Why Curiosity is not enough

January 19, 2013 6:00 pm

Since it parachuted onto Mars last September, the American space agency NASA has made the most of the success of the Curiosity rover as it explores the inhospitable Martian terrain around its landing site. While it has achieved some notable exploratory firsts, Curiosity is potentially harming the very human trait it’s named after.

Throughout history, humans have had an obsession with machines, one that has (arguably) become more and more unhealthy as the years roll by. The annals of space exploration are studded with hundreds of robotic missions to the stars, some of which are very much necessary for our exploration of the Universe we live in; Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is currently over 11 billion miles from home and still communicating incredibly useful new data back to Earth. Humans could obviously never make such a journey without perishing, and in this field of deep space and interstellar exploration robots will be our pathfinders in this field of exploratory missions.

Closer to home, critics of government spending on spaceflight applaud the decision to send rovers and orbiters to both the Moon and Mars citing cost, efficiency and scientific return as factors where robots have an advantage over a human counterpart. The Curiosity rover carried such sophisticated equipment and experiments as an Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, sample analysis tools and a robotic arm that houses five different tools, enabling it to carry out extended traverses on the barren surface of Mars with impunity. With such an intelligent design, the NASA team running Curiosity hold high hopes that the mission will last longer than the two year design brief insisted it must. The key weakness of the robot becomes apparent however when you discover it is only going to be travelling 12 miles during its first two years. With a planet as large as Mars, the chances of the rover finding anything of interest or significance within such a small area are virtually none.

Since we stopped sending humans away from Earth, there has been an odd preoccupation by both NASA and the European Space Agency with making robots appear as human as possible – whether that is by giving them human characteristics (such as the R2 currently on the International Space Station) or human attributes, such as the ability to communicate through music (Curiosity ‘played’ music by artist Will.I.am soon after touch down on Mars that was relayed to Earth). You could easily assume they are trying to compensate in some way for the lack of public interest by making us understand the significance and capabilities of all this technology through human-like behaviour. For most of us, the Mars rovers hold all the attraction and interest of repairing a broken washing machine.

Luna 15The success of such robotic endeavours endears them to politicians and particularly heads of state that want to cast themselves in the role of John F Kennedy; cheap, expendable, satisfies science and potentially great space success stories to regale the voters with. Landing an inanimate hulk of metal on an alien planet suddenly becomes a source of immense national pride when the flag of your country is plastered all over it like some grotesque, overtly-patriotic piece of space junk. All the while the countless failures that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars are quickly glossed over and resigned to the history books – 28 of the missions sent have resulted in either partial or total failure, including the British-built Beagle 2 lander that crashed in 2004 to the tune of £66 million, £22 million of which was taxpayer’s money.

There are other reasons why these robotic missions fade into the background, a point most notably illustrated by the Luna 15 probe dispatched to the Moon by the Soviet Union in July 1969. That mission ended in disaster when the spacecraft crashed into the Lunar surface only hours after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had taken mankind’s first steps in the Sea of Tranquility; transfixed by the human spectacle unfolding on televisions before them the world over, no-one on Earth except the desperate Soviet technicians saw Luna 15 plunge to its doom. The incident seems to serve as a metaphor for the whole purpose of our fascination, as a species, with space.

What would be the point of all this expenditure, effort and sacrifice poured into robotic ambassadors that we send darting across the Solar System if humans were not to one day directly benefit from them? Those that argue that astronauts are no longer needed, by their very conjecture then destroy the argument for a space program of any kind.

The need to sustain three men during the Apollo missions to the Moon and accomplish the objective of landing turned out to lead to the development of the computer microchip, CAT scanners and kidney dialysis machines amongst others. Considering that without a man on the Moon you would never have owned a pocket calculator, a mobile phone or a tablet, you’d be hard pressed to argue that such ventures hold no potential! The challenges that need to be overcome to undertake a journey 8 months longer and 32 million miles further hint at discoveries and technology currently only science-fiction can dream of. Neil Armstrong boot

Only by sending people can we tap into these huge advancements. Where the vast majority of planets and Moons are unsuitable for human visitation, the robot pioneers can blaze a trail on our behalf. Only when humanity has crossed the gulf between Earth and Mars can we follow them ever outward, further from home and on to even greater discoveries. The most important lesson still lies in the tangible act of a human though; just what was so significant about Neil Armstrong placing his boot in the Lunar dust?

Perhaps it was the fact that, for one brief moment, war, famine and conflict were so insignificant that the Earth shared the moment together – something that neither politician nor copious amounts of money can achieve. 40 years on, you still find more people that can name the first man on the Moon than will know of the Curiosity rover.

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