Amistics of Human Spaceflight, or How Autonomy and Miniaturization can be the Enemies of Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

File:Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. An Old-Order Amishman working in his repair shop. Good machine sho . . . - NARA - 521078.jpgNeal Stephenson in his novel Seveneves coined the term “Amistics”, deriving from how some Amish people have strong preferences for certain technological paths to achieve the same goal. For instance, these Amish folk swear off modern technology, which for them means electricity. Therefore, they cannot use electric power tools for their furniture-making. Instead, they use just-as-modern air-powered tools. Similar productivity, same result, but they’re able to honor their cultural proclivities. In Seveneves (not to spoil it for Jon), similar proclivities develop in the groups mentioned in the book.

Spaceflight is rife with examples of this. One is the pro-vs-anti hydrogen schools of thought. Dumb, mass-produced expendable vs high tech reusable. But probably the most important for the future of humanity is the amistics of robots vs humans.

It gets started at the beginning of the space race in another example of technology path-dependence. Due to the US’s earlier start, America’s nuclear weapon technology had significantly more advanced miniaturization technology than the Soviets. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, the US also maintained a very strong advantage in electronics and computerization. Additionally, the US had an advantage in long-range bomber technology. This led to the fact that the Russians focused on ICBMs while the US focused on long range bombers. And secondly, that the first Russian launch vehicles were ENORMOUS in comparison to the US’s. Russia developed the R7 and the Proton in part to be able to lob their nuclear weapons, which (from my limited knowledge) lacked both the miniaturization and precision of their American counterparts. The R7 was so big, that they could use it to launch Sputnik to orbit. And later on, the first crewed launch (Vostok), and eventually even up to 3 people on a single rocket that is used to this day. The US, on the other hand, was caught by surprise by the advanced Soviet ICBMs. Large ICBMs like Proton were not required due to better targeting and miniaturization, thus the US had to develop heavy launch vehicles intently for spaceflight purposes.

And thus the Soviets racked up success after success in the early history of human spaceflight due to the path dependency of tech development. It was only after a concerted, civilian-focused effort of development that the US exceeded the Russians, by an enormous margin.

But the Soviets maintained some of these advantages. They pressed their early leads in human spaceflight and while the US rushed to the Moon, the Soviets developed crewed space stations designed for surveillance. The Almaz program launched Salyut 2, 3, and 5. Soviet military personnel conducted surveillance from orbit in real time. The Americans, for their part, had a similar program, the Manned Orbital Laboratory, or MOL, based on Gemini technology. An uncrewed demo of the capsule was launched, but the program was cancelled soon (in 1969) as it became clear that automatic satellite surveillance was sufficiently advanced that it wasn’t required nor worth the cost. The US’s lead in automation again struck a blow to human spaceflight.

About a decade after (1978), the Soviets came to a similar conclusion and ended their manned orbital surveillance program. But not before advancing their space station technology sufficiently to place them at a Image result for soyuz rocketdramatic advantage over the US in long-duration human spaceflight (as measured by orbital refueling, human spaceflight duration records, etc), an advantage that STILL has not quite yet been eclipsed (although it’s close). And because of the early focus on large launch vehicles and human spaceflight over miniaturization and automation, the Russian human spaceflight program survived the fall of the Soviet Union and to this day US NASA astronauts rely on Russian vehicles to get space.

Now, humans make terrible surveillance satellites, but these historical examples should make us think twice about whether the best way to push for a future where millions are living and working in space is to invest in miniaturization and automation. Because in my opinion, the most likely result is that any useful things a human can do in space will become obsoleted by robotics much faster than otherwise, thus reducing the need for humans in space at all. That’s not a winning strategy, IMHO. So I hope to blog later about how we can use humans in space MORE, in direct contradiction to the current trendy meme of increasing robotic automation in space.
We need to:
1) Find things for HUMANS to do in space.
2) Make it cheaper for humans to go to space.
3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space.

We need a pro-human amistics, not the current pro-automation amistics (even when it doesn’t make sense, like when Elon tried to fully automate Model 3 production and had to switch over to human assembly). We need to engineer systems very close to the humans, including perhaps modifying the human body itself (or at least developing advanced biomedical countermeasures) to make humans more competitive with robotics in space.

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3 Responses to Amistics of Human Spaceflight, or How Autonomy and Miniaturization can be the Enemies of Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

  1. gbaikie says:

    –We need to:
    1) Find things for HUMANS to do in space.
    2) Make it cheaper for humans to go to space.
    3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space.–

    What need humans in space for is exploration.
    For exploration which is important [rather than pretty pictures] human can do more exploration and humans can quickly do a lot exploration.
    And if you bring back sample returns, then it should be a manned exploration.
    As far as I know, if exploring for minerals to mine on Earth, one gets “sample returns”.
    Robots or satellite help narrow down where to look, but in the end you send people to the site to determine if it’s mineable [robots are not used for this].
    In terms of possible mining of water in the lunar in lunar poles. You need to find a site which should less than 1 square km. And one could mine just 1 square km for lunar water for more than decade. And everything depends upon the success of mining water water within the first five years.
    So one needs lunar sample returns of areas which are smaller than 1 square km, and know average amount water in a 100 square km area or larger, is fairly useless.

    In terms of Mars, it seems to me, that robotic exploration alone can determine if Mars settlement could viable. The only possible use of robotic alone exploration of Mars might be, to determine if life exists on Mars. And only purpose if finding life on Mars is to determine, that perhaps we should not have human settlements on Mars.
    Finding reasons why we should not have settlement on Mars can seen as valid reason to explore Mars, but I am bit confused why we should be happy to find life on Mars.
    If there is life on Mars than we should shift focus on Mercury- which should as lifeless as the Moon. And the mere excess desire to find life on Mars, should also force us to abandon further Mars exploration.
    I think finding any life on Mars would difficult to do, and accordingly I think Mars should be explored, soon.
    And if we do manned exploration of Mars and at some point do find evidence of alien life, basically we stop exploring Mars while determine all possible threats connected related to this alien life, and would outlaw human settlements until such time as the risk can be fully evaluated [keep crew there in quarantine, and things to shorten the time the crew have remain quarantine [spend lots of money and work on it around the clock- or it’s emergency type situation until the threat can be fully assessed].
    The only good news of finding alien life on Mars, is finding it before any human settlement is attempted. Now alien or earth-like life on Mars may not be problem, but it’s something would would need to be assessed.

    Cheaper for human going into space is mostly about having rocket fuel at destination you sending humans. Or humans are mostly costly, because they need to return to Earth and robots don’t need to be returned to Earth.
    So finding mineable water on the Moon, will lead to having it cheaper to send humans into space.

    — 3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space–
    Well for manned exploration, I would not have NASA mining stuff, in foolish attempt to make it cheaper.
    One needs commercial mining to make it cheaper.
    What is making it cheaper to go into space is the global satellite market.
    And we need more markets in space.
    And the most important market to start, is selling lunar water on the lunar surface.
    Which requires exploration of lunar poles.
    And if mineable water is found, then it require a lunar electrical market. And lunar electrical market get us beyond Amish living or brings the Moon into the industrial age.
    So allows other markets, allows government bases, and etc.
    And I think exporting lunar LOX off the lunar surface and possibly lunar water, is needed in order to mine lunar water- allows mining lunar water to be profitable.

    And if one has lunar rocket fuel being made, then this make Mars settlements more viable. But if you somehow get Mars settlement first, one doesn’t need to mine lunar water to make lunar rocket fuel. So assuming the Moon doesn’t have minable water, if you “somehow” get mars settlements, one could mine the Moon without having mineable lunar water.
    It seems exploring the moon should be very quick and easy to do. And it seems Mars will harder and take longer. Simply due to only small area of Moon and only the surface which needs to be explored. Mars in vast area and will require drilling and underground exploration.

  2. Andrew_Swallow says:

    Someone needs to tell the Amish people that lightning is electricity. Lightning is mentioned in the Bible for example Psalm 148:8.

  3. Archibald says:

    We explored that question some years ago at

    My personal conclusion was that humans remain superior to robots in
    a) Skylab = fixing broken things in orbit
    b) Apollo 15 – 16 – 17: geology (the orange soil and genesis rock) and
    c) cattering very complex experiments in orbit (Skylab again, think ATM)

    Basically robots need everything planned in advance, with zero surprise along the way, because they can’t face the unknown. In geology and Hubble / Skylab servicing, that’s bad, and humans are superior.

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