Closing the astronaut window. Robots onward.

The recent release of the wonderful mars rover pancam shot above shows how real space exploration is being done. I used to enjoy science fiction books and movies about astronauts doing space exploration, but the tropes involved just don’t ring true anymore. Those tropes were formed around the time of the Apollo program and haven’t changed in the 40 years since. Daring space explorer jumps into rocket, off we go into the unknown. Aliens, rocket battles, strange discoveries. Star Trek. Don’t get me wrong, I still read and enjoy sci-fi. It’s just that the space opera future with human space exploration now feels like nostalgia of a very peculiar sort. Nostalgia for what the future was supposed to be like, not what is has become.

Let’s see where the nostalgia comes from. As Matt Novak pointed out in a recent piece in Slate “during the nine years of the Apollo program, American support pretty much fluctuated between 35 percent and 45 percent.”  The exception was during the 1969 moon landing itself when it briefly jumped up to 51 percent. Why does this low level of support seem surprising? Well, most of the adults who were alive at the time knew Apollo wasn’t about science. Apollo and the space race were about winning the cold war. The marketing spin put a science glory angle on it, and of course lots of awesome science was done. And the astronauts truly had the right stuff. That’s all true and rightly celebrated. But the adults from that era also understood the politics motivating the program. To site a recent comparable event, recall when Newt Gingrich plugged his Moon Base and Mars Mission in Republican primaries in January 2012. Even space enthusiasts hated it! Such cognitive dissonance. Why the hate? Because Gingrich was clearly motivated by politics, albeit starkly more petty than Kennedy. Nonetheless the main difference in reaction is simply due to fact that the adults from the Apollo era are now gone, and the kids like me who stood with mouths open watching the moon landings on their black and white TVs are calling the shots. And we kids latched on to the marketing glory of humans in space and can’t adapt to the real future all around us.

The space program ran out of steam with the end of the cold war. And while some great science got done, humans in space was devolving towards science fair projects in space. The real science in space was and is being done with robotic probes sent to places like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Or the shot above from the mars rover. Or space telescopes. The astronauts sent into space can’t come close to the space science and exploration that robot probes do better and cheaper.

Science fiction author Charles Stross, who naturally I like, has a long post on the difficulties on writing believable modern sci-fi with humans in space, then has another more mean spirited post on the politics around this topic. As robotics and AI improve, the present we already live in makes it comical to imagine astronauts doing any novel space science or exploring that hasn’t already been done 10x better with robotic probes. The SF authors on board with this 10 year old movement away from star trek aliens and toward more realistic futures call it mundane science fiction. Of course I love it. So refreshing to read books in this vein because they seem like a possible future. Not nostalgia for what the future was supposed to be 40 years ago.

Looking back, there was a short window in time where we actually had the technology to send astronauts into space, but the robotic technology still wasn’t good enough to explore better than people. This was a rather peculiar time in history. The astronaut window was briefly open. Sending astronauts into space was more cost effective than robots/computers, and the closer places like the moon were within reach using the tech from the time. Coincidentally the cold war made us jump through the astronaut window while it was open. It could easily have been different. If the cold war had avoided just a few more major crisis points, then the first probes to the moon would have been robotic. In that case it wouldn’t even occur to anyone to think humans in space could do much compared to robots. Regardless, improvements in software, AI and robotics have reached the point where they overwhelmingly do more space science and exploring per cost than humans. Sure there are rare exceptions like the Hubble repair, but even those remaining exceptions tend to be humans assisting the robotic probes, not the other way around. And the overall the gap continues to widen year by year. Even the rare exceptions are nearly gone. The astronaut window is already closed. Compared to robots, humans in space die easily – radiation and weightlessness kill bags of protoplasm quickly.

But the people who were kids during the Apollo era can’t accept the reality of robotic probes doing all the exciting space science exploration. Yes, eventually someone will go to Mars. But it will be after decades of robotic probes have shown the way. The humans won’t be explorers. They’ll be tourists. A reality TV show sending someone to Mars is a more realistic than sending astronauts to explore. It’s the future we already live in. But it’s not as much fun as what us kids hoped for 40 years ago. So the public continues it’s nostalgic demand for daring astronauts in movies, tv and books. Our real future with Snooki in space is simply too hard to face.

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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