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Mars Space Science

Why Mars Is Not the Limit For Human Space Flight 256

"Mars is not just the next or most accessible human destination, it is the ultimate one," writes Louis Friedman, executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society. He says the concept of manned spaceflight is progressing so slowly, and robotic developments so swiftly, that Mars will be the first and last planet humans set foot on. "By the time human spaceflight technology is theoretically capable of journeys beyond Mars, humans in modern space systems will be virtual explorers interacting with the environments of distant worlds, but without the baggage of physical transportation or presence." Mark Whittington disagrees, saying Friedman is demonstrating Clarke's First Law, and that the history of human exploration is rife with periods of stagnation interrupted by technological achievement that led to swift progress.
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Why Mars Is Not the Limit For Human Space Flight

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  • Dead wrong (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spy Handler ( 822350 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:08PM (#41116017) Homepage Journal
    if it's possible for humans to go somewhere, they will go there. History has proven that. Only reason we haven't been to Mars or Titan or Ceti Alpha V is that we didn't have the means to. But Elon and others are trying to change that...
  • Utter BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:08PM (#41116019)

    It seems this person has never heard of the speed-of-light limit to communication delays....

  • Earth (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:13PM (#41116093)

    Mars will be the first and last planet humans set foot on.

    I believe Earth would be the first planet humans set foot on.

  • by SgtXaos ( 157101 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:25PM (#41116223) Journal

    There are plenty of interesting moons, planetoids and asteroids upon which we could land and explore. Limiting the discussion to only "official" planets is too limiting.

  • Re:Dead wrong (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crutchy ( 1949900 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:41PM (#41116421)
    the reason why we haven't gone anywhere in space is that we're drowning in greed and corruption

    "we" haven't even really been to the moon... only a very small select few astronauts went on very short demonstration trips, in which each only went once, and all on a defense budget

    if we ever are to have any chance of getting anywhere in space, it will require a catastrophe that falls barely short of complete human extinction to make people realise that survival is more important than money and power... the problem isn't that space is too expensive or that we can't develop the technology... the problem is simply human nature

    unless some robotic thing finds some kind of mineral that will make some corporation a lot of money (akin to the gold rushes of yesteryear or the oil rush of today), no government will bother investing in it. even the space "exploration" going on the surface of mars at the moment is probably a mineral hunt under the guise of searching for ET; the US government (that provides NASA with funding) doesn't give a fuck about ET... all they care about is money and power, and not for the US in general, just for themselves because many politicians have stock in the corporations that would benefit

    until the nuclear winter of post-ww3, when all the fat greedy politicians, welfare bludgers, corporate CEOs and stockholders die of starvation and there are no corporations, and government is actually run by the people for the people (for their very survival), "we" will never have any hope of ever getting to the moon or mars
  • Re:Utter BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crutchy ( 1949900 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:47PM (#41116471)

    It seems this person has never heard of the speed-of-light limit to communication delays....

    "People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

    "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

    even you can't be sure that ftl communication is impossible... you just believe it because you were told that it was the case and because of peer pressure (if you say otherwise you're afraid your friends and colleagues will think you're a kook)

  • Re:Speed of Light (Score:5, Insightful)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) * on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:48PM (#41116481)

    The Curiosity rover is proof your theory is wrong.

    There aren't likely to be any significant emergencies on the surface of mars. But the likely ones have all been planned for. It can choose its own path, and navigate to a destination without direct human control. It knows how to avoid steep slopes, bolder fields, and other obstacles.

    And have you not noticed that Google has self driving cars running around the south west?

    Sending probes to far planets isn't an all-in-one undertaking. You send orbiters to photograph. You send landers to measure environmental. Then you plan for any dangers you discover, and send a rover that can avoid them, circumvent them, and which was designed for the environment.

    Lose a couple vehicles along the way? So what? Failure teaches you a lot.

  • by Hartree ( 191324 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @06:52PM (#41116525)

    This is nothing new from Friedman. He's preferred robotic missions to manned for decades.

    The only reason he'd be in favor of Mars is that in the 1980s, Planetary Society came out in favor of Mars as a way of enhancing relations with the Soviets (to help avoid what was seen as an ultimately inevitable nuclear war unless relations were normalized). The reason was political rather than scientific. For other missions, manned flight was viewed as taking away funding for unmanned. Van Allen was another of the "stay at home" crowd at Planetary Society.

    Since then, events changed some of the rationale for that, but he's on record as being in favor of a manned Mars mission, and it's a little hard to go back on it and not look silly. I really doubt that his antipathy to manned space exploration has changed at all.

  • by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @07:00PM (#41116637)
    If you're going to posit that we'll explore distant planets by uploading a human consciousness to a computer, why not save yourself the trouble and posit faster than light travel? They're both equally science fiction at this point in time.

    His premise seems to arise by extrapolating the rate of robotics progress and comparing it to the progress of spaceflight and concluding a moor's law style progression for robotics that will result. While yes, robotics is advancing rapidly, we are so far off from any and every sci-fi depiction of robots in the future, and we're still facing serious challenges in artificial intelligence with the complexity of current algorithms and our infantile understanding of the brain and how our own intelligence function.

    I work with machine learning and robots for a living, and every day I gain an even greater appreciation for the complexity and robustness of the human body and mind, and it takes every ounce of willpower to not despair at the futility of my own efforts to mimic the kind of cognition that even infants are capable of. The mars rover is probably our greatest achievement in robotics yet, but I can't even begin to express how far removed it is from cloning a human brain and replicating that in a machine. Extrapolating conclusions based on that is folly.
  • Re:Speed of Light (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @07:21PM (#41116851)
    Yes, I'm aware of all of that. I've been building self-driving robot cars before Google was even involved in them (see DARPA Urban Challenge). This means I am acutely aware of the true capabilities of these machines, and have no illusions of their robustness. For instance the Curiosity Rover can do all those things you describe... navigation and obstacle avoidance are well studied topics in robotics. But the curiosity rover can't do any remote science. It can't make hypotheses and draw inferences from data and create new plans based on those inferences. It's beaming back all that data to earth and humans are making those decisions.

    I've heard some roboticists describe the kind of operations the mars rover and Google cars are capable of, and the kind you describe, as a kind of telepresence in the 4th dimension. You program your own knowledge of how to deal with certain situations into the robot, and it acts according to those instructions at some point in the future when it discerns those situations. But curiosity and Google cars are largely ignorant of how to act in all the myriad situations they haven't encountered before, and are incapable of reasoning about them at the level humans can.

    But this won't work for space travel beyond mars and the solar system. You can't design iteratively like we can now. By the time a space probe gets to the planet in question and you survey and get the info back, 100 years could have passed before you even know if the thing landed properly. It might be 50 years before you know the thing exploded en route.

    Further, space travel is especially sensitive to budget constraints and funding. What do you think would have happened to NASA's budget and prospects if the Curiosity rover crashed and burned due to an unforeseen circumstance? They wouldn't say "Whoops, well live and learn." They'd be begging for their very existance and justifying another 2 billion mission would be almost impossible. The guys at NASA did great planning for everything they could, but you can never plan for everything. That's just a fact of life, and we humans are great at adapting to that; it takes a great deal of creativity and ingenuity. But for now and for the foreseeable future Robots suck at those tasks.
  • Re:Dead wrong (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @07:57PM (#41117431)

    Interestingly, even ultra-Utopian Star Trek says the same thing: in that mythos, humans have a horribly devastating World War III right about now, and the survivors are able to rebuild and one of them invents warp drive, attracting the attention of a much more rational alien species.

    As for mining minerals on Mars, it seems like it'd be easier and cheaper to just mine minerals on the Moon or on earth-crossing asteroids. Wasn't there recently some group of billionaires talking about starting a venture to develop asteroid-mining technology? Mars is very far away (even farther at some times than others, it's probably relatively close right now), but the moon never gets out of easy visual distance.

  • by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Friday August 24, 2012 @08:16PM (#41117683)
    Theories of wormholes and the like accomplish FTL travel that don't involve violating the speed of light. I'd put those theories right up there with cloning the human consciousness. Before we can even think about cloning, we have to consider the sub-problem of scanning a brain to determine the state of every neuron and chemical in the brain. Furthermore, we have no idea how consciousness works, and if it's a simple biological state of the system or something more that that. We can hardly agree on a definition of consciousness as it is, so before we even try to quantify it, we need to figure out exactly what we're even trying to measure and test.

    So all of that is even before you get to the stage of encoding all that information in as small enough space (which we at least have an upper bound [] for) , and then once you do that you need the computational power to run such a thing, which we can't even begin to quantify. I really think this is one of those problems where you don't understand how deep and complex it is because we are so profoundly ignorant about the depth of the subject matter.
  • Re:Dead wrong (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MaskedSlacker ( 911878 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @02:41AM (#41120371)

    You do realize that it only takes a year of constant acceleration at a puny 1 G acceleration to reach the speed of light, right?

    Welp, someone fails Relativity forever.

Loose bits sink chips.