More bad news
The advisory committee, which reported in September, 2002, concluded that robots could handle many projects. "My personal opinion," says Cummins, "is that the amount of human participation necessary for [scientific experiments in] the space program is actually very little. Much of the work could be done by automated systems."
Many experiments, he says, are already under computer control. "The astronauts basically turn a knob once a day, which may not be necessary."
That situation reflects a NASA requirement that experiments involve some human participation, he adds. "The human element makes this very expensive program attractive to the general public, so ... if you say you will operate [an experiment] entirely through radio control, they will say you can't fly that experiment on ISS or the shuttle."
However, we did hear a slightly different story from Tony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University. "Many experiments on the shuttle and space station are almost entirely automated, but on no flights are all of them automated."
Sacks was at Cape Canaveral for Columbia's landing, and says, "We knew something was wrong when they were two minutes late. Then NASA said they'd lost contact." The emotional response, he says, was complex. "There were many stages of grieving through the first few days. It was overwhelming. Like everybody else, I was in total shock."
A few days later, a different reality began to sink in, he told us just after his return from Florida. "We're starting to realize how much work we lost." For five years, his crew of six scientists, together with a team at Kennedy Space Center, had built and tested the plant-growth hardware. "It's quite striking to see how complicated, how much work a spaceflight entails," Sacks says. While the equipment apparently worked, he "got no hard data."
Several years ago, Sacks says, when neonatal rodents developed on a shuttle, they were "much more disoriented than the control animals. It raises the possibility that gravity itself may be necessary for the development of neural apparatus."
If people are going to take long space missions - to Mars or beyond - we need to limit the damage space travel causes to digestion, muscles, bones and the immune system, Sacks says. "If we're going to have people in space, and I can't imagine humans would not ultimately want to be in space, we need to start studying physiology, how to supply food in space...the basics of how gravity affects life."
Having said all this, however, Sacks, like other scientists, is hesitant to judge the proper balance of the dangers of space-based science and the human cost. "That's a hard question. I think no one experiment can justify [the loss of life], but I think in general, space is a lab that's essential."
The human element
While research into, say, crystal formation could be completely automated, Ingraffea says even self-contained experiments must "be started, monitored, and the data gathered." Further, he adds that years of remodeling would be needed before the space station could handle fully automated experiments.
Perhaps the most significant drawback of full automation, he says, is a loss of flexibility. "What people bring to scientific experiments is the ability to do something different as suggested by some immediate outcome, and that, after all, is the beauty of scientific experiments." Robots, he says, are better at blindly stumbling ahead than changing course to match new conditions.
Indeed, in the face of unexpected experimental results, "Robots are specifically designed to ignore most of those as noise," says Barrett Caldwell, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University.
When it comes to fully autonomous robots - those that need human at the other end of the control system -- Caldwell says, prospects "are much dimmer," since they also must recover from errors and do unplanned tasks.
Park points to one of NASA's great successes - and public-relations triumphs - the July Fourth, 1997, stroll of a breadbox-sized robot vehicle on Mars. "Little Sojourner on Mars didn't have any brain to speak of, it took its instructions from somebody on Earth," says Park "The most wonderful thing about Sojourner was that it wasn't [operated by] a couple of thick-headed astronauts. We were all there, we all got to see Mars through the robot's eyes."
Sojourner, he says, was a "telerobot, which is a simple extension of the human; its brain is the brain of the operator. All the robot does is to put our eyes, ears and fingers in places where human beings can't go."
Space science on the space station. Let's hear from the expert reports.
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.