Never Send a Robot to do a Human's Job

Alright alright I'll admit it, the title is a tad misleading - there's plenty of jobs in space exploration definitely best reserved for unmanned spacecraft (like Parker Solar Probe aiming to touch the surface of the Sun!) But hear me out: as a space fan, I often have to answer the legitimate question of why we spend billions of dollars sending frail human beings into the cosmos, especially when robotic probes have proven themselves capable of exploring every world in our solar system. So here's my best rebuttal

The first probe to visit each of the planets (including Pluto!)

Let me first put aside one crucial (and if anything, the hardest-hitting) argument in favor manned exploration - that our astronauts are incredible role models for society, who inspire future generations to pursue meaningful careers in science and technology for the benefit of all mankind, in ways no machine ever could. Few people would doubt that the immortal images of Neil and Buzz at the Sea of Tranquility cast an indelible imprint on our American psyche, and that the generations after Apollo have reaped the benefits of seeing our heroes among the stars. For the sake of argument, let's ignore all that, so I can answer on the grounds of pure scientific return

Ironically, had Apollo 11 been a robotic landing it likely would've crashed, as the LM lost radar approaching the rocky surface.
Neil Armstrong took manual control to bring it down safely

As advanced as our probes have become, there are still inherent drawbacks that limit the capabilities of robotic spacecraft. Most notable among these is the time delay of spacecraft communication; while remote control appears instantaneous on Earth, in reality the commands we beam up can only travel at the speed of light, taking hours to contact our spacecraft billions of miles away. For example, as New Horizons neared Pluto back in 2015, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory had to send a precisely choreographed maneuver through JPL's Deep Space Network a full 4.5 hours in advance, just to ensure closest approach! Had anything gone wrong with the trajectory, there would be no chance for course correction; New Horizons would be gone before mission control had a clue.

The Curiosity Rover - keep reading below and you'll see that our most advanced Mars rover is actually kind of a slacker!

Or consider Curiosity, heralded as the most technologically advanced rover ever built. Most people probably picture Curiosity charging full steam ahead across the barren plains of the Red Planet, but its motion is actually far more staccato: mission control tells Curiosity to move a few meters; the signal travels ~20 mins to reach Mars; Curiosity receives the command and moves; Curiosity pauses and collects data on its new position, searching for boulders or other hazardous obstacles; the data is sent back to Earth for analysis, another ~20 min delay; mission control receives the data and prepares the next command. It's no surprise then that Curiosity has traveled only 20km in the past 7 years. Want to know how far the Apollo 17 Lunar Roving Vehicle went? Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt drove their moon buggy 36km in just 3 days!

I can't tell if this is from Apollo 15, 16, or 17, but man does it look like fun!

Beyond that, there's an element of human ingenuity that has proven to be mission critical in sticky situations, far beyond the structural limits inherent in any machine. For this, I call upon the example of the Mars Insight lander juxtaposed against the core sample retrieval on Apollo 15. Both missions came with similar objectives - drill deep into the interior of a celestial body to learn about extraterrestrial geology. But Insight has hit quite the snafu since landing on Mars last year. Its mechanical "mole", an autonomous heat probe meant to burrow 16 feet below the surface, got jammed after losing traction in the funky Martian soil, forcing mission control to pull it out after just 14 inches while they figure out a workaround. It's a shame there's no one on Mars to help Insight out - just send Mark Watney with a shovel, a hammer, and a sack of potatoes!

Actual image of Insight's "mole" attempting to drill beneath the Martian surface

Similarly, nearly 50 years ago Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and Jim Irwin faced their own stuck drill bit as they dug for samples beneath the moon's surface. A faulty design assumed the lunar soil was looser than it actually was, causing the fiberglass drill to shear off in the dense crust and trapping the core sample they were after. No matter what maneuver the mission control came up with, the drill wouldn’t budge, forcing the astronauts to rely on a “machine” of last resort – their own muscles! The two men squatted by the drill handle and literally heaved up with all their might until they freed their precious lunar sample (Commander David Scott even sprained his shoulder in the herculean effort, forcing him to take aspirin to relieve the pain on the flight home!) The subsequent Apollo 16 and 17 missions got better drills mechanical jacks to avoid this same mistake

Dave Scott and Jim Irwin struggling with the stuck core sample, depicted by HBO's acclaimed miniseries From the Earth to the Moon

So the conclusion I leave you with is just as we'd expect, that combining the strengths of both humans and machines yields the best result in space exploration. But the next time someone asks you why bother sending humans into space when robots will do just as well, you'll know exactly how to answer!

Note from the Author

Minor life update: I got a job at SpaceX! Joining their finance team in two weeks. Proof that even a simple investment banker can make his mark among the stars...

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