Friday, November 27, 2009

Ten Questions for HSF Committee - Question 10

What is the appropriate amount and nature of complementary robotic activities needed to make human space flight activities most productive and affordable over the long term?

A similar question appears in the Augustine Committee charter, but the report doesn't go into much detail to answer it. There are references to robotic activities throughout the report, such as deploying probes, servicing Lagrange point observatories, use of commercial lunar robotics capabilities in human lunar systems, and telerobotics in the Flexible Path. Section 9.6, "Managing the Balance of Human and Robotic Spaceflight", briefly discusses NASA's scientific robotics and budgetary protection for these science missions. However, the closest it comes to clarifying the role for robotics in support of human spaceflight is the following passage:

Needless to say, robotic spaceflight should play an important role in the human spaceflight program itself, reconnoitering scientifically important destinations, surveying future landing sites, providing logistical support and more. Correspondingly, humans can play an important role in science missions, particularly in field geology, exploration, and the maintenance and enhancement of robotic systems in space. (See Figure 9.6-1.) It is in the interest of both science and human spaceflight that a credible and well-rationalized strategy of coordination between the two types of pursuit be developed—without forcing unwarranted intermingling in areas where each would better proceed on its own.

This leaves many questions unanswered:

  • What budget is needed for robotics related to HSF in the report's various options?
  • For each option, what are the required robotic missions, data sets, and capabilities, and what is their schedule?
    What are the enhancing robotic missions for each option?
  • In cases where robotic science and human spaceflight intermingle (probes doing science and HSF resource searches, scientific telerobotics, etc), how should the budget be handled?
  • To what extent should NASA's robotic science missions be directed to support human spaceflight with the report's various options? The answer could be quite different for the Moon First and Flexible Path options.
  • What are the opportunities for commercial and international robotic participation?
  • Is there a valid role for heavy lift with robotics, or would it just absorb robotic mission funding and make robotic missions more expensive and rare?
If, as the report suggests, we can't start astronaut exploration for over a decade, we should pay close attention to exploration we can actually accomplish now: robotic missions. More insight into this critical area would have been useful.

Let's imagine NASA's HSF budget is increased, but not by $3B/year. Some of the difference is made up by commercial and international participation and other cost-saving measures, but there's still a shortfall. We need, but can't afford, certain robotic missions, so the budgetary gaze turns to NASA planetary science. Should planetary science sacrifice missions unrelated to HSF? For example, NASA plans a Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO - PDF) that may cost 3 billion dollars or so; this is in conjunction with an ESA Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (JGO - PDF). Would JEO be replaced with a less costly outer planets contribution, such as instruments or other participation in JGO, or a low-cost Europa mission like Europa Ice Clipper, with the savings devoted to HSF-supporting Moon, NEO, or Mars robotic science? This would not be a case where HSF raids the robotic science budget; a robotic planetary science destination aligned with HSF missions would raid another with top-tier science value but low HSF value. It would be good if the report suggested an approach to deal with or avoid such potential conflicts.

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