Robotic Space Probes — Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

  1. Focus on Mars is misguided. One reason is that boots on the ground won’t increase our knowledge about the planet much.
  2. Many other destinations are more interesting than Mars. Reasons why are various, but some Jovian and Saturn moons have more lifelike conditions than Mars. Venus has the possibility of airships with breathable gas.
  3. More smaller missions to the outer solar-system moons would be better. Later it is elaborated that more diversity in missions would be better, and that it would be a shame for us to dedicate all/most resources to one big Mars program.
  4. A holding pattern with Mars would be good until we have a better idea of what’s needed to support human presence.
  5. The motivations for Mars is “for the sake of humans on Mars” while we have the right reasons for exploring other planets and other moons.
  6. As a concession, the vlogger “could get behind” a manned mission to orbit Mars while controlling things on the surface.

These Opinions are Very Common

Actually, the above philosophy has basically been the de-facto guiding principles of NASA investment for decades now. This is almost universally the expert opinion (I’m using “expert” a pejorative here, in the spirit of the Black Swan book). There is a precautionary principle at work, where taking big gambles could result in dead bodies in space, breaking that taboo and softening public support. There is also a budgetary standoff, where Congress almost certainly wouldn’t fund a large project to the levels needed to make it work. There’s the hazard of purpose-built infrastructure going away in a whiff of smoke after the object has been accomplished, like with Apollo. Plus, there’s the apparent success of robotic missions to contend with. These have built up a very high success rates and offered the public many tangible wins.

My Response

Here is a link to the actual comment I left, which you could read for a more abbreviated version of the arguments I’ll go through here.

This is not Moon-First, Mars-First

There is somewhat of a long-running divide among space advocates about whether we should go to Mars or the Moon first, and this is not that discussion. The title of the video I’m responding to certainly seems anti-Mars, but this is only because Mars is the current center-of-attention. The video is not in favor of the Moon, it’s not expressing favor for either. The focus on the video is a grand diversity of exploration targets throughout the entire solar system. Per the arguments laid out, achievement of these goals within a resource-constrained environment would mean cuts to a manned spaceflight program.

Why Mars is a Worthy Goal

If we’re going to keep our heads in reality, then we have 4 places that are worth a darn — The Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, Phobos, and Mars. Sending man-rated Zeppelin-style airship on Venus would be outrageously expensive and would ONLY ever be useful for unsustainable trips to Venus. This exact point was made earlier in the video that multi-destination vehicles are vastly better in terms of resource prioritization. Unfortunately, you just can’t explore Venus without doing destination-specific engineering and design.

Robotic Probes are One-Off Affairs

Robotic missions aren’t worthy of comparison to a Mars settlement objective because they are never ever sustainable in any sense of the word. Categorically, we send robots up for them to transmit back data (except for just a handful of sample return missions). Every robotic mission takes a vast amount of investment in novel robotics engineering, leading to an economic trap of launch costs spiraling out of control. Every dollar you spend on the payload is a dollar you don’t spend on the launch vehicles, because again, constrained resources.

Make Spaceflight Routine

Do you like the idea of reusable rockets? Then you’re backing the wrong horse with robotic missions. Focusing on science and robotics leads to fewer launches at higher cost. Only some form of manned flight will result a virtuous cycle of higher demand, innovation, and lower launch costs. This is what the COTS program tried, and hardly a decade later reusable boosters are already being flown. If you de-emphasize human flight, then you pull out the rug on the concept of regular supply flights and any impetus to improve launch economies.

It’s not About Manned Spaceflight, it’s About Infrastructure

Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally possible to do Mars the wrong way — like what we did with Apollo. But we need sustained space stations and surface stations in order to get human kind’s foot in the door of space. Those stations need to be hosting propellant depots and developing ISRU, or else our space program will be stuck in the 20th century forever. Those stations could be totally robotic, that would be fine with me, but that’s just not going to happen.

Bigger Budgetary Picture

This is the part where I go through the list of “I’m not saying this” to avoid the predictable responses.



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