The conventional wisdom of space exploration suggests that robotic probes are both more scientifically efficient and cost effective. Not so, argues a professor of planetary science.
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, poses beside the deployed flag of the United States during the Apollo XI moon landing July 20, 1969. [Reuters]
When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop in July 2011, NASA bid farewell to the nation's symbol of manned spaceflight. The Obama administration has scrapped NASA's plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020, which was behind schedule because of technical and budgetary problems. As financial constraints threaten the possibility of future ventures into outer space, many in the astronomical community are advocating for the increased use of unmanned robotic
space, arguing that they will serve as more efficient explorers of planetary surfaces
than astronauts. The next giant leap, then, will be taken with robotic feet.
At the core of Crawford's argument is that human beings are much better at performing the type of geological fieldwork that makes planetary exploration scientifically valuable: they're faster and significantly more versatile than even the most advanced autonomous probes. "People who argue for robotic exploration argue for more artificial intelligence, the capacity for robots to make more complex decisions that somehow leads to increased efficiency," explains Crawford. "But one of the things that make them cheap is miniaturization.You can make robots more intelligent and efficient to a certain point, but they wont get smaller and therefore cheaper." With miniaturization, he explains, comes a depletion in the number of scientific instruments a probe can carry, the number of samples it can collect, and its ability to cover more ground. " [Mars rovers] Spirit and Opportunity are fantastic things on Mars, but the fact that they've traveled as far in eight years as the Apollo astronauts traveled in three days speaks volumes." At a certain point, the costs of developing 'smarter' (but not better equipped) autonomous rovers will exceed the meager gains in scientific collection and outstrip existing scientific budgets.
The advantages of human over robot explorers are recognized in the planetary sciences community: a 2005 report by the Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration noted that "the expert evidence we have heard strongly suggests that the use of autonomous robots alone will very significantly limit what can be learned about our nearest potentially habitable planet." Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, conceded in his book Roving Mars that "[t]he unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect sol [a martian day] a human explorer could do in less than a minute." But Crawford also expresses concerns over the capacity of robots for "making serendipitous discoveries."
"We may be able to make robots smarter, but they'll never get tot he point where they can make on the spot decisions in the field, where they can recognize things for being important even if you don't expect them or anticipate them," argues Crawford. "You can't necessarily program a robot to recognize things out of the blue."
The other downside of a shift towards robotic exploration is the decline of samples, the real meat of the planetary sciences. Robotic expeditions have always been one-way trips: the probes go, land, take readings, and don't come back. But the collection and prolonged study of planetary samples are real drivers of scientific knowledge, which Crawford measures in terms of published scientific literature:
Several things are immediately apparent from Figure 2. Most obvious is the sheer
volume of Apollo's scientific legacy compared to the other missions illustrated. This
alone goes a long way to vindicate the points made above about human versus robotic
efficiency. The second point to note is that the next most productive set of missions
are the lunar sample return missions Lunas 16, 20 and 24, which highlights the
importance of sample return. Indeed, a large part of the reason why Apollo has
resulted in many more publications than the Luna missions is due to the much larger
quantity and diversity of the returned samples which, as we have seen, will always be
greater in the context of human missions. The third point to note is that, despite being
based on data obtained and samples collected over 40 years ago, and unlike the Luna,
Lunokhod, or Surveyor publications, which have clearly levelled off, the Apollo
publication rate is still rising. Indeed, it is actually rising as fast as, or faster than, the
publications rate derived from the Mars Exploration Rovers, despite the fact that data
derived from the latter are much more recent. No matter how far one extrapolates into
the future, it is clear that the volume of scientific activity generated by the MERs, or
other robotic exploration missions, will never approach that due to Apollo.
"We're still benefiting from the scientific legacy of those few soil samples brought by the Apollo mission, but we can only do this because we went to the Moon, got these samples, and came back," says Crawford. "If we sent a rover to Mars along with a return vehicle, that would enormously increase its scientific impact, but that's hasn't been implemented yet because its still incredibly expensive. If a mission goes to Mars, lands in one place, bring back half a kilogram of Mars rocks, it will be immensely valuable, but compared to Apollo, which not only visited six sites (and many hundred of sites with the help of the lunar rover) but came back with 382 kilograms of lunar material, it sort of pales in comparison."
While robotic probes find a permanent home on a planetary surface, sending manned expeditions inherently means planning for a return trip. Would a manned trip to Mars, replete with a sample-laden return vehicle, yield a similar explosion in scientific literature? Crawford thinks so. "A Martian expedition would be 5 or 10 times more expensive than Apollo in real terms, but not so much more expensive that it would negate the added benefit of being able to collect samples. They'll bring back a much larger quantity and diversity of samples than a robotic mission, and this is especially important with regards to Mars: there are reasons for wanting more lunar samples, but Mars is a much bigger and much more geologically diverse planet, with a much more complicated geology so much more inconceivably complicated history than the Moon, we won't get a full sense of its history or evolution just by scraping around on the surface with these smalls robot probes."
The scientific impact of these moon rocks is compelling: our whole
chronology of the solar system is built on the radiometric dating of the
Apollo samples. "The top scientific benefit is that it's been possible
to date areas of the lunar surface. We have this curve that plots crater density versus age, which we can use to get an estimated age of
virtually anywhere else in the Solar System," explains Crawford.
"The last major eruption of Olympus Mons [on Mars] was 400 million years
ago, and the only way we have this measurement is because of Apollo
So why, then, are scientists resigned to sending probes and rovers to the corners of the galaxy? Scientists, argues Crawford, tend to look at the enormous costs for Apollo, which nobody will ever be able to afford again, as an artificial baseline for gradual streamlining of space exploration. This is the wrong approach to take "There's lots of collective amnesia as to how efficient Apollo really was, which is really the only example of exploring the surface of another planet," explains Crawford. "An enormous amount was achieved in a very short total contact time with the lunar surface."
Planners feel the microscopic formations in Mars meteorite ALH84001, found in Antarctica, and the highly diverse samples of rocks believed to have been strewn about by ancient rivers seen at the Mars Pathfinder landing site, provide a strong motive for sending human exobiologists and geologists to the Red Planet. [Pat Rawlings/NASA]
But Crawford recognizes that, despite its benefits for scientific research, manned missions are subject to domestic forces and rarely undertaken for the sake of science alone. The United States was willing to shoulder the enormous costs of the Apollo mission because of the geopolitical and economic interests (namely, besting the Soviet Union), an argument advanced most recently by science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
"Science was the beneficiary of a human spaceflight mission that was undertaken for geopolitical purposes," explains Crawford. "The total costs is large, but the best way for scientists to look at it is not 'this is a science function.' They need to look at Apollo as the confluence of geopolitical, industrial, and social factors. You need all of these things to spend the money necessary."
Crawford's theory, then, is not necessarily targeted towards the general public: he recognizes the difficulty of justifying an expensive manned mission with no immediate economic benefit (although he notes notes that the 1987 NASA procurement of $8.6 billion generated a turnover of $17.8 billion and created 209,000 private sector jobs, according to an article in Nature), especially in the throes of an global economic downturn. His main argument, then is those scientists consigning themselves to a future of interstellar probes are shooting themselves in the foot. Ventures like the James Webb Space Telescope may hit the ceiling for government expenditures on purely scientific ventures, but researchers and scientists can -- and should -- try to make the case for manned spaceflight in other contexts, if only for the sake of maximizing the scientific gains made from planetary exploration.
"Humans bring a net benefit to space exploration that, in my opinion, outweighs the costs," says Crawford. "But people need to realize that the overall case for manned spaceflight is multifaceted, a totality woven out of these different strands, of which science is one. Industry, innovation, inspirational value -- all of these factors must be addressed before manned spaceflight can return."
Ivana Trump’s new book is a parenting memoir—and an ode to being better than everyone else.
There’s a story Ivana Trump tells in Raising Trump, her new memoir of parenting, work, and marriage. It was New Year’s Eve, 1977; she and Donald Trump were together in the hospital room after their first child had been born, discussing the matter of what name to give their new infant. Ivana suggested that the son should be named after the father: Donald Trump Jr. Donald, however, balked at this.
“What if he’s a loser?” he said.
Ivana got her way, in this instance as in many she describes in Raising Trump, which begins and ends with the premise that none of the three children Ivana and Donald Trump created together have been consigned to a life of loserdom. The book may be a parenting memoir; it may feature practical tips about punishments and allowances and the compulsory writing of thank-you notes; it may even feature a curated selection of awkward family photos and treasured family recipes; but it is about parenting, as most people practice it, in only the most superficial sense. By virtue of its core characters—a man who becomes the American president, a daughter who becomes his advisor, a son-in-law who becomes responsible for criminal justice reform and opioid crisis managementand bringing peace to the Middle East—Raising Trump is less a straightforward memoir than it is a teasing exploration of the workings of the presidential family. Here are the oft-discussed “Trump family values,” as explained by the woman who helped to create them.
The staggering scope of the country’s infrastructure initiative—and what it means for the international order
The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.
China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.
Critics of the mainstream media were quick to charge that Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds were an open secret, yet none of them were able to expose it.
Last week, the New York Times and The New Yorker published multiple allegations of abhorrent sexual misconduct against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, drawing on years of costly investigative reporting; risking legal retaliation that could cost millions to litigate; and forcing its subject from his powerful perch in Hollywood, where his ability to lure aspiring film starts into hotel rooms is all but gone.
The episode was a credit to the reporters, editors, and publishers who broke the story; an example of why it is vital to support an independent press that probes wrongdoing; and a spur to examine all the factors that delayed the truth outing for so long, including apparent failures by some journalists and news-gathering organizations.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The director is blaming the critical aggregator for dooming more complex films, but the deeper problem is studio neglect.
Last weekend, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a drama about the creator of the famed comic-book character, became the latest mid-budget casualty. It was marketed on the back of its connection with Wonder Woman, one of the biggest hits of the year. It received a moderately wide release and got strong reviews, but its three-day box-office total was just $736,883—a flimsy average of $600 per theater, which essentially doomed any future chance of success. Critics and industry insiders alike have lamented for years the decline of modestly budgeted movies aimed at grownups, the sort of film that was once the backbone of Hollywood.
Professor Marston would likely have at least one sympathizer in Martin Scorsese, who recently wrote an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter on how many good, artistic movies are struggling to find receptive audiences in this new era for the industry. “Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent,” said the Academy Award-winning director, who also works tirelessly in the field of film preservation. Indeed, in most cases, a movie is judged a flop or a hit within the first few days of its release. Box-office prognosticators can predict a film’s final grosses almost immediately, and there’s very little chance for word-of-mouth to help build up hype, except in the cases of certain smaller independent works.
The last seventy-five years of American foreign policy are not the story of a country consistently pursuing democratic ideals, only to see them undermined now by a fearful “blood and soil” isolationism.
Being a liberal in the Donald Trump era is tricky. On the one hand, you’re grateful for any conservative who denounces the president’s authoritarian lies. On the other, you can’t help but notice that many of the conservatives who condemn Trump most passionately—Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin—remain wedded to the foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. And in criticizing Trump’s amoral “isolationism,” they backhandedly defend the disastrous interventionism that helped produce his presidency in the first place.
The godfather of this brand of hawkish, anti-Trump conservatism is John McCain. Sure, McCain—being a Republican Senator—doesn’t condemn Trump as forthrightly as his “neoconservative” allies in the press. But the terms of his critique are similar.
Several of his achievements are under threat—and it’s not all because of Donald Trump.
When Donald Trump last week opted to decertify the nuclear agreement that Barack Obama forged with Iran, it appeared to fit a pattern in the president’s emerging foreign policy. In withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate-change accord, in announcing that he was “canceling” the U.S. opening to Cuba, Trump seemed similarly determined to dismantle Obama’s achievements in international affairs. “The organizing principle for how he approaches foreign policy appears to be, in part, trying to look like he’s doing the opposite of his predecessor,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national-security adviser, told me.
But to the extent that Obama’s foreign-policy legacy is under threat, it’s not only Trump that’s doing the threatening. Some accomplishments are fraying for reasons that have nothing to do with the 45th president’s apparent contempt for the 44th. Obama’s legacy partially depends on his bets that certain countries—Cuba, Iran, Burma—would, with time, respond positively to diplomacy, which the former president once described to The Atlantic as “the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously.”
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
We spend two full years of our lives washing ourselves. How much of that time (and money and water) is a waste?
12,167 hours of washing our bodies.
That’s how much life you use, if you spend 20 minutes per day washing and moisturizing your skin and hair (and you live to be 100, as we all surely will).
That adds up to nearly two entire years of washing every waking hour.
Not to mention water usage and the cost of cosmetic products—which we need, because commercials tell us to remove the oil from our skin with soap, and then to moisturize with lotion. Other commercials tell us to remove the oils from our hair, and then moisturize with conditioner.
That’s four products—plus a lot of water and time— and few people question whether it’s anything short of necessary.
It’s not just the fault of advertising, but also because most of us know from personal experience that if we go a few days without showering, even one day, we become oily, smelly beasts.
An archeological discovery has raised questions about Muslims’ influence on Europe.
A researcher at a Swedish university says that Viking burial clothes bear the word “Allah”—and some people really want to believe her.
Annika Larsson, a textile researcher at Uppsala University who was putting together an exhibit on Viking couture, decided to examine the contents of a Viking woman’s boat grave that had been excavated decades ago in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. Inspecting the woman’s silk burial clothes, Larsson noticed small geometric designs. She compared them to similar designs on a silk band found in a 10th-century Viking grave, this one in Birka, Sweden. It was then that she came to the conclusion that the designs were actually Arabic characters—and that they spelled out the name of God in mirror-image. In a press release, she described the find as “staggering,” and major media outlets (including The New York Times, The Guardian, and the BBC) reported the story last week.