You have to admit it, the new Mars rover Perseverance is really cool. Personally I’m not too keen on taxpayer-funded “pure science” research so long as we have applied science problems like, say, cancer and MS and Parkinson’s and so on.
But if you’re going to fund pure science then Perseverance is, well, really cool. Among its array of instruments:
- A number of cameras, all better than what’s in your iPhone 12 Pro Max.
- A set of sensors to provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.
- An X-ray fluorescence spectrometer with a high-resolution camera to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials.
- A radar imager that can penetrate the surface the way sonar penetrates water.
- A spectrometer to provide fine-scale imaging and use an ultraviolet laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds.
The last one hints at one of the major purposes of the rover, to try to detect life current or past somewhere other than our lonely planet. Never mind that we’re far less likely to find Marvin the Martian (or conversely, thankfully, something out of H.G. Wells) than something like bacteria or viruses. And novel viruses are getting a lot of bad press lately . . .
But there’s another purpose listed on the NASA website that to paraphrase the late great Barney Fife we should “nip in the butt.” Preparing the way to send humans to Mars. Or other celestial bodies.
Yes, I can hear the boos and hisses even now. In fact, I heard them a loooong time ago when Star Trek originator Gene Roddenberry – whose work has actually inspired much of the U.S. space program – came to my university and was received as a cult leader until he said he thought space exploration was, yes, best left to machines.
Mind, that was in the mid-1980s when only science fiction writers could imagine the progress we have made in machine learning by now, much less numerous areas of robotics. Nor how tough manned space flight would prove. It was before the disasters of the Space Shuttle program that in return gave us little beyond shots of astronauts floating around and performing nonsense experiments akin to the effects of zero gravity on the sex life of guppies.
Then we got the International Space Station (ISS), which so far hasn’t killed anybody but again is basically a playground for astronauts. If you look at NASA’s list of what we’ve gotten from the ISS you see it comprises the absurd, such as “preventing bone loss through diet and exercise.” We hadn’t already figured that out? Yet the ISS is likely the most expensive man-made object ever constructed, even as NASA continues to pay $3-$4 billion annually to maintain it.
Oh, and by the way it’s not really even a space station; it resides in the outer atmosphere.
Everything about the value of manned space flights is packed with myth. They were not responsible for Tang, Velcro, Styrofoam, or even those awful Space Food Sticks, as widely believed. Other innovations attributed to the space program surely were inevitable, such as cordless vacuum cleaners. Star Trek has probably been a more valuable inspiration, such as for the original clamshell cell phones and devices that are approaching the capabilities of the tricorder.
The truly useful progress in space has been technological improvements in the capability of satellites and in cheaply and efficiently putting them into orbit, with most of that now not from space agencies but private industry because it’s profitable. Watching Elon Musk’s rockets land on their haunches like something out of The Forbidden Planet is a lot neater than footage of astronauts floating around and tossing food into each other’s mouths.
And to really play spoiler, what was really accomplished in the Apollo program? It was a giant feather in America’s cap and given that it was during the Cold War and fully erased the embarrassment and outright fear generated by the Sputnik launch, there was benefit. But otherwise, in return for over $150 million adjusted for inflation and three astronaut lives, we mostly got a lot of moon rocks at a staggering price of about $9.5 billion. (Plus Apollo 13 was a damned fine movie.)
In fact, we don’t need people to do anything in outer space. If you can possibly name something today that only a human can do extraterrestrially, then by tomorrow a machine will do it while humming “Anything you can do, I can do better…” And without the massive weight added by emergency systems, life support, and very importantly, food. On a trip to Mars urine would be recycled for drinking but feces has little nutritional value the first time around and then progressively less. Each astronaut would have to be supplied with enough food for getting there, remaining there however long, and coming back.
Perseverance took a “mere” seven months to get to Mars, but that’s because it was timed for when the planets’ location would make the trip shortest. It would have to stay for months to be able to come back in the same distance. Likewise for humans. Rocket speed hasn’t really improved much since the Apollo days, but in fairness there’s been no demand. Part of the enormous expense of a manned mission to Mars would have to be development of much faster engines, and they can be developed. Even still, the overwhelming majority of the Mars vehicle would comprise a food warehouse unless you added the expenses of shooting resupply sites into space and onto Mars.
As for even longer human journeys, to other planets or solar systems; it’s great sci-fi, especially with Jennifer Lawrence in her underwear. But whatever manner of suspended animation you try, you can’t shut down a metabolism and so people will need food. Bears can only hibernate because they store up fat beforehand and sometimes wake up for a snack.
Getting back to Perseverance, two years ago I published an article in Peter Thiel’s journal Inference on the folly of manned space flight. Well, as with anything else you have reputations and other vested interests involved and one reputation at stake was that of Professor Emeritus Ian Crawford, Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College, University of London, who actually wants to return to the moon. (Sorry; been there, done that.) He penned a massive response that somehow missed almost every point I made. It was essentially a written sigh of a sailing ship captain as steam was conquering the seas.
But tellingly Crawford cited the Apollo 17 mission as an alleged example of the superiority of humans over rovers. “The Apollo 17 astronauts covered more than 22 miles in three days, a distance that has taken the Mars Opportunity rover eight years to match,” he wrote. “Humans can drill for samples deep underground and deploy large-scale geologic instruments, something that no rover has achieved on another body.”
Actually, distance covered is an absurd metric. The Apollo 17 astronauts were literally joyriding. Like hitting the golf ball on the Apollo 4 mission, it was good theater. NASA could readily drop an autonomous or remote-controlled dune buggy on Mars to zip all over the place. And oh yeah, Perseverance carries a helicopter – a rather predictable evolution of Mars exploration.
But anyway, what counts is what you accomplish in the area explored. While Apollo astronauts have to return in a few days, rovers, like the Energizer Bunny, keep on going and going until some Martian storm (or perhaps a death ray from disgruntled local citizenry) finally does them in. There is still another rover operable on Mars, along with a lander. They don’t need to bring food or resort to a vegetable garden like Matt Damon in The Martian.
In probably another decade we will send up yet another rover that will make Perseverance look like a 2020 child’s toy. Human evolution has at best ground to a halt … and at worst is regressing. But machines march on and on. Whether they can eventually replace us in all ways is both definitional and a subject for another time. But in outer space? Yes, humanity will indeed boldly go where it hasn’t before. But in his creations, not in physical bodies.