Friday, April 07, 2006

NASA Dreamin'

A little while ago, I attended an event put on at the local NASA facility. They call them their 'third Saturday' programs since they have a different event once a month on the...third Saturday. I had avoided attending several of these events, but I finally took this last one in since it was going to be focused on the Martian lander missions, which have been all but forgotten in the mainstream press.

The first discussion focused on Martian geologic history and the possibilities of previous life on Mars and future terraforming. Though interesting on some level, this lecture didn't particularly peak my interest. Mars is a very, very crappy place so any permanent settlements would be almost wholly dependent on Earth. As far as life on Mars, I'd heard a different NASA scientist at a different point in time say that even if something was found that they might not ever be able to completely discount the possibility that it had still originated on Earth (though if I had to guess, this guy was sick and tired of answering questions about the non-existent Mars 'face').

During the second presentation, the presenter went over current and future projects and pointed out the big drawing board project in which a probe would launch soil samples back to Earth. He pointed out that the price tag for this project was closing in on one billion dollars and he then went on to make a point which I'd never heard before.

Robots are a rather stupid substitute for a person and can gather 'science' at a snail's pace compared to what a human could accomplish. The speaker's point was that if we were going to spend $1,000,000,000 on a mission, wouldn't it be worth it to spend 25%-50% more and send people and gather 250%-500% more hard science. At that point NASA would view it as sending a very expensive, though extremely efficient (work wise) robot.

The earlier speaker had conceded to a loud mouth in the audience that it probably wasn't worth sending people into space and future robots might be able to handle most of the tasks set out for them. I for one, as a person who take a fancy in things technical, believe this to be purely wishful thinking. Barring some unforeseen major advancement, computers will never be able to get around being linear computing machines, because that's what they are. Computers will always be a poor substitute for humans in situations where fresh thinking is a requirement. (As an example, the speaker pointed out that only about 5% of the surface of Mars is viable for landing robots where as a person could land a craft darn near anywhere).

On a mildly related note, there was a space enthusiast girl in the earlier session that the speaker was amusing. In one of his pictures of a climbing astronaut he had said that it was an artist’s rendition of the first man to repel down this Martian cliff, though he was sure to correct himself to the delight of the young lady that it could be the first woman to repel down the cliff. Of course the Sandmich's first thought was "...a mixed gender, isolated crew on a two year mission? No doubt she's not only the first woman to do such a thing, but the first pregnant woman".

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