“Name one thing robots can’t do in space that humans can!” was the challenge from a speaker at a meeting I attended many years ago.
“Have babies!” was the loud and prompt reply from a grad student friend of mine at the back, thereby winning the argument to great applause.
It is important to remember that while science and discovery is important, it is not the ontological basis for space exploration.
Space is, ultimately, about existential motivations. The science helps drive the motivation, and provides the information that enables space exploration, but is in many important ways not the fundamental driver for going into space.
I attended a couple of related sessions at the SETI conference on Kepler discoveries and the potential implications of the discovery of alien life, or extraterrestrial intelligence.
In between I stopped off at a session on commercial space flight and the eternal robots vs humans in space debate.
I was going to summarise the various sessions separately, but looking over my notes I realised they had a couple of common themes, and that the same issues kept coming up in every session.
The Kepler Mission Operations and Data Analysis budget, in fiscal 2012 is $20 million, roughly. They were recommended for a mission extension in the NASA Senior Review, fortunately, and should have $10-20 million each year through 2016. Kepler’s discovery pace is astounding, but I don’t think the public realises how strained their budget is, the followup science is being pieced together from NASA shoestrings and NSF candlewax, and is stretching the world’s astronomical facilities, which are also being used for other science…
In contrast, a seat on Soyuz to the International Space Station is $60 million, wholesale and NASA contracted for $750 million worth of Soyuz launches for 2014/15.
The SETI Institute budget peaked around $10 million many years ago, and then limped along at about $4-5 million per year. Not sure where they are now, they are pulling in some grants and have hopefully grown a modest endowment, but this is poor hedging by us as a society.
The total exoplanet budget across all US agencies, last I checked, was about $50 million, which is very small for a field which is so active and with such discovery potential. The exact number could be argued, eg. by folding in protostar research at ALMA or pro-rated cost of some major facilities, but the point remains that the exoplanet budget is still small, even compared to astronomy budgets.
This really is pathetic.
Part of the reason for this is short term view of political administrations, well summarised by Scott Hubbard’s quote at a panel: “Will it discover life before the end of the second administration?” – asked about the Mars Lander planning in the last decade.
Part of the reason is the political and engineering conservatism and aerospace corporate bloat that grew up around the NASA budget flow.
Part of the reason is the failure of scientists and general space enthusiasts to make the case.
Some of the solution will, hopefully, come from the new commercial space flight companies lowering the access cost. SpaceX’s Falcon is looking particularly promising, it is the development path NASA could have taken at any point in the last 20 years, and it also leverages off the painful learning experiences of NASA, as well as making their own mistakes, and learning from them.
Some of the solution will come from the general growth in the economy, through productivity gains and technological improvement as well as former third world countries coming up to speed. Space is just on the edge of being doable by bored rich people, rather than just large governments.
Some of the solution will come from the incremental improvements in the tech, though some of the relevant tech is mature and in logistical growth phase, growing like a 1/nth power with time, or even logarithmically, rather than the short term exponential growth we have come to expect.
Getting to space will get easier, over time, generally.
Capabilities will be lost in the short term, and regained painfully through new mistakes over a longer term.
All of this is pushing us to constrain the presence of exolife, on all fronts: we will soon, within decades, directly test Mars, Europa and Titan for the presence of life, and see if it is there and whether it is the same as on Earth; we will also get a direct look at the asteroids and comets, just in case there is something weird going on there – these are places with chemical substrates and interesting levels of free energy flows.
In the very near future, we will be able to do spectroscopic observations constraining, or, if we are a little bit lucky, observing indirect biosignatures on nearby exoplanets.
That is inevitable as a near future capability, and a very very interesting possibility.
The ubiquity of extraterrestrial intelligence, narrowly defined in the SETI sense, is already being tested.
We are very slowly constraining the abundance of nearby civilizations with very advanced technology, in the crude sense of appropriating and utilizing free energy flows on very large scales. These constrains are about to become interesting. Unless, for some reason, those civilizations are stealthed.
We are also constraining, again very slowly, the abundance of intensely broadcasting civilizations and civilizations using very high energy transport.
If those were highly abundant we would have seen the signatures already.
Unless, of course, we are missing the big picture completely – we could be like ants scouting nearby grass tufts for hills, completely missing the painted lines, mowers and impending thump of cleats.