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09 January 2015


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Babak Makkinejad


The time it takes, from the conception of an experiment to the construction of the instrumentation to perform that experiment to the launching of that instrument on some space vehicle to the collection of the data to the point in time that the first Ph.D. theses are written based on the analysis of that data is approximately 10 years.

If one is a professor of Planetary and atmospheric sciences, one will have 3 shots - during one's entire professional life - at performing fundamental research on the Earth system or the solar system.

The robot probes and the instrumentation that they have carried haven data byte for data byte thousands of times more cost effective than anything that the manned flights have produced.

This is beyond dispute.

Manned space flight, like the giant accelerators and fusion research projects, have only managed to suck scarce funding from other branches of sciences and retard scientific advancements - in my opinion.

The high failure rate of robot probes is an indicator of the harsh environment of outer space; one ought to consider the very high probability of life support systems in such missions.

And then there is the whole issue of if any human can endure long space flight to Mars and back ; all the while maintaining high-level of efficiency.

I think it more efficient to use robot probes, creating jobs for all those professors and graduate students....


Babak, Carl Sagan felt the same way. I agree with most of what you have stated. In fact, our whole Apollo program, IMO, was a poorly timed cold war exercise. We should have been focusing on LEO activities and commercializing space.

That being said, there are some things where the Mark 1 human being is irreplaceable, at least as our technology currently exists. Without a doubt, a trip to Mars is no roamin in the gloamin. The radiation hazard alone is daunting. But the chance to prove that life existed, perhaps was created on another planet? That may be too precious an opportunity to pass up, despite the costs and risks.

Charles !

I want to know.

Charles Dekle

Babak Makkinejad,
The engineer in me agrees with you completely. However, the little boy in me that read all of that great science fiction laments the truth of your statement. Sigh.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments.

Robot probes can be send to Mars, take samples, and return them back to Earth.

The cost would be $ 700 million, I think.


Physicists and astronomers are at the forefront of the argument against human space flight, they think that money is better spent on powerful telescopes like Hubble(in construction James Webb) and/or particle accelerators like CERN collider (cancellation of Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) is a shame Americans will have to explain to their future generations)

I completely understand this argument in the context that the money on space flight was public money (tax dollars) but not on the grounds that human space activity is not useful. The public money should go to projects which are critical for scientific inquiry and have no prospect for private/commercial prospect.

As we have seen from current flurry of activity by commercial space companies, I think there is a lot that will continue to happen in human space program. Robots are very useful and getting more autonomous in their operations every day but still need on demand human intervention. The distance from Mars to Earth means that we have created roles of 'Rover drivers' and it is instructive how challenging and tedious this work gets when you are trying to run these robots from far away planet and instructions take 10s of hours to get to rover. This will get even worse when robots will be sent to asteroids or say Saturn/Jovian moons (submersibles).

The workaround to this problem is to have humans in the close vicinity of the robots doing on ground work. For example a mother ship in Mars orbit with humans inside controlling rovers remotely. A book "Second machine age" (I highly recommend to SST readers) talks about a study which shows that a team that combines humans and robots does much better than teams composed solely of humans or autonomous robots.


The fundamental hurdle to space exploration is (and remains) Cheap Access to Space. This is a technology/engineering issue not science. NASA needs to spend the bulk of its money to solving this problem.
With cheap access, everything else becomes a *lot* easier.

There are many institutional problems why NASA has not been particularly good at getting cheap access, but that isn't a reason to abandon trying.

Re-focusing NASA on robot explorers would forsake the effort to get easy access to space.

Oh, and those manned missions to the moon produced a *lot* of useful science. I don't think the lunar robots came close.


Faroog, I think NASA should get much more like DARPA and seed companies that will develop cheap space access technology. That is exactly what Space X has done with their NASA contract and they have all the other players in a panic, including Arianespace. I have been working on a larger article about that very subject. Robert Heinlein would be proud of Elon Musk.


Fm ex PFC Chuck

I couldn't agree more with regard to the cost-effectiveness of robotic science in space as opposed to the human-conducted variety. And I strongly suspect that the further away from the home planet the expirments and data gathering take place the cost differential will rise exponentially. The inefficiency of manned space science was an especially ripe target for the snarky American Physical Society blog “What's New” hosted by Bob Park, an emeritus Physics professor at the University of Maryland. Sadly, Dr. Park suffered a severe stroke about two years ago and has not yet resumed blogging. Below is the link to the archive of his posts,
Your final sentence alluded to a serious problem that was discussed on the science website PhysOrg just last week; namely the dearth of grant funding for young scientists. 7-8 years ago I stumbled upon a blog hosted by a young woman working on her PhD in neuroscience at the U of Michigan and, although she's long since given up the blog, we've kept in occasional touch since then. She finished the PhD (it dealt with the neurology of hearing loss) and she went on to a multi-year post-doc on the same issue at Stanford. Last I heard from her a couple of months ago she's squarely behind this 8 ball and is exploring alternative life paths. It would be far better for the country and the world if the the planned expenditures for the development of the capability to get humans to Mars were redirected toward science funding instead.

Babak Makkinejad

ex PFC Chuck
Thank you for your kind words.


I agree with your comment about DARPA approach. In my opinion ARPA-E was a good move and further validates DARPA model.


Great stuff.
Off topic- but the DOJ and FBI are recommending charges against former General Petraeus for giving classified information(while head of the CIA) to his girlfriend. They found classified information on her computer which purporteldy came from him.
Stay tuned.



In the acknowledgement section at the
end of the paper it is stated that it was looked
at by five anonymous reviewers. That is very unusual, almost always a paper is looked at by just one or two reviewers which is another reason to take the research seriously.



"... have only managed to suck scarce funding ..." This complaint was probably made to the Pharoh Necho II who, if Herodotus is correct, funded a Phoenician expedition through the Gates of Hercules and around Africa. Circumnavigating Africa (again) had to wait two thousand years until in was accomplished by Vasco da Gama

Babak Makkinejad

And Chinese discovered America, as did Leif Erikson later and nothing came out of those either.

There is a book on Planet Jupiter that is a review of knowledge about that planet circa 2004.


It basically contains a survey of all aspects of the Jupiter & its satellites together with references to more detailed scientific papers.

I estimate that the cost of gathering that knowledge - through robotic probes that collected and transmitted data to Earth and the analysis of data by planetary scientists (professors, post-docs, graduate students, programmers, etc.) in about $ 1 billion.

Perhaps $ 2 billion.

There is no way that data could have been captured by manned space-craft at that price.

And you can buy that book for a couple of hundred dollars.

There is more knowledge in that book than the last 3000 years.


"It’s called stromatolite formation. The pictures in Wiki show both ancient fossilized stroma and current ones forming in Australia."

I resent being called a microbial mat.


Walrus, on closer inspection, I believe it is a picture of Paul Hogan. As we say, you're off the hook.


Faroe, I do believe you have this right with a combination of human and machine exploration. I could see that working at Mars. Robotic exploration is effective and we simply do not yet have the technology for safe and speedy human deep space flight. But, again, Mars might be in reach and the question at head of this whole thread still is tantalizing. Are we at the threshold of proving life started, independently, on another planet?

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