on January 14, 2004, all that was in the future.

That evening, The PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer included a segment on Bush's VSE proposal. Journalist Ray Suarez interviewed two panelists, Professor Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver.

A physics professor at the University of Maryland, Dr. Park also represented the American Physical Society. During the program, he argued that sending humans was a waste of money, and that robots were a far safer and more efficient means of exploring the solar system.

A one-time executive director of the National Space Society, Garver had been NASA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy and Plans during the Clinton adminstration. She returned to NASA in 2009 as Deputy Administrator during President Obama's first term.

Garver would go on to become one of the fiercest critics of Project Constellation and it successor, the Space Launch System. But on January 14, 2004, in the private sector, Garver during the telecast expressed initial optimism about the VSE and the resumption of human deep space flight.

Park dismissed human space flight as “a romantic thing to do.” A one-time chair of the University of Maryland's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Park wanted the money spent on space telescopes and robotic probes.

The debate between the two that night is not particularly notable, but it reflects the seemingly eternal either/or debate regarding humans versus robots in space.

Dr. Park said:

You know, of course, this president's father stood on the steps of the Air and Space Museum in 1989 and made the same call. He said, “we're going back to the moon, we're going on to Mars.” He said, “like Columbus, we dream of shores we have not seen.” Well, if Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.

Here's where Dr. Park went wrong.

Drones, of course, didn't exist in the late 15th Century.

But let's assume they did.

What would a drone have found?

Humans living on fertile land that must certainly was not the East Indies.

If you were the Spanish crown, what would have been your next step?

More drones?

Of course not.

There comes a point in time where humans must do the exploration.

(Or, in the case of the Spanish empire, conquest and subjugation. Drones couldn't subjugate the Aztecs.)

For all the progress in artificial intelligence, it seems unlikely that a fully autonomous self-aware robot will be available for humans to use in place of people for significant exploration.

Dr. Park cited the Spirit rover that had landed on Mars ten days earlier. He claimed it was far more capable than humans, because it could actually touch the soil and sense the air.

The problem, though, which remains today, is that rovers are not autonomous.

Depending on the alignment of the two planets, a one-way communication between Earth and Mars is anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

An Earth operator must receive the data transmitted by a rover and make a decision about where to send it next. The operator can only make a decision based on the limited information available.

A human on Mars can make decisions far more quickly and capably than the rover, or its Earth-bound operator.

One possible solution might be to place the operator in Mars orbit. The operator would use virtual reality goggles and gloves to operate the robot in real time. Any samples can be returned not directly to Earth, but to the Mars space station.

That problem neatly avoids the person having to risk descent in the Mars gravity well, and ascent back to the station.

What remains, however, is the problem of that person surviving in a hostile space environment.

Park claimed that, “Most of the solar system is closed to us,” because of radiation and high temperatures. Humans were not made for deep space, he believed.

This is where the Columbus analogy fails Dr. Park.

The purpose of the 1492 Columbus voyage was to test the explorer's hypothesis that a shorter trade route to the East Indies existed than the current land routes, or following the African coast line around the dangerous Cape of Good Hope.

Knowing Earth to be a sphere, it seemed logical that one could reach the East Indies by sailing west instead of east. Columbus miscalculated the distance, believing it much shorter than it actually was.

Columbus had been a navigator, and had become intimately familiar with westerly trade winds he thought could be used to sail west to China.

He did not know, of course, that the Americas were in the way.

Columbus was fundamentally wrong about Earth's circumference, and he was wrong about a direct route to China.

What Columbus did prove was that it was possible.

It was the Age of Sail. Just as today's spacecraft are limited by chemical propulsion, sailing ships for centuries were limited to available wind.

Humans eventually developed engines to provide propulsion. That problem was conquered. Why? Because humans needed to travel faster and safer.

If drones existed, then humans would not have travelled, and the need to conquer wind would not have existed.

Scurvy was another common problem during the Age of Sail. The early settlements were plagued by drought and disease. European colonists failed to incorporate into their diets foods rich in Vitamin C.

If the imperial powers had relied only on robotic crafts, they never would have figured out how humans could survive in distant hostile worlds, simply because there was no need.

If humans are to travel beyond low Earth orbit, in the 21st Century we need to find similar solutions. How do people survive solar radiation, the space equivalent of scurvy?

If we don't send them, then no investment is made in solving the problem.

The imperial powers were, of course, motivated by greed and profit, but also by their finite resources. Earth's resources are finite. It may not happen for decades, or for centuries, but eventually we'll run out of resources.

Sixty years after President Kennedy sent the United States to the Moon for political prestige, NASA and its international partner agencies plan to hope to return to the Moon later this decade with Project Artemis.

Sure, some international prestige is involved, but this time we're not trying to prove we're better than a rival nation.

This time, it's to figure out how to stay.

Although private companies built Project Apollo, they did so based on NASA engineering specifications. NASA owned the technology.

That's certainly true of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but those were dictated by Congress in 2010 to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors from unemployment. They're jobs programs.

The rest of Project Artemis relies on the American private sector to provide services developed through competition and innovation.

The three ships Columbus used in 1492 were private trade ships hired to make the voyage.

An artist's concept of the Gateway, built by commercial and international partners. Image source: NASA.

A one-way trip to the Moon is about three days. Artemis astronauts may land directly on the lunar surface, or they may dock at Gateway, a space station made of commercial components. Unlike the International Space Station, Gateway will have its own solar electric propulsion system, capable of changing its orbit, or even leaving orbit to venture into cislunar space.

Space propulsion will advance, just as ship propulsion advanced from the Age of Sail, to the Age of Steam, the Age of Diesel, and the Age of Nuclear Power.

Artemis plans a semi-permanent crewed habitat at the Moon's South Pole. Robotic probes have collected evidence that frozen water ice may exist in craters there cloaked in permanent darkness.

Columbus and other early European sailors brought fresh water with them, which was used sparingly. Rain water was collected along the way, if it rained at all.

On today's ISS, robotic cargo ships periodically deliver fresh water, although water is constantly recycled, even from sweat and urine.

Much of the ISS food is freeze-dried. It's reconstituted with warm water for consumption.

That's not far off from what the Columbus crews did. Their food was dried, pickled, or salted to last up to a year, although maggots were a constant problem. When it was time to consume the dried food, the sailors added water, just as do the ISS crew.

Dr. Park died in April 2020 at age 89. As did his contemporary, Carl Sagan, Park delighted in debunking pseudoscience, or what he called “voodoo science.”

If I would have had the chance to discuss the matter with him, I might have agreed with him that there was no immediate reason, rational or “romantic,” to send people back to the Moon or to Mars.

I would, however, have argued that he misinterpreted the nature of the Columbus voyage, and the other great voyages of exploration (and conquest) that were to follow.

The Age of Sail took almost four hundred years to pass. It might take that long for us to figure out how humans can survive on the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.

If we only ever send robots, then we'll never learn how humans can live safely off the planet. It may not be necessary tomorrow, the next decade, or even the next century.

But it is inevitable.

Even when the day comes that artificially intelligent robots can perform the same tasks as a human, they will be in service of humans.

Robots will reduce the risk for the humans to follow.

I would tell Dr. Park, yes, send the drone first if you must.

But the humans must follow.

If not ... Why did you send the drone?

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