(UPDATED*) AP: Robot rovers versus bipeds in space suits on Mars. Which would win?

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Wow, you geologists out there. Check out the image. Doesn't that make your mouth water? All those sedimentary-looking strata, but maybe aeolian and there's a fancy word or two you don't get to use much unless you are a geologist. But … the mouth-watering over virgin terrain doesn't do you much good unless you are standing there on Mars with a rock hammer, lens, a few of those draw-string sample sacks and a full oxygen tank. OR, unless you have an obedient machine to dispatch up the hill with laser zappers and mineral digesters and multi wavelength spectrometers and what-all at the plutonium-powered ready.

   For the rest of us, which scenario draws more interest? Even I, a skeptic about the merits of sending geologists or anybody on government payroll and cabfare off to Mars or anywhere else so far away, suspect I'd log on to the first human on Mars more often than our new Curiosity emissary. But how about the second or third or tenth person there? Would the interest be as great as the tenth robot but this one has huge gauzy wings and is set to fly down the Valles Marineris and inspect Olympus Mons's crater and for a fraction the expense of putting an oxygen demanding, pooping pilot on board who has to spend eight hours a day asleep?

   All this came to mind because an ace pursuer of breaking space and rocket news took a step back from this-just-in news to reflect, via the comments of sources, on the relative value and public appreciation of manned versus automated exploration of the solar system.

  • AP – Alicia Chang: Can Curiosity Mars Mission inspire like Apollo? Nice job. Perhaps a little too 'balanced' in that it challenges nobody. For instance one fellow tells her flatly that "It (the rover) can't inspire to the degree that Apollo did because a robot can't inspire the way a man can." I'd have hoped to find room for the source's answers to a few follow up questions such as why not? Can any expedition, human or mechanical, inspire like Apollo? Can a few hundred robots on a dozen worlds out-inspire one small colony of people on Mars? Still, this is a straight-up address to an important, long-running issue. One is unsure whether either presidential candidate has the better answers either.

   This makes me wonder about another scenario. Let's say the US folds its arms concerning a NASA expedition to Mars. And China sends a platoon of researchers there. And some of them are about to march up one of those monster volcanoes. But then a robot flying machine from another nation flits on past and perches up there, drills a core, and radioes the results back to Earth first. And the robot has a US or ESA or something flag on it and it then flies off to the next mystery Mars spot while the explorers below re-check their life support systems. Who looks smarter then?

* More stories on Apollo vis a vis Curiosity Mars Surface Laboratory:

  • LiveScience – Clara Moskowitz: Mars Rover Tracks Akin to Neil Armstrong's Moon Bootprints, Scientist says ;
  • Huffington Post Blog – Chris Carberry, Artemis Westenberg: Let's Not Wait for Utopia Before We Send Humans to Mars ; A notable essay in that it starts with a salute to the new rover, then continues on a lament for the low state of NASA science with a strong implication that only human exploration really counts on Mars. Rovers and such don't come up again at all. One valuable point it makes prominently: Canceling NASA entirely would make no appreciable difference to budget deficits or money available for social programs. And NASA's money is not shot off into space – it is spent here, almost entirely in the US, on programs that inspire youngsters to go into technically challenging and economically essential lines of work. The authors are not journalists or scientists. They are space fans devoted to getting US astronauts to Mars. The post is part of a HuffPost drive to highlight issues NOT notably addressed in the presidential campaigns.

– Charlie  Petit