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Zubrin on Hubble Robots

Cragg Hines opines in the Houston Chronical on the Hubble decision and a possible robotic servicing mission. After calling Sean O’Keefe a “piece of work” in the very first sentence, he proceeds to dismiss the robotic mission concept as a CYA move designed more to blunt the criticism of O’Keefe’s unpopular decision than to produce tangible results.

After a recitation of the usual arguments against abandoning Hubble, he then turns to Dr. Bob for his unsurprisingly sympathetic opinion:

But O’Keefe’s temporizing is not washing with some scientists and engineers.

“There isn’t a robot on this planet that you can send downstairs to change a fuse in your basement,” said Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer and president of the Mars Society. “This is utter nonsense … . I’ve not run into a single person who is not under O’Keefe’s orders who agrees with him.”

His assessment of the fuse-changing capablities of ground-based robots could be accurate, but it isn’t relevant to the prospects of a Hubble servicing mission.

For one thing, we already know — having done it a few times before — how to send spacecraft into orbit, and to change orbits once there. Sending a robot across a nearly-empty environment where navigation is a matter of well-understood physics and mathematics is vastly different from pushing one down the basement steps, forcing it to deal with a complex, human-optimized environment with unpredictable obstacles. For another, unlike the basement fuse box, Hubble does not presuppose a great deal of dexterity on the part of those servicing it. It is already designed to be retrieved by a robot (a robot arm, to be more precise) and serviced by astronauts with dexterity diminished by the bulky gloves of their pressure suits.

It may be reading too much into what was likely an off-the-cuff comment, but it’s important to reject the “utter nonsense” portion of his quote. There doesn’t seem to be anything that makes a robotic servicing mission impossible as such (though how difficult it might be depends on what exactly it would be expected to accomplish), and the idea merits serious consideration rather than a contemptuous dismissal. In his antipathy towards anything that might further the case against a manned servicing mission, Zubrin misses the commercial potential in the technology and skills developed for a robotic Hubble rescue, which the hypothetical fuse-changing robot or even a restored Shuttle mission would lack. As much as I agree with the goal of getting humans to Mars, it should be done in tandem with (or by means of) a broader development of human activities and especially commercial activities in space if a human presence on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system is to be sustainable.

Whether or not one agrees with the decision not to fly Shuttle to Hubble, the decision has been made, and will be difficult to overturn. Out of that decision, however, there appears to be emerging an opportunity for broadening the base of economic activity space. Sabotaging such an opportunity, when there is only a small chance of overturning the decision, is an unwise gamble.

UPDATE: Speaking of satellite rescue robots, Orbital Recovery is in the news today (4/29), with the announcement of additional financial support for the development of their orbital rescue system. [via HobbySpace]

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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

April 2004
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