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."
A British broadcaster doggedly tried to put words into the academic’s mouth.
My first introduction to Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, came by way of an interview that began trending on social media last week. Peterson was pressed by the British journalist Cathy Newman to explain several of his controversial views. But what struck me, far more than any position he took, was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication.
First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.
Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. And the Peterson interview has so many moments of this kind that each successive example calls attention to itself until the attentive viewer can’t help but wonder what drives the interviewer to keep inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims, instead of addressing what he actually said.
All parents remember the moment when they first held their children—the tiny crumpled face, an entire new person, emerging from the hospital blanket. I extended my hands and took my daughter in my arms. I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly think.
Afterward I wandered outside so that mother and child could rest. It was three in the morning, late February in New England. There was ice on the sidewalk and a cold drizzle in the air. As I stepped from the curb, a thought popped into my head: When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the Earth. I stopped midstride. I thought, How is that going to work?
For some Americans, sub-minimum-wage online tasks are the only work available.
Technology has helped rid the American economy of many of the routine, physical, low-paid jobs that characterized the workplace of the last century. Gone are the women who sewed garments for pennies, the men who dug canals by hand, the children who sorted through coal. Today, more and more jobs are done at a computer, designing new products or analyzing data or writing code.
But technology is also enabling a new type of terrible work, in which Americans complete mind-numbing tasks for hours on end, sometimes earning just pennies per job. And for many workers living in parts of the country where other jobs have disappeared—obviated by technology or outsourcing—this work is all that’s available for people with their qualifications.
Saffron has been altering people’s moods for hundreds of years.
It’s the poshest spice of all, often worth its weight in gold. But saffron also has a hidden history as a dye, a luxury self-tanner, and even a serotonin stimulant. That’s right, this episode we’re all about those fragile red threads plucked from the center of a purple crocus flower. Listen in as we visit a secret saffron field to discover why it’s so expensive, talk to a clinical psychologist to explore the science behind saffron’s reputation as the medieval Prozac, and explore the spice’s off-menu role as an all-purpose beautifier for elites from Alexander the Great to Henry VIII.
Saffron’s origins are a mystery, with competing claims placing the wild plant’s origins in regions along a wide, semiarid swath from Greece, in the eastern Mediterranean, to Central Asia. Today, the vast majority is still grown in that belt, with Iran leading the world’s production. But in the 1500s and 1600s, the center of the saffron universe briefly shifted from the sun-baked Mediterranean to rainy England. One particular region of England became so internationally famous for its saffron—in fact, each autumn, the entire area was carpeted in purple petals—that the local market town of Chepying Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden. But by the 1800s, England’s saffron fields had vanished entirely. Two hundred years later, a restless geophysicist named David Smale decided to try cultivating English saffron again. This episode, we visit his field at a secret location in Essex to learn how saffron is grown, hand-harvested, and dried—and about Smale’s uphill battle to uncover the lost art of successfully coaxing saffron from England’s soggy soils.
The Trump administration is making it easier for medical providers to object to procedures on religious grounds. Will patients suffer as a result?
In 2014, a 27-year-old nurse-midwife named Sara Hellwege applied for a job at Tampa Family Health Centers, a federally qualified health center. She was a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional association that opposes abortion.
“Due to religious guidelines,” Hellwege wrote to the clinic’s HR director, Chad Lindsey, in an email, “I am able to counsel women regarding all forms of contraception, however, cannot Rx [prescribe] it unless pathology exists—however, have no issue with barrier methods and sterilization.”
In his response, Lindsey cited the health center’s participation in a government family-planning program, Title X, as grounds for rejecting her as an applicant. “Due to the fact we are a Title X organization and you are a member of AAPLOG, we would be unable to move forward in the interviewing process,” he wrote. The clinic did not, he added, have any positions available for practitioners who wouldn’t prescribe birth control.
Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.
The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.
One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.
Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted.Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.
The president’s reported criticism of Cabinet members Wilbur Ross and Ryan Zinke strikes directly at some of his own shortcomings.
Taking a job with Donald Trump means agreeing to sometimes be attacked by Donald Trump. This week’s victims are Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
“These trade deals, they’re terrible,” Trump told Ross, according to Jonathan Swan at Axios. “Your understanding of trade is terrible. Your deals are no good. No good.” The president rejected a trade deal that Ross thought was closed. Ross also reportedly falls asleep repeatedly in meetings.
Zinke’s problem is different. First the administration announced a major expansion of offshore oil drilling. Then Florida Governor Rick Scott protested, because drilling is unpopular among Floridians, and since Scott is a Republican Trump ally and likely 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, Zinke hastily announced Florida would no longer be covered by the change. That, of course, led governors in other states to demand the same treatment. More recently, the Interior Department has had to walk back the exception.
Like ERs and doctors across the country, administrators at Michigan State assured Nassar’s victims that nothing was wrong.
As a freshman on the Michigan State University softball team, Tiffany Thomas Lopez went to Larry Nassar, the school sports therapist, for back pain. Nassar’s “special treatment”—a technique he’s used on many of his patients, including U.S. Olympic gymnasts—involved him inserting his fingers into her vagina. Thomas Lopez thought something seemed off. But when she reported the behavior to Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, an MSU athletic trainer, she said Teachnor-Hauk told her not to worry: This was “actual medical treatment.”
“She brushed me off, and made it seem like I was crazy,” Thomas Lopez told ESPN.
Last week, almost 100 women shared similar stories about Larry Nassar in a county courtroom in Lansing, Michigan. Many of them were MSU students—and, according to a recent Detroit News investigation, at least six reported the abuse to university administrators. All said they received versions of the same response: “He’s an Olympic doctor.” “No way.” You “must be misunderstanding what was going on.” A 2014 Title IX investigation reached a similar conclusion: Nassar’s conduct “was not of a sexual nature.” Kristine Moore, the university’s Title IX investigator, said the women likely did not understand the “nuanced difference” between proper medical procedure and sexual abuse.
Mike Pompeo adds a few caveats to America's strategy.
In January 2017, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted, in response to news that North Korea was close to completing a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States, “It won’t happen!” One year later, in a talk at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Trump’s CIA director went into detail about what precisely the administration means by “it.” Within that definition are the potential triggers for military conflict between two nuclear-armed states, since the Trump administration has threatened to use force against North Korea if its current campaign of diplomatic pressure and economic isolation fails.
The president’s long-term mission is to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, Mike Pompeo said. But in the near- to medium-term, he suggested, the administration would consider it a victory to accomplish something far more modest: stopping North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program from progressing, rather than rolling it back. The North is “a handful of months” away from “being able to hold America at risk” with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile, he observed, noting that he had made the same estimate several months ago. “We are working diligently to make sure that, a year from now, I can still tell you they are several months away from having that capacity.”
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.