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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Robonauts -Future of Robots in Space

"Robots in Space" has just been released, and for once it's not a movie dealing with invincible silicon overlords and rugged heroes who save the world but have no time to shave. Instead it's a book dealing with the role of both humans and robots in further space exploration, and how one can't progress without the other.

The suitability of robots for space missions is obvious: they're tough, they're precisely controllable, they don't sissy out and die without air and they can live for years on a battery. All the great big explorations recently - Mars, Enceladus, the Sun itself - have been conducted by our automated assistants while the wimpy humans potter around with their new garden shed in the back garden (aka "the ISS in orbit"). Since the machines can go so far, why do we need to bother at all? First of all, they're not very smart. Signals can only move at light speed, so communications with the Mars Rovers (for example) take eight minutes back and forth. They only program it once a day for safety's sake, so it's less "the ultimate RC car" and more "so carefully it makes chess Grandmasters look like skateboarding teenagers". By the time computer minds are smart enough to work out what to do by themselves, well, by that point we won't be telling them what to do anymore. We'll be asking if they could please send us back some data from where they go, and we'll be doing it politely.

The second and more important point, however, is that we HAVE to go. What's the point in space travel if we treat these incredible feats of space exploration as nothing but chores? "Oh, send a robot up to fix the satellite signal please, American Idol XV: Swimsuit Edition is on soon." One factor the book addresses is the critical loss of interest in space travel by the latest generation, aka "Them damn kids". Surveys have shown that many 18-25 year olds don't see the point in manned space exploration - the most convincing proof yet presented that many 18-25 years olds need a smack in the back of the head. One reason they mention is that it's "too far", a terrifying indication that the sheer damn-the-consequences inquisitiveness that drove our species out of the water, down from the trees and from caves to two-hundred meter towers may have finally been crushed under the weight of reality TV and YouTube. Too far? That's the entire point! Dismissing space travel as too much effort only encourages the image of the pasty, out-of-shape kid sloshing around a seat in front of a computer eating crumbs from their keyboard because the fridge is "too far" away.

Their other complaint was that it was too dangerous for the astronauts, whom they presumably think are poor innocent babies unaware of the risks of space flight. This is the real danger to modern space travel: a claim-culture generation who've been raised to believe that anything with risk is bad and should be avoided. No matter what the gains, or if the person taking the risk thinks its worth it. These are people for whom "personal responsibility" is like the Atari 2600 - they've heard of it, a few nutballs keep going on about it, but it's not something they've ever had to deal with. We live in a world where tag is banned in some schools because it's a game with losers - we've fallen a long way from the Saturn V heroics of men who sat on three-quarters of a million gallons of hyper-explosive liquid fuel to go to the moon, most of the extra thrust only required because their balls were so big.

The idea that space travel could be killed by modern hyper-caution isn't just sad, it's a goddamn travesty. To have left behind the dark ages of history, to finally live in a world where science and research could lift us to the heavens and then stifle ourselves by deciding that the couch is more comfortable? That a smaller iPod is worth more than a manned moonbase? That we'd rather watch an idiot blubbing over a burnout pop singer than images from another planet?

We can only hope this new book explains to a few why men have to go to the stars along with the machines - because you can't make it to space when you insist on being surrounded by cotton wool.

Original here

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