The NASA community – civil servants, contractors, and politicians alike
– is holding its breath while we await the final report from the
Augustine Commission and the decision of President Obama on what
exactly he wants NASA to do. Out of the several options the Human Space Flight Plans Committee
is considering, one that has garnered particular interest from the
press and some industry circles is the so-called “Deep Space” option.
basic idea is to forgo the energy-intensive, and, thus, expensive,
landing operations on the Moon in favor of manned flights to near-Earth asteroids, the Lagrange Points,
and, possibly, Mars’ moons. We would still be able to develop the
technology for long-duration travel, but put off the expense of
actually landing and returning significant numbers of people until the
political will is there.
commentators have said that this option might be hard to sell to the
public. I’ve thought of a way that we might be able to make it work.
Flying people out there just for the sake of doing it probably isn’t
going to get a lot of support. However, this option presents an
opportunity to partner manned exploration with robots in a way that
leverages the strengths of both. Some robotic exploration advocates
say that telepresence will eliminate the need to humans to far-off
places like Mars. However, the problem of communications lag makes
such an approach untenable.
Telepresence works here on Earth
because it is nearly instantaneous. There is a one-way communications
lag of 8 to 20 minutes between Earth and Mars when they are,
respectively, closest together and furthest apart (and that doesn’t
include bouncing the signal off satellites if the Sun is in between
them). So, an operator on Earth would experience a 16-minute to
40-minute delay just to see the results of one command. This is a
problem the ground teams controlling Spirit and Opportunity struggle
with every day.
Instead, if we coordinated the “Deep Space”
manned flights with the arrival and operations of telepresence-enabled
robots, human operators in orbit could provide a “surge” capability for
man-in-the-loop operations while at their destination. When it’s time
for the astronauts to come home, the robots could then revert to a more
independent activity profile.
I’ll note that even Dr. Steven Squyres, the Cornell scientist responsible for the Mars Exploration Rovers, says a human team could do in a week
what it’s taken his rovers over five years to do. Instead of competing
for resources, this would drive the human and robotic space flight
communities closer together by sharing the goals and the risks.
telepresence, as part of the “Deep Space” exploration option, might
just be the key to enabling human exploration of the solar system until
we can lower launch costs enough to sustainably land and return people.