Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Astronauts: NASA’s Weakest Link?

Conventional wisdom states that a system is only as strong as its weakest link. Does this mean that NASA’s greatest asset - human space explorers i.e. astronauts -are also their greatest liability?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak’s adult diaper-aided crime-of-passion / escapade became headline news, things have not been going well for NASA’s manned space exploration program. Then came the allegations of the drunkenness of shuttle astronauts slated for current missions – the “bottle to throttle” fiasco. And the most disturbing of all: the pre-flight sabotage of the vibration monitoring / detecting computer that’s slated to be installed in the International Space Station (ISS) which seems like the proverbial “last straw” that NASA won’t be able to recover. Despite a live news conference last 27th of July 2007 that aired on both BBC and CNN about the administrative action that would be taken by NASA to investigate these allegations and the establishment of a “Performance Integrity Criterion” that will be followed rigorously by the astronauts. Despite of the recent successful launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, is NASA’s reputation already tarnished beyond repair?

At the cost of almost a billion dollars per launch, the American taxpayer has every right to be mindful about the professionalism and integrity of their astronauts for a lot of reasons other that the “astronomical” cost of running the best manned space exploration program on the planet. Ever since the 1980’s, there are scientific experiments -whose benefits even includes a cure for cancer- can only be performed in the weightless conditions i.e. in space. So Americans held their astronauts with high regard like some “latter day messiah.” To me, the pre-flight sabotage of the vibration-monitoring computer is the most disturbing of all the “irregularities” that has surfaced in recent investigations. If this is true – and the “tampering” incident had been going on since NASA first started the series of “microgravity environment” experiments back in the 1980’s – then the data obtained during this experiments should be taken with a “grain of salt.” That’s billions of dollars and countless man-hours of drudgery wasted, in other words - one giant “step back” for mankind.

Recently, the “Blog-o-sphere” is abuzz with opinions/suggestions that since NASA launches more unmanned missions like the latest PHOENIX Mars robotic space probe, the administrative body should fire all of their astronauts. To me, the problem with this logic is that at present –or even in the foreseeable future- we still don’t know how to build “robots” that are smart and self-aware enough to replace our “human space explorers.” The “human versus robot” debate extends even to the nurse / caregiver camp, but this is a topic for future discussion.

There exists a “Kultur Kampf” between the two main schools of thought weather it would be ever possible that we humans can ever construct a “robot” that is self-aware and as smart as us. On one camp, Alan Turing – the Great Grandfather of our modern computer technology- believes that by the middle of the 21st Century advancements in computer technology would allow us to design and construct “computers/robots” that are self-aware and as smart as or even smarter than us. Alan Turing even designed a test named after him - the Turing Test - as an evaluation tool to see if a “computer system” has the ability for self-awareness and human like intelligence. Turing “dreamed-up” the concept back in the 1940’s by the way. In the other camp is Roger Penrose – one of the greatest living theoretical physicist today- who theorized that electronic computers can never replicate the process of the human mind that give rise to self-awareness and intelligence. To put it in overly simplistic terms, a skilled blacksmith can create a very beautiful sword but that same sword can never create a blacksmith – even a mediocre one. Sadly, I’m subscribing to Roger Penrose’s view because it’s backed up by my own day –to- day “empirical evidence.” Though the last time I heard from Roger Penrose, he was very optimistic about “quantum computers.” Even if we are fortunate enough to have developed human-like robots -10 years from now- capable of replacing NASA’s astronauts, when was the last time a space probe / robotic spacecraft had a ticker tape parade down Madison Avenue after returning from a successful mission? Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein produced “cartoons” doesn’t count by the way.

Like it or not, humans are way better designed than “robots” when it comes to tackling the unexpected nature of space exploration. The American Taxpayer and the global community of space exploration enthusiasts will just have to live with the “frailties” of our very human astronauts like tendencies to “blow out some steam” once in a while. And there is the ever- present potential to resort to “substance abuse” in an otherwise stress-filled occupation. Despite all of this, there’s one thing we humans have that won’t probably be replicated by our “faux-sentient cybernetic creations” – for centuries to come – is our ability to better ourselves. This is the raison d’être of drug rehab and alcohol treatment centers that guarantees the job security so-to-speak of their counselors and psychotherapists. And I just can’t help but re-emphasize our ability to better ourselves. As proof of this, one of the latest astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavor – Barbara Morgan – has transformed herself through training from a “mere” schoolteacher to a full-fledged astronaut. She had done this because current NASA policy doesn’t allow “civilians” to ride in the space shuttle since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster over twenty years ago.

And let’s not forget that our global overpopulation problem has no other “viable” solution in the foreseeable future other than space colonization. The sooner we develop our space exploration programs into a viable space colonization endeavor the better off humanity could progress without destroying the fragile ecosystem of our planet.

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