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Human versus robotic spaceflight

  1. Mar 18, 2008 #1

    D H

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    Human spaceflight is an essential part of both the US and Russian space programs. Many of you at this site apparently lament this. I have encountered numerous arguments along the lines of "If only all that money NASA wastes on human spaceflight could be directed to science." Redirecting that money to science would yield a lot of scientific research.

    Or would it? There is a lesson to be learned from the United Kingdom. Less than one percent (0.58%) of the US federal budget goes to NASA. Russia spends about the same percentage (0.64%) on its space agency. The UK is the sole member of the European Space Agency that explicitly bans governmental participation in human space flight activities. While the UK does satisfy the scientists demands to spend nothing on human spaceflight, the UK also spends next to nothing on robotic space activities. With no human spaceflight activities to buoy the science side of the space budget, funding for space activities (military and civil) in the UK is a miniscule 0.035% of Her Majesty's Treasury.

    The British National Space Centre recently released the report "UK Civil Space Strategy: 2008-2012". Per this report, the UK is reconsidering its ban on involvement in human spaceflight:
    In 1986, the UK chose not to participate in human space missions. The publication of the Global Exploration Strategy provides a suitable point in time to review this decision.​
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2008 #2
    I hope the people who say that we shouldn't waste money on manned spaceflight never go on vacations. Why waste money on going someplace when you can just read about it in a book?
  4. Mar 18, 2008 #3

    D H

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    Thanks! Nice analogy.

    Books are so 18th century. They should read blogs and download pictures instead.
  5. Mar 18, 2008 #4
    Who said that? I never read anyone saying that.

    So the UK does not fund robotic space flight. What does that have to do with human space flight? It seems you are reaching for straws here. They dont fund either one, so how are you comparing that to using robotic flight? Obviously, if I dont fund any form of space programs its going to suffer.

    No ones going on vacation with tax payers money.
  6. Mar 18, 2008 #5


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    I'm not so sure the analogy works, since they are spending my money on a vacation I don't get to go on.

    It is a simple fact that you get more bang for your buck with robotic spacecraft. Whether that makes manned spaceflight not worth the money depends on your motivation for having it in the first place. If science is the only goal, then the answer is clear. But if there are other goals, then the answer isn't as clear.
  7. Mar 18, 2008 #6

    D H

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    You said that.

    The UK does fund robotic space programs, to the tune of 0.035% of their budget. When space science has to compete with Earth-based science on its own merits rather than as an end to a loftier goal, it cannot. The cost of one robotic space to Mars will fund an entire army of graduate students for years.
  8. Mar 18, 2008 #7
    Yep. I said send robots to do what humans are doing. I never said: "could be directed to science."

    I have no idea what thats supposed to mean? :confused: Perhaps, you thought I meant redirect NASA money to some other sector of science? I never meant to give that impression, if thats what you got out of what I wrote.

    So we spent a lot more on space research than the UK. What does that have to do with us using robots to replace people? You are also saying that robotic research to mars will keep many people employed. This seems self contradicting. Im sorry, I dont get your point in this last paragraph. Can you rephrase it?
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  9. Mar 18, 2008 #8
  10. Mar 18, 2008 #9

    D H

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    I am not saying that robotic research to Mars will keep many people employed. I am saying that, were not for the human space program, our robotic space program would go the way of the UK's space program. Space science currently receives about 1/3 of NASA's budget. The principal rationale for this large expenditure is that people may eventually go to Mars and beyond. Were it not for this driving rationale, space science would have to compete with Earth-based science on the basis of which provides better bang for the buck. Earth-based science out-produces space science in terms of costs versus scientific benefit.

    I brought up the BNSC because it is the sole member of ESA that bans funding for human space flight endeavors. Without the human factor, the BNSC has to compete for a limited pot of government funding with other fields of science on the sole basis of scientific value.
  11. Mar 18, 2008 #10


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    Long term, manned spaceflight is the best way to have gov'ts dramatically increase the amount of GDP they put into space related science. As soon as one country appears to be close to developing a capability to land men on Mars there will be an international space race with the US, Russia, China, Europe and possibly Japan all desperate to stake their claim.

    Robotic flights just don't have the same effect.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  12. Mar 18, 2008 #11
    But honestly, whats the point of going to mars? We can send a robot there.
  13. Mar 18, 2008 #12

    D H

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    Why are you ignoring the main point of this thread? It is largely through the presence of a human space program that enables a robotic space program to exist, period. Were it not for human space flight, Congress would fund weather satellites, GPS satellites, and little else. They would fund space science to a much, much lesser extent than space science receives today. We will not be able to send robots to Mars (well, maybe one per generation) if the government funds space science at 0.035% of the federal budget.
  14. Mar 18, 2008 #13
    I'm a fan of both unmanned and manned spaceflight; they compliment each other well. I've begun the following list of pros and cons of each. Feel free to add, expand, and debate.

    Pros of human spaceflight
    • Inspirational, provides more of a connection for the public, symbolism
    • Nationalism, international partnership
    • On-the-spot judgments, innovation, adapt to surroundings, react quickly to the unexpected, flexibility
    • Human space colonization is the future of humanity; learning to live in space and elsewhere
    • Hardware repair
    • Tourism

    Cons of human spaceflight
    • Expensive
    • Difficult (life support, radiation protection, work/play/sleep schedule balance, physical well-being, psychology, the “human element”)
    • More dangerous
    • Shorter missions
    • Human error (more so than unmanned missions)

    Pros of robotic spaceflight
    • Cheaper
    • Longer missions
    • Can explore environments humans cannot

    Cons of robotic spaceflight
    • Cannot make decisions at a human intelligence level, or needs instructions from humans that may delay mission
    • Unlikely to resume mission if something breaks
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  15. Mar 18, 2008 #14
    What are you defining as 'space science' that only a shuttle can perform? Also, Im not sure why funding would be cut just because you are basing what happens in another country.

    You have to get the country turned on to science. Thats the biggest problem. There is no 'space race'. Everything dies when you dont have competition.

    Im an Aerospace engineer, I love the idea of having the shuttle. But Im also a taxpayer, and I want my money well spent.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  16. Mar 18, 2008 #15
    Oh, sorry. I guess we shouldn't use tax payer money on any kind of research. Scientific or otherwise. I mean, you won't immediately get to benefit, therefore the whole thing is worthless.
  17. Mar 18, 2008 #16

    D H

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    Think of the BNSC as a science experiment. A failed science experiment. The scientific community in the UK campaigned against funding human space flight activities. They won the battle (no human space flight activities) but they lost the war (BNSC=0.35% of HM Treasury budget). The signs of the anti-human space vendetta in the UK exists today; witness this extension activity from the BNSC educational website on Cryosat, "Cryosat Mission Lesson Plans and worksheets":

    The BNSC is not the sole experiments in this regard. Funding for human space flight was cut dramatically at the end of the Apollo era. Did unmanned space flight benefit from these draconian cuts? Of course not. Science alone is not enough to justify the expense of unmanned space efforts. Unmanned space is expensive. It only looks cheap when compared to human space flight. That is a bad comparison. A much better comparison is geological robots on Mars versus geology grad students on the Earth. Geology grad students are a lot, lot cheaper than those robots.

    Even an interest in science is not enough. Space science cannot compete with other less expensive brands of science when forced to stand on its own. Congress uses things like cost-benefits analyses to determine where to spend the country's limited resources.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  18. Mar 18, 2008 #17

    D H

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    Laura, nice start at a comparison. I do have one quibble with it:
    Human error is a much greater problem with unmanned missions than with manned missions. Humanity has less than a 50% success rate in getting vehicles to Mars. A good chunk of the failed missions are attributable to human error.
  19. Mar 18, 2008 #18
    I dont follow. A machine can do what a person can do 100 times faster and more exact.
  20. Mar 18, 2008 #19
    Can it love?
  21. Mar 18, 2008 #20
    Sure, bend over.
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