The End Of Astronauts
Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration
Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, 2022, Bvt Lib 629.4
- Donald Goldsmith (1943), author of astronomy books
Two 80ish astronomer-observers. Out of 574 astronauts (as of 2022 Oct), only two of those have been astronomer-observers: John Mace Grunsfeld and Karl Gordon Heinize.
This book claims that astronauts are not necessary for the scientific exploration of the solar system. Perhaps this is true if astronauts are programmed as robots, and are not expected to make creative contributions in situations that require iterative hand-eye feedback, or must not be interrupted by solar conjunctions. So the real question is, are astronauts contributors and thinkers, or are they ornery robots?
p8 astrophysicist David Spergel, "our history as humans has shown that first we screw things up, and then we make some things right"
our history has shown that humans mostly do things that provide some benefit. Astronomy is paid for by philanthropy, but mostly as a development platform for military surveillance technologies.
p18 "No Buck Rogers, no bucks" - reference to 1984 congressional testimony.
p20 public opinion polls: authors choose 2019 C-SPAN poll to gauge public interest. C-SPAN is watched by 39 million Americans at least once a week. Not exactly representative.
In 2018, Pew Research poll: 80% of Americans say the space station is a good investment.
- I found no polls pro or con regards public funding of observatories and astronomer training.
p21 National Academy of Sciences poll of "stakeholders", the other pigs at the trough. 60% thought increasing knowledge was an important reason for space exploration, but they differed on how and why.
p23 "Six spheres of exploration" include habitat construction on the Moon, but not in asteroids.
p28 Deimos and Phobos "near-ideal observing platforms to support complex instruments for surveying the red planet."
p30 necessary energy expenditure "at least $1250 per pound. ISS $7.5M per astronaut day ($150B/20K days). Includes shuttle expense (sunk cost fallacy)
p33 57000 total days in space, (30K Russian)
p36 ZBLAN optical fiber in zero gee, automated test on ISS. Yes, when it works, robots can do it, but who debugs anomalies and how?
p43 Coronal Mass Ejections: "A traveler in space would need thick, heavyweight shielding to avoid serious damage or death from a powerful CME ... outside the magnetosphere." Reference to near earth orbit (assuming this means LEO) is BS, the Earth field is much too strong for a CME to penetrate. GEO and farther out, yes, a problem requiring decent shielding.
p44 ... "steady barrage from solar wind" ... ditto
p45 ... "30% of deaths arose from cancer" ... how does that compare to and age-and-health matched group of non-astronauts? Cancer is 17% of US all-cause mortality, which includes elderly deaths and accidents. Astronauts die more often in jet crashes, too.
ref 13 Space Radiation
p46 kvetching about satellite light pollution; agreed, but this is from unmanned satellites. p47 kvetching about microplastics in the ocean.
p61 lunar helium 3 and water extraction - yes, silly.
p77 "using our best technology, each journey requires nearly seven months" Our best technology for robots is a minimum energy Hohmann transfer ( 7 to 8 months ) but a higher delta V trip can be 5 or fewer months
p81 "To take sample return as an example, the tasks involved include reaching Mars, choosing the best locations to sample, drilling into the rocks or soils at those locations, extracting the material and sealing it for study, bringing the material to earth, and examining the samples with the instruments best suited for the task." p82 Robots "... cannot match the brain of an experienced geologist"
- Instead, how about "reaching Phobos, assembling a human habitat and an external lab, landing a small robot 100 meters from likely spot on Mars, crawling there, collecting one sample, and launching it to Phobos base. The sample is examined in the external lab (by experienced geologists), and if it is extra interesting it is evaluated for Earth planetary protection risks. If it is safe, and has exhausted the limited equipment at Phobos lab, it is batched with other samples and launched towards Earth and the prodigious labs there. Chances are, 90% of the samples will be uninteresting. Cache those, and recycle most of the collecting and transport equipment.
- We can probably compress a century of ten year mission cycles into one thirteen year mission cycle, with 3 years spent on Phobos.
p83 Chris McKay says robots won't match a human geologist, and require 30x (2x doubling per decade, 50 years) improvement to match a capable field assistant. So why not ditch autonomy, make the control loop seconds, and the sample cycle months or even weeks?
p88 ref. 5.17 Ben Lindberg, Please Sterilize Your Spacecraft
p95 "The odds of a catastrophic impact will occur during the next few millennia are very low"
But not zero. What is the "cost" of an earth-sterilizing impact? Multiply that gigantically large number by "very low" and the cost is still immense. A cost we cannot pay fast enough, if the threat emerges rapidly. The authors refer to the 1-in-2700 risk of a Bennu impact, because we do not know enough to calculate "zero" with reasonable certainty. And that is for an object we know about; what about the objects that we haven't seen yet, because they are too dark or far away?
p102 worries about escape of dust and debris from asteroid mining
p103 "Do we have the right to do whatever we choose with the products of 4.6 billion years of cosmic evolution?"
do we have the right to confabulate hyperbolic questions when making time- and reality-constrained questions?
p148 "What of the deeply held desires of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to send humans to Mars despite the rationale expressed earlier?" Sloppy - Bezos is non-planetary space colonies. Which and whose rationale expressed earlier?
p149-50 2021 Mitch Daniels, co-chair of National Academy of Sciences Pathways to Exploration
Does not mention Aldrin cyclers between planets. Space colonies can be both destination and transport, with occasional planetary interchange.