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Human vs. Robotic Spaceflight

Arguments about pursuit of human vs. robotic spaceflight continue unabated. Nothing is new here. They started at the very beginning of the space age.

Here is some history.

Excerpts from Chris Kraft's Flight. My Life in Mission Control, 2011

Chris Kraft played a key role in establishing mission control for the U.S. manned flight program; he was the first NASA flight director. He served as director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, later named Johnson Space Center, from 1972–1982.

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Chris Kraft, Fllight. My Life in Mission Control, 2001, pp. 123, 124

Jack Kennedy had won the [presidential] election [in 1960], and while we were back at the Cape [Canaveral] getting ready to launch MR-2 with a chimpanzee in the capsule, he appointed Jerome Wiesner as his science adviser. Almost immediately, Wiesner released a report that challenged the whole idea of putting men into space. By the next day, simply by calling people like Dr. James Van Allen for comment, the press had fanned it into a "manned vs. unmanned" controversy that is still acidic forty years later.

Van Allen's instruments on the first U.S. satellites discovered the radiation belts surrounding Earth. Now he became an overnight expert on space policy by telling reporters that automatic probes could do more for science, and do it cheaper, than men. Congressional critics jumped onto the Van Allen bandwagon, and a pro-and-con debate emerged from nowhere.

By then, I was spending more and more time with reporters ... The press were growing in number, with more of them covering Project Mercury each week. I took the interviews and did the briefings, at least in part, to help educate reporters on what we were doing and how things worked ...

I developed a standard answer when reporters asked questions that moved into the political arena or were otherwise sensitive: "Those are good subjects, and I have no business discussing them." Since I was quickly acquiring a reputation for telling it like it is, I could make the answer stick. But now I was being asked about the manned-unmanned controversy and I gave a straight answer: "It's a ridiculous argument. In my opinion, we need both of them."

I stood by that philosophy then and I stand by it now. Robot spacecraft can do only so much. They can't yet duplicate the human eye, the human ability to draw inferences, or the quickness in making emergency decisions. And no matter how good radar and other sensing devices may get, the best obstruction-avoidance device ever conceived is the human pilot.

The Wiesner Report was quickly disavowed by Kennedy himself. He supported Mercury and would continue to do so from the Oval Office. It wouldn't be long before he did much more.


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