Human and Machine in the Future of Spaceflight

Yet Apollo's human-machine history does speak to the lasting debate over whether humans or robots should be flying into space and exploring the solar system.26 Current polemics usually polarize around creative, flexible humans versus mindless automata, the former being capable of ''exploration'' and the latter collecting data for ''science.'' Such rhetoric has arguably produced more heat than light in recent decades, although the stakes are high as NASA determines new policy directions. Yet the advocates for either side usually neglect or misunderstand the mixings and combinations of manual and automated, especially experiences made possible by communications links and remote controls. The Mars rovers named Spirit and Opportunity that captured public imagination in recent years, for example, are less ''robots'' acting as autonomous agents than ''telerobots'' responding to commands from the earth and providing data for ground controllers, scientists, and the public to experience a foreign world from afar. Similarly, the Apollo spacecraft and astronauts had tight connections to the ground and transmitted images, words, data, and experience through remote channels. No computers made decisions on their own; all were programmed by people, distanced in space and time from the landings, who embedded their own ideas, models, and assumptions into the machines.

In this vein, I do not take a position on the humans versus robots debate, but rather seek to clarify some of its terms. What, exactly, do people do in space? Which of their tasks require strict adherence to procedures? Which require subtle perceptions and skills? When do they use their judgment? When do they err? Less frequently debated than the humans versus robots question is the equally contentious: which people? What kinds of professionals? If a major goal of human spaceflight is inspiration, or expanding the realm of human experience, should we not consider selecting and training people to communicate those experiences? What follows comprises but a first look, and raises more questions than it answers. Still, the concluding chapter suggests that similar analyses applied to space shuttles, deep-space probes, or robotic missions could help redefine and advance a debate that has been stuck in circular argument for a generation. Informed public discourse on human spaceflight is essential for a successful, sustained human future in space, whether directly or remotely present.

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