Manned or Unmanned?

The internets is consumed recently with the Obama administration’s choice to cut funding for NASA manned space exploration.  Manned missions to the moon or development of the technologies needed to go mars…gone.

A lot of people are quite distraught about this decision believing it a poor course for the future.  “The decision has been condemned as a failure of imagination, the antithesis of audacity and hope.” On the other hand, Times Online Science Editor Mark Henderson states boldly

President Obama is right to drop plans to return to the Moon.

And I realistically I have to agree.  But let us allow Henderson continue with his argument

It should more properly be seen as a long overdue triumph of realism. By scaling back manned spaceflight, America will in no way betray its pioneer spirit…Astronauts do precious little exploring. Human beings are poorly designed for the job. They need food, water and oxygen, they must be shielded against radiation and they generally want to come home. That makes every launch prohibitively expensive, and limits where they can go…Mechanical probes have none of these shortcomings. They can fly farther and faster, to destinations such as Venus and Jupiter to which no man, however bold, could go. They can roll around planets for years..Their scientific returns dwarf those of manned missions for a fraction of the outlay.

The same dilemma holds for deep-sea exploration. Manned or unmanned?

In Descent, the story of the Bathysphere, Beebe, and Barton, I was  reminded of the technological and psychological feats already accomplished in order to explore the deep seafloor. Although we continue to be creative in solving the problems of manned deep-sea exploration, they also continue to present formidable challenges.  As Henderson states for space exploration, humans are not well equipped to explore environments outside our norm.  And this applies no less so to humans visiting remote parts of the abyss.  We require oxygen, protection from freezing temperatures, a barrier against crushing pressures, and someplace to go to the restroom.  We are limited by how long a a human can stay in a few meter diameter capsule and the power we tote along to supply our vehicle.  Most importantly, if something goes awry, life can be in jeopardy.

Because of safety, finances, logistics, and a variety of other practical reasons, many institutes  justifiably turned to ROV’s (remote operated vehicles) instead of manned exploration. Perhaps this makes sense as much as turning the space program to unmanned missions.  ROV’s allow for longer bottom times as pilots can be rotated in and out.  A task hard to accomplish with a submersible beneath kilometers of water. With an ROV there is an ability to collaborate/converse with other scientists during the dive in the control room. Collaboration in a submersible is limited to three …two scientists and a pilot.  The ROV control room can hold multiple scientists or scientists can be rotated out mid-dive.  Last year in the control room for the ROV Doc Ricketts aboard the R/V Western Flyer, Chris Mah, a geologist, a postdoctoral fellow,  2 technicians, four students, 2 pilots and myself were present.  This allowed multiple geology, ecology, and systematic projects to take place on the same dive not just on the same expedition.  Others appear to agree about the utility of ROV’s versus submerssibles.  Rumors are consistently floated that recents years schedule for WHOI’s ROV Jason is full compared to many openings in the Alvin schedule.  I agree with Henderson that realistically robots are the best choice with a finite budget.

However, I wonder about the losses that come from this focus on ROV’s, or umanned spacecraft. Will we miss the excitement, experience, and passion that derives out of visiting these places first hand? I studied the deep sea for three years before my first deep dive and my understanding, although incomplete, of this environment has radically changed since those dives in the Sealink.

However, for some reason not in the realm of realism,  I find it refreshing the Alvin, the famous submersible from Woods Hole will be replaced with a new “Alvin”.  Why? As long as there are manned explorations of these environments, we can all dream of visiting these unique places and experiencing them for ourselves. We can place ourselves inside the Alvin or Endeavor, imagine experiencing it first hand, and form a connection. How many of those who involved in the space program were motivated as children watching shuttle launches. Of course we realize that our chances of actually doing this are minute, but so are the chances of throwing a touchdown pass in the superbowl.  As humans we need to dream and make the connection.

But…

Does manned exploration really stir the imagination in a way a robot cannot. Viewing a live feed of video from an ROV at 4000 meters to high-definition video at the surface is absolutely amazing (just ask Chris Mah). I also observed what I perceive to be more excitement for the Mars rovers than the space shuttle program.  Maybe…just maybe…the public is excited about exploration no matter how it is done.  And maybe…just maybe…the public is more intrigued by the question than the method.

So maybe our future is one we  continue on a balanced path of both manned and unmanned work that allows deep-sea and space exploration to thrive on the benefits of both…but of course with finite budgets come either/or choices.

Dr. M (1628 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





4 comments on “Manned or Unmanned?
  1. And you have to believe that in the near future the images coming back from remote vehicles will be even more immersive and impressive, especially if 3D screen technology becomes more widely adopted. It’d be neat to see those hydorthermal vents in real-time stereoscopy. However, I am curious if our Navy is pursuing unmanned technology. Will there be robotic predator submarines prowling the seas of our future? Seems a likely scenario. Or does national defense require a large, buoyant, air-filled cavity moving underneath the waves?

  2. This is a fantastic post, thanks for writing it.

    This whole discussion of the virtues and limitations of manned and unmanned exploration is healthy I think. But, one thing that bothers me a little bit is how, like so many discussions, it’s turned into a false choice. Why can’t we do both? Why does it have to be manned vs. unmanned?

    I’m not accusing this post specifically, but just the general tone of the discussion throughout the blogs.

  3. As someone who was lucky enough to be a part of a research cruise on the R/V Seward Johnson, and ridiculously lucky enough to go down on the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link, it’s hard for me to say that unmanned deep-sea exploration should be the wave of the future.

    Being able to go DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN is one of the coolest things I’ll ever have the privilege of doing. Seeing it on a video screen (even 3D) just doesn’t compare to actually being there. But with costs, safety considerations, and all the other logistical stuff, I totally understand why people are moving in the direction of unmanned vehicles. It’s just a little sad for the kids who want to grow up to be explorers. Exploring via video feeds lacks something…

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