Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thoroughly Modern Fantasy: Europa Report

Have been working on a wide variety of projects over the summer (the history of DEFCON alerts, a kids' book, and an article on helicopters for a luxury magazine called The Private Journey) but now it's time to catch up on the blog.

Some buzz in the last week in reviews about Europa Report, about the movie rising to an accurate depiction of space exploration.

Hmm - certainly compared to Armageddon, which was lucky to get even a 39% rating in Rotten Tomatoes.

Once the premise is accepted -- that a company would send people out to look for life by landing on the surface of the Jovian  moon Europa -- the procedures are  fine enough. But the plot line isn't accurate in the sense that any such human-led plan will be organized and carried out, now that robots and remote sensing are so capable and offer so much value. The JPL advisers were polite about this, referring in interviews to the importance of robots in planetary exploration.

For an article in Air&Space about "Humans or robots -- who's driving the spacecraft?" I asked former astronaut Story Musgrave his thoughts on the issue. He sees it as a partnership, but with robots touching down first.

"There's a robotics program and a human program, and we've kept them separate," he said. "True exploration of space is not happening. We need to integrate humans with robots." He illustrated with a Mars scenario. "The way to do this is to sent robots first – design and operate so that they lead the way for humans. As opposed to just doing the robot thing."