Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Men in Space

First, I'd like to apologize to those that liked reading this blog for not updating in awhile.  It's strange how inertia works. I don't put out one post, and then the next post is harder to get out.  Continue missing posts and it never gets done. Here's a quick post to get back on the saddle.

The point of this post is to answer the question "Why don't we have more manned missions in space, and why does that change in my game?"  Our current space programs overwhelmingly prefer unmanned missions, with the few manned space missions revolving around the International Space Station or with new space programs eager to prove themselves.

The simple, straightforward, and wrong answer would be that manned space missions are expensive.  Don't get me wrong, missions to space are relatively expensive. The recent New Horizons probe sent past Pluto cost approximately $700 million over the 15 year development and deployment time, or $45 million per year.  A useful comparison might be the cost of a soldier sent to war is approximately $1 million a year. The research and development for getting long-term manned missions would be expensive, but not overly so for the budgets nations routinely throw around.  Instead, the more correct answer is manned missions are high risk and low reward.

Unmanned missions have three major advantages over manned missions. Easily the biggest for the engineers is that they don't have to return to Earth.  We can send probes flinging off into the void, or let them orbit endlessly around Mars with little backlash or consequence.  Machines and computers are built for handling preplanned objectives, and our knowledge of space is strong enough to plan the entire mission in advance.  Adding human error to the mix is more likely to cause problems whenever the mission's objectives are known enough to plan ahead. The biggest advantage for the space program itself and the politicians advocating for it is the lack of backlash if a mission runs into problems - if the mission fails, it is usually met with little notice, and often some amount of hope that what went wrong ends up fixing itself. (Which, to be fair, does happen often with the types of problems that crop up)

For manned missions, their strengths lie more in dealing with uncertainty. The human body is surprisingly versatile, especially when used with other tools (like screwdrivers or duct tape) and comes with a strong intelligence.  A random problem where planning or machinery failed can be fixed more easily by a human than by other methods.  The Apollo 13 mission, for example, had a problem with their CO2 scrubber and had to jury rig a replacement.  Intelligence is also very handy when dealing with the light speed delay.  Even Mars, so very close as it is astronomically, has a 3-20 minute delay in contact with the Earth.  That's fine for sending pictures, but difficult for other activities. The recent Rosetta mission that landed on a comet had a delay of ~50 minutes, making it difficult to react in time if the need had arisen.

All of those advantages are great if we regard the machines we send out as important, but they aren't. Note the usage of "mission" when talking about achievements in space. The Rosetta mission's goal is to land a probe on comet 67P.  The probe itself is only useful to achieve that goal, and a failure is a loss of money, but it is still very possible to send another probe out if the first fails.  Humans, instead, are quite important; if a spacecraft fails and lives are lost, then people will care, and wonder why those lives are lost.  Landing a man on Mars would be quite prestigious, both for that man and the space organization that launched him, but a failure would cause even more hurt and embarrass the nation.

Furthermore, the timing on space travel can lead to odd peculiarities in regards to politics. There's a large gap of technology we'd need to bridge in order to send someone to Mars, which would take time and money to develop.  While money can be easy to come by, time is difficult. What leader wants to spend their political capitol advocating for a mission that wouldn't produce real results until 20 years in the future, likely long after they are gone?  (The mission alone would take about 2 years) It's a large undertaking, and support for those projects are slim. (If anyone ever asks, this is why I'll say good things about Bush. Proposing for a manned Mars mission will get me on anyone's side.  Though the ridicule he received for such support was to be expected, unfortunately.)  This is why I argue that manned missions are low reward. The prestige for the nation and program would be grand, but very difficult to attach to the individuals that started the project, leaving little incentive for the project to exist.

That answers the first bit of my original question (I hope), but what about the second? What makes the situation I'm creating different from the current one? Primarily, the reward would increase, but also the risk would decrease. A man and colony on Mars would be prestigious, and occur in a short timeframe.  A president could give the go-ahead and have a good chance of succeeding before his term is over. The risk, meanwhile, is mitigated by an increased presence in space. Losing the Challenger was a large deal, partially because we don't send people to space on a routine basis.  If, instead, we lost one of five ships currently in space, the public won't care.  Moreover, given that SEAC would be a multinational program, blame is easy to share, further lowering the risk.  At this point then, it seems normal that given a better risk/reward ratio, that men routinely in space far away from Earth could be a given, instead of a far-off dream.

PS. Please remember to like, comment, and share. It is surprising what those three actions mean to the content creator, given how easy and innocuous they may seem to the reader. Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this post.