Over at Popular Mechanics, Erik Sofge says that NASA misses the point with its new video game. Unfortunately, he misses the point himself, setting up the age-old and false dichotomy between humans and robots:
The game serves as an epitaph for what appears to be NASA’s lost decade. The agency failed to stay on time or on budget throughout the life of the Constellation program, its highest and most expensive priority. But while manned spaceflight foundered, unmanned exploration thrived. The modern-day equivalent of Aldrin and Armstrong are Spirit and Opportunity, robotic vehicles that survived years longer than expected on the surface of Mars. The rovers uncovered signs of water, and paved the way for the discovery of actual Martian ice by other intrepid bots.
The success of the rovers—and the increasingly tepid public response to shuttle launches or to the astonishing fact that there is a space station orbiting the planet—has called into question the relevance of astronauts. Moonbase Alpha, in its own small way, only hurts the case for humans in space. If the game featured an all-bot lunar mining facility, players would be spared the burden of gradually, tediously fixing a life-support system. Critical decisions such as whether to carry a wrench or a welder (apparently, NASA doesn’t plan on producing a moon-worthy toolbox by 2025) could be replaced with, say, a simulation of the powerful, spider-like ATHLETE robot’s perilous navigation of craters on the dark side of the moon. Instead of being given control of the array of awe-inspiring bots currently in NASA’s labs, such as the humanoid Robonaut 2, players can deploy toylike rovers whose arms and integrated welders make the astronauts piloting them even more redundant.
Apparently, he suffers from the exploration delusion. If it’s only about exploration, then yes, robots are more cost effective (though not more generally effective). But when you start to say that robots can do it better, it begs the question of what it is that they’re better at. While they can be good helpmates, they are ultimately useless for allowing humans to experience space first hand, and that’s ultimately the real market for human spaceflight, albeit not government human spaceflight. Robots can make it easier for humans to go but they don’t make them superfluous. He also has bought into the popular perception of the new policy:
Even if it was possible to build an astronaut game that’s both exciting and realistic, why bother? It will be more than a decade before humans even attempt another trip outside of Earth’s orbit. If NASA wants to inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers, its games should focus on the real winners of the space race—the robots.
No one knows when we’ll go beyond earth orbit again, but a decade is a long time. When I see the kind of progress that SpaceX has made in seven years, I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t private trips at least around the moon, if not landing, by 2020. Of course, the new policy makes that more likely than the previous one did, and the previous policy hadn’t a prayer, or even a plan, to meet President Bush’s original VSE goals. And the notion that government ten-year plans are the key to opening up space is one that should have died with Apollo, which wasn’t at all about opening up space. I’ll also say that if robots are really the “winners of the space race,” we’re all losers.