Friday, January 6, 2012

Astronauts and aquanauts

I don't want to push this analogy too far (there are important differences) , but this NPR story got me to thinking about the exploration of the oceans and the exploration of space.

To take the pictures, researchers deployed a tethered robot from their research ship. About the size of a four-wheel-drive truck, the robot was outfitted with an array of high-definition video cameras and still cameras. The researchers would watch a bank of screens of pictures that the robot beamed up from the seabed.
Fifty years ago, exploring the oceans meant sending down manned bathyspheres and bathyscaphes and establishing undersea habitats like SEALAB and Tektite. Now exploration is done pretty much entirely by tethered robots and remote-controlled submersibles. For other than military purposes, manned deep water vehicles seem to have almost disappeared. Based on a good fifteen minutes on Wikipedia, it appears that serious bathyscaphe-based research ended with the Sixties. (the record for deepest dive has stood since 1960.)

We've all gotten used to the idea of exploring the oceans through a video screen rather than a portal and it's been ages since I've heard anyone talk about colonizing the seas. The cold, hard economic fact is that in extreme environments, machines can do more, and do it more cheaply than humans. That holds for space exploration as well.

It is possible to argue for manned exploration programs but those arguments invariably have to come down to a question, not of science, but of intangibles like what we want to accomplish as a nation. I'm actually sympathetic to these arguments but they have to be made in these terms. This really is something you do not because it's easy but because it's hard.

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