Saturday, March 18, 2006

Humans: We're Just Better.

The success of the Mars Rovers and the recent successful arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter leads some to argue that sending humans to explore space is not necessary. Columnist Fred Reed writing in the Washington Times is the most recent advocate of that view. (Here.) He concludes that robots do science well and since the public can now participate in space exploration via the internet, we need not send humans to other planets.

The debate between robots and humans in space is a false dichotomy. It's another example of the tyranny of either-or thinking.

First, robots do science well but humans and robots together do science better. Despite all the advances we've seen in computer and robotic technology, humans are still better. Here's a visual example of the superiority of astronauts over robots.

These first two photos were taken by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission.

(Photos credit: NASA, and links here and here.)

They show a crater about 60 meters from the landing site and a view of the landing site. Armstrong took the photos when he disappeared for about 3 minutes. Remember that number: 3 minutes.

To the left is a photo taken by the Mars Rover, Spirit. (Photo credit, NASA/JPL, and link here.) It's a panorama taken about 100 meters from the landing site. It was taken about a month after the rover left its lander.

What a human took 3 minutes to find and photograph, a robot took 30 days.

Humanity's robots are doing great science and exploration throughout the Solar System. But humans could do much more. Let's send both, shall we?


UPDATE: We first heard this comparison made by a fellow panelist in a discussion on Mars exploration here in San Diego. He was then, and still is, a scientist on the Mars robotic missions.

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I remember Steve Squyres himself said that the amount work the rovers do in 90 days can be accomplished in just one by a human. Or something to that effect.

The whole robots vs humans debate is childish, IMO. Like you said, lets send both.
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