Automation could help the human race build colonies on other planets such as Mars, ex-NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman believes.
Reisman is a former mission specialist astronaut at NASA and was a crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Space Shuttle Discovery and the Space Shuttle Atlantis, as well as serving as a long duration crewmember on the International Space Station.
He is now a consultant at SpaceX, as well as being a professor of astronautics practice at the University of Southern California.
Speaking at Dynatrace Perform, a virtual event from American software company Dynatrace, Reisman shared how advances in technology have impacted space exploration.
It’s a well-known fact that the computer onboard Apollo 11 had a processor less powerful than today’s smartphones, but the Apollo Guidance Computer was state-of-the art at the time and instrumental to the first moon landing. Since then, computers have advanced at a breakneck speed.
Reisman explained that in the early days, NASA was at the forefront of innovation:
“It’s interesting how it evolved over time. In the early days when we were rushing to beat the Soviets to the Moon and be the first to land a man on the Moon. We were leaning forward and being very innovative. For example, the computer that was in the Saturn 5 rocket and the spacecraft that went to the moon was a digital programmable computer that was [30cm] big. During that time computers filled up rooms. So this was really at the leading edge of that technology and they needed that to be able to go to the moon and they were willing to take that risk.”
However, the occurrence of tragedies such as the Challenger disaster in 1986, in which the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart during flight, killing its seven crew members, and the Columbia disaster in 2003, where the space shuttle disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. Consequently, NASA changed its approach to taking risks.
A risk-averse mindset at NASA
Reisman believes that such incidents created a risk-averse mindset at NASA, which existed for a number of years:
“Over time, the appetite for risk-taking diminished at NASA and the reason why was we had some major tragedies. In 1967 we lost the crew of Apollo 1 to a fire on the pad. We got a little more risk-averse after that. But we didn’t slow down too much as within two years Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin] were walking around on the moon. But as time went on we had Challenger and we had Columbia. After each of those events our risk aversion was growing and growing… We went from trying to manage risk to trying to eliminate risk.
“And the only way you can eliminate risk is just not to do anything. Not to fly, keep the rockets on the ground. And we were reaching a point where for fear of an unintended outcome of a hastily made change we were locking everything down and basically doing the same thing we always had done.”
NASA has been criticised in the past for being “tradition-bound” and Reisman believes that the involvement of the private sector has helped usher in innovation in the past few years.
In 2006, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was awarded its first contract from NASA, and since then, SpaceX, as well as other private companies such as Blue Origin, has completed a number of contracts for NASA.
In 2010 NASA launched the Commercial Crew Development Program in order to “develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station” by working with private companies.
Last year, SpaceX became the first private organisation to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
A Silicon Valley mindset to space exploration
Reisman believes that the commercial space sector has brought what he calls a “Silicon Valley mentality” to space exploration:
“People in NASA said ‘hey maybe we can experiment. What if we don’t micromanage so much and we let the private sector innovate.’ Tell them what we want but don’t tell them how to do it exactly. That’s when the commercial cargo programme started as a bit of an experiment just to see what might happen and one of the providers was SpaceX.
“They got a bunch of money from the government to make a cargo vehicle and they did it for an order of magnitude lower price than what NASA expected to have to pay for a rocket like that and they made the Falcon 9 rocket. And they took the next big step and they decided to do it for commercial crew. And so now you have Space X, you have Blue Origin all these other companies that kind of have a Silicon Valley mentality where status quo is the enemy. We’re constantly trying to improve and try and make it better. That’s a very different mindset and leveraging innovation not only from inside our industry but advances outside the industry.”
Automation heralds a new age of space exploration
He explained that another significant way in which space exploration has changed in recent years is through the advancement of automation. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has worked with the likes of SpaceX and Boeing to develop control systems that incorporate greater levels of automation.
“Last May we launched Bob and Doug on the SpaceX rocket in the Dragon spacecraft up to the Space Station,” said Reisman. “People watching on television were amazed at how sleek the spacesuits looked, how the interior of the capsule was all futuristic and how they used touchscreens even to fly the Dragon. That caught everybody’s attention but the thing to me that was the most significant technological advance was not those things that you can see but the things that you cannot see and specifically the software.
“The automation and the capability of this vehicle as far as its intelligence is so much greater than the vehicles that I was flying either the space shuttle and even the Space Station. On the shuttle we had to do everything ourselves. It was basically all manual because the processors, the computers on that shuttle were designed in the 1970s. The bandwidth and the processing speed was lamentably slow.”
He explained that this is a far cry from space shuttles of the past:
“As a member of the flight crew of Atlantis and its space shuttle, I was there at what I consider to be the very pinnacle of human in the loop as far as human command and control over a vehicle’s systems and its trajectory, where it’s heading, where it’s going. We did stuff that we would never ever do again because we had to work around the limitations of the processors we had in that vehicle. Like in certain emergency cases we had to do calculations in our head…it’s insane to allocate that function to a human given what we can do today with software. And we will never do that again.
“So in a way I take pride that I was in this antiquated thing but it was at the pinnacle of the demands placed on the crew, but we shouldn’t do that. The thing that humans still bring to the table which is really valuable is the ability to be flexible and adaptable.”
“We have the technology to go to Mars now. It’s just a question of spending the money”
Looking to the future, Reisman believes that automation will have an important role in manned space missions to Mars and potential colonisation:
“The technology really is what enables us to do the things we do and all the advances we make in technology, including advances in AI and automation, really will enable us to do things like maybe one day getting to Mars. And that’s why Elon founded [SpaceX]. The whole purpose of the company is to make human life multi-planetary. In order to do that you have a colony on Mars that is self-sustaining so that if one day the ships from Earth stop coming the colony can continue. You need a lot of people and a lot of capabilities up there…there’s no way were going to train 100,000 people to be astronauts the same way I trained to be an astronaut so that’s where the automation really comes in handy. If we can get those people, have minimum training requirements, get them to Mars and have them do what they do best up there, then maybe we’ll have a flourishing colony up there some day.”
He believes that humans one day colonising other planets such as Mars is a “possible outcome”:
“We have the technology to go to Mars now. It’s just a question of spending the money, providing the resources and attention to people and devoting our talents to making it happen. But if we do it now it’s going to be risky. It’s not going to be as safe as flying to the Space Station for example because it’s a much bigger challenge. Once you leave Earth’s orbit you’re committing not to a short duration of flight but you’re committing to probably multiple years. And there’s no cutting it short. You can’t abort and come home. If we had an emergency on the Space Station we could get down to the ground and into a hospital within 24 hours. Once you leave for Mars you’re not going to see a hospital for three years.
“The other bigger risk is it’s a much more hostile environment. When you’re in Earth’s orbit you’re still below the Earth’s magnetic field so you’re still protected by and large from the radiation that’s out there. But once you go to the Moon or to Mars then you’re exposed to that. And we don’t know exactly what it does to human tissue. Either we could spend time outside of the Earth’s magnetic sphere, for example on the Moon, and gradually learn and over time figure out what that does to people. But that’s generational. Or we could just to for it and say this might be very dangerous but the reward of colonising a planet is worth that risk. And that’s a decision that’s above my paygrade!”