Utah or Bust? Busted.

Today, a couple of ‘chutes on the Genesis landing capsule failed to deploy, which resulted in a new hole in the Utah desert floor. You can read all about it here, at least until someone realizes that the HTML file name is a little optimistic. (Currently, it says “genesis_captured_040908.html”. I’m not sure “captured” is a good euphemism for “slammed into Utah.”)

This makes two NASA return missions in a row that have failed: Columbia in February 2003 and now Genesis. It’s possible they may still recover some usable material from Genesis, but the fact remains that a simple parachute deployment mechanism seems to have failed. My guess is that this is another part that NASA had to order on the cheap because of budget constraints. (We had to send another soldier to Iraq, you know.)

The “better, faster, cheaper” mantra that NASA has been forced to recite for the last couple of decades is clearly affecting the quality of our space missions. Yes, we were able to get all three Mars landers successfully to their destinations, and that is no small feat. But we also lost a space shuttle, its payload, and the lives of the people aboard in that same time period. Genesis was a relatively inexpensive mission; it only cost $236 million, cheap compared to the $131 billion (and counting) that the War in Iraq has cost us so far.

There are advantages to the BFC mantra, though. More and more often, “cheaper” means “unmanned.” Though I’m all for manned space exploration, I think it’s smart to pave the way with unmanned missions. The research and technology required for the unmanned missions advances robotics and computer science research, and being a technogeek, I think that’s good. But the best part about unmanned missions is that they don’t cost us of human lives.

Space, like any new frontier, carries inherent risk to human life, and the people who sign up for the missions know that going in, just as our American ancestors did when they packed up the conestogas and headed west along the Santa Fe Trail. However, we do have an advantage that our ancestors did not: robotics. Why throw away lives senselessly when we can build robotic missions first?

(Of course, this leads to Asimovian ideas of the rights of machines vs. humans, and touches on a story I wrote in the late ’80s, in which an intelligent computer named Sara (after Alan Turing’s mother) feels discriminated against. But for the purposes of this blog entry, we don’t need to go there.)

Suffice it to say that the loss of research and equipment in the failure of the Genesis mission is sad, but not tragic. Had there been lives lost, it would have been tragic. As it is, we still stand to learn some things about the mission, the particles collected, parachute deployment, and our own ingenuity, and at a monetary cost about a tenth of a percent of the monetary cost of the War in Iraq. That’s quite a bit to learn, I think. It’s too bad that ratio won’t hold for the War, or for the 1,000+ coalition servicemen and uncounted Iraqis who have died as a result of it.

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