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« Loathability | Main | Nostradamus He Ain't »

The Great Debate

In a "Battle of the Bobs," Adam Keiper and the Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted a debate between Bob Park and Bob Zubrin. I didn't think that we'd hear much in the way of new perspectives or new arguments from either of them, and I was largely right, as one can see from the transcript. Clark Lindsey thinks that Dr. Zubrin had the upper hand (see February 7th entry), and I agree. Dr. Park remains firmly in the "science uber alles" camp, which is an unuseful position to take when trying to determine what the nation's space policy should be. Dr. Zubrin made several good points:

Here's one that I've made before:

I wonder what Dr. Park would have said if he had lived about 50,000 years ago in Kenya, along with the rest of the human race, which lived in Kenya at that time, and received a proposal from someone who thought maybe humans should colonize Europe or Asia. "Those places are impossible to live there. It?s much too cold." The -- you know, if they had robotic probes, "our robotic probes show you could not survive a single winter night in Europe."

Well, people were able to colonize Europe by technology: clothing, houses, fire. That?s why people can live where I live right now, Colorado, which no one could survive a single winter night in without such technology.

It is on the basis of our technological ingenuity that humans have left our native, our natural habitat, the Kenyan Rift Valley, and transformed ourselves into a global species with whatever, 150 nations, 100 languages, hundreds of literary traditions, traditions of heroic deeds to inspire the future, technological contributions, ideas on human social organization.

On Park's irrational robophilia:

You mentioned Lewis and Clark. Okay, here we are, 200 years after Lewis and Clark. There is not a robot on this planet that you can send to the grocery store and pick up a bag of unbruised apples, let alone perform the Lewis and Clark expedition. So, if they can?t do a trip to the grocery store, how?s it going to explore a planet?

Now, I?m not putting down the robots. I think that it is excellent to do robotic missions. But, I completely contest the notion as fantastical that a robot explorer on the surface of a planet can duplicate what a human explorer can do.

And along the same lines, I loved this zinger at the end:

ADAM KEIPER: The man who believes in sending robots to space, you can get his book via machines at for $15. Fifteen dollars, Voodoo Science, So, that?s great.

DR. ZUBRIN: Or just send a robot down to the bookstore to get it for you.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 08, 2004 01:24 PM
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I think Bob Park hit the nail on the head. Humanity really is a cancer of the universe that must be prevented from contaminating the pristine astronomical wilderness at all costs. I just can't understand wackos like Zubrin who actually care what happens to human civilization in the future. I mean, who can seriously argue that they are worth more than an inanimate piece of machinery like Spirit or Opportunity?

Posted by James at February 8, 2004 11:43 PM

PROGRAM COST is the one key factor rarely mentioned by the pro-human space exploration side... Sure -- human geologists would be much more capable than Spirit, Opportunity or Lunokhod! But does it really matter, if we can get interesting data from several unmanned probes by spending "only" a few hundred million dollars? If Apollo is any indication, a manned program will be 10x - 100x as expensive. Robots become increasingly more cost effective the farther one ventures from Earth (what would the cost of a manned mission to Saturn/Titan be?).

All the cheap sound bites regarding Lewis/Clark and robots capable of visiting the local grocery store totally neglect the consideration of cost. Which option is cheaper? As always, governments prefer to spend relatively modest sums on getting relatively modest results from robotic probes, rather than spending much more money on sending highly capable human explorers to the Moon or Mars.

Space is a comparatively low priority with voters, which means the emphasis is on expendable unmanned spacecraft and launchers since they are less costly in the short term.


Posted by Marcus Lindroos at February 9, 2004 03:40 AM

The space program is only worth its salt if it has goals. Sometimes these goals cannot be accomplished by robots, especially when the goals are stated explicitly as being "a human presence throughout the solar system". Robots can't do that. Ultimately, the point is that the space program will never be worth its cost if its only goal is science. The only payoff big enough for all of this effort is the human colonization of space, which will take some time to accomplish. Science is a "spin off".

Posted by James at February 9, 2004 11:25 AM

If we, as humans, don't go, what is the #$#@&^% point of sending anything, robots or otherwise?

And don't give me science. Science is a means not an objective.

If we, as humans, don't go, what is the point of knowing?

And don't tell me to lean how to better to live on earth. That's nuts.

If we, as humans don't, go there is nothing out that that we can learn that will make one darn bit of difference to living here.

Posted by Michael at February 9, 2004 04:15 PM

Marcus said:
"PROGRAM COST is the one key factor rarely mentioned by the pro-human space exploration side... If Apollo is any indication, a manned program will be 10x - 100x as expensive."

Of course, and this is why all cargo, mail, and other deliveries are done by robots - robot trucks, ships, and aircraft are so much cheaper than the ones run by humans! And it is so much better to send robots to the office than ourselves! Much cheaper, much safer.

Ahem. One should NOT go by what Apollo cost, since it is clearly possible to make space travel orders of magnitude cheaper than that. Reusable commercial spacecraft costs would be much more like airline costs. Robots are great for preliminary exploration (which was done on the Moon before Apollo) but humans are better for detailed followup exploration AND development (exploration is just ONE of MANY reasons to go to space). Unless, of course, we develop sentient robots, in which case, the whole issue gets a bit more complicated ...

Posted by VR at February 10, 2004 02:40 PM

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