Jeffrey A. Hoffman at MIT – 2002 MA. Space Grant Consortium Public Lecture

[MUSIC PLAYING] YOUNG: My name is Larry Young. I’m the director of the
Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium. And one of the great
pleasures that’s associated with this
position is the opportunity to recruit and introduce
an outstanding lecturer for the annual
Space Grant lecture. As I was thinking this morning
about appropriate things to say to introduce
Jeff Hoffman, and at the same time
trying to eat my breakfast and read the paper, I saw
today’s copy of The New York Times with another set of
absolutely mind-blowing images taken from the Hubble
Space Telescope. And it as many of
you are aware, one of the people who
gets prime credit for the repair of
the space telescope is our speaker
today, Jeff Hoffman. Jeff has returned to MIT after
a long, long trip, including five voyages into space as a
science astronaut and mission specialist with the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration. Prior to that time, Jeff
was here at the Center for Space Research as
a radio astronomer. AUDIENCE: X-ray. YOUNG: X-ray astronomer. Well, they’re all non-optical. As an engineering astronomer,
he received his PhD at Harvard, was an undergraduate
at Amherst College, which also gave him an
honorary doctor’s degree. And he is now back here at
MIT working in the aeronautics and astronautics department
with faculty and students. He will be speaking to
us today on the subject of 21st-century space
exploration with humans and robots, the 13th
annual Space Grant lecture. Jeff. [APPLAUSE] HOFFMAN: Thanks, Larry. Yeah. NASA’s budgets are tight. And the fact that I’m
here means that we don’t have any travel expenses
for this Space Grant lecture. So that’s a big step
in the right direction. I noticed for the
department lunch, they served some petit fours. Now, before I came here, after
I had left the astronaut office, I actually spent
four years in France representing NASA in Europe,
working at the US embassy. And it was nice to see
the petit fours for lunch. But then I realized
that here it is May 1, and we’re all here working. So there’s no question that
we’re not in France anymore. But this is actually my
first big lecture here at MIT to the department
and other people. So really, I’m delighted to be
able to share some of my views on exploring space, which
is what I really consider– I’ve devoted a major part
of my life’s work to. And since I’m going to discuss
the role of humans and robots in the exploration of space, I
should explain at the beginning that I consider exploration
to be everything that expands the realm
of human experience and of human consciousness. And despite having devoted
a major part of my career to human spaceflight, I want
to state at the beginning my belief that the vast
majority of space exploration has been and always will
be performed by machines. And so it’s important
to appreciate the uniqueness of our
biochemical based minds but at the same
time, to understand how our minds interact
with machines to project our consciousness to regions
that we can’t physically explore because exploration
doesn’t have to be physical. I started my
professional career, as Larry said, as an astronomer. And I’ve always
considered astronomy to be exploration, even
though astronomy by definition is the study of wherever
it is that you are not. And while astronomy
may be passive compared to actual
physical exploration, I like to remind people
that while Columbus, a great explorer, gave
us a new continent, Galileo actually gave
us whole new worlds. And Galileo, as you may know,
never set foot outside Italy. And in our lifetime
as human beings, we’ve explored the surfaces
of all these worlds that Galileo discovered
and many others besides, and we’ve never physically
traveled any farther than our own moon. So if our telescopes,
in some sense, are the metaphorical vessels
which carry our minds out to the stars, then
it’s certainly fair to say that Hubble is
the flagship of the fleet because it has taken
us deep into space and back in time to the
youth of our universe. We’ve all seen this famous
deep field photograph, which was taken by having Hubble point
into a tiny part of the sky, which as far as other
telescopes were concerned, was basically empty. And of course, it revealed a
multitude of unseen galaxies very far away. And I show it as a reminder
that, if this is not exploration, then I
certainly don’t know what is. And of course, Hubble has
many partners up in space exploring at other
wavelengths, as well as very powerful partners
on the ground, which are using some incredible
techniques to penetrate the atmosphere, which I think
would seem almost like magic to Galileo, or even to Hubble. Now, an important
theme of my talk is going to be that
exploration goes beyond just scientific
research into other realms of human experience. And this is certainly
true for astronomy, which engages not only
our scientific curiosity but other aspects
of our humanity– our intellects, as
they travel far away with the ever-increasing
gaze of our telescope. But I think they bring our
emotions and our spirits with us. And that’s why we get on the
front page of The New York Times pictures of
the Hubble telescope. That’s why the public has
responded with such enthusiasm to these magnificent pictures,
like this famous picture, which I look at it as a picture
almost of creation itself. It’s the biblical, let
there be light, if you will. Well, I’ve begun my talk briefly
by talking about astronomy because that’s where I began
my own interest in space in my career. But I don’t propose to dwell
on this aspect of space exploration, except to mention
my own very good fortune in having played a role in
repairing the initially flawed Hubble telescope. And this will be a
jumping off point for some of my observations
about humans and robotics. Having been both an
astronomer and an astronaut, for me one of the most
satisfying aspects of working on Hubble was
being able to unite the world of space astronomy,
which generally prefers automated spacecraft, with the
world of human spaceflight, which I’ve come
to know quite well through my own
personal experience. And despite my statement at the
beginning about the importance of machines in
exploring space, I do feel strongly about the
value of human presence. And I intend to talk about the
human experience of spaceflight and the human dimension
of space exploration but not in the context of
man versus machine or humans versus robots, which
I really consider to be a false conflict. Robots, like all other
machines, are tools. We use them to expand
our physical capabilities when we work with them. And we use them to operate
remotely in places that we cannot go ourselves. And the relations of
humans and machines has certainly evolved
as our machines have become more sophisticated. And this evolution
will undoubtedly continue with great benefits
for the exploration of space, in which telescopes and
satellites, probes, robots, and humans all
have roles to play. Now, when people first find out
that I’m an astronaut, almost inevitably, the question that
they ask me before any others is, what’s it like in space? It’s a very simple question,
but think about it for a minute. What’s it like in space? This is a very human
question that we would never think of asking a machine,
even though our automated space probes do a superb job
of measuring temperatures and pressures and many other
aspects of their environment. And this, though, is not
what people are asking. They want to know, what
is it like to be in space? Our probes send back data, but
humans can share experience. A very important part of
the tradition of exploration is to report on your
travels, your discoveries, to share your experiences
with other people, and ideally, to make
the new territory that you explore
part of human culture and human consciousness. So before I talk
about robotics, let me honor this tradition
of exploration and share a little bit some
of the human experiences of this new
environment of space. My first spaceflight,
which was in April of 1985, made me the 162nd
human space traveler, of which the 400th blasted off
just a little over a year ago. Now, this is a
large enough number of people to make going
into space perhaps no longer the cutting edge exploration
that it once was. But nevertheless,
anybody who who’s sitting on top of a loaded
rocket ready to make their first trip into
space can very rightly feel that they are embarking on
a personal journey of discovery and exploration. And after all, you can explore
a new environment for yourself, even if you are not the first
human being to go there. So what do you see and feel
and do when you go into space? Well, first of all, it is an
absolutely incredible ride. Now, I hope that
someday we’re going to have gentler and safer
ways of getting into space– cheaper as well. In a sense, I’d like to
think that two of my flights, which were devoted to testing
the tethered satellite system, combined with advances
in carbon nanotube technology and certainly some
imaginative engineering, will ultimately lead
to a space elevator, such as Arthur C. Clarke
described in his book The Fountains of Paradise,
which I strongly recommend if you’re interested
in tethers and elevators in space. I mean, wouldn’t it be
great to go into a cabin and press the 42k button,
and then a few hours later, you step out and
you’re at geostationary orbit? Certainly, the long term
exploration and utilization of space absolutely
depends on making access safer and cheaper. But for now, if you
like excitement, well, it is a pretty
great adrenaline rush when the boosters
light and the ground falls straight away
from you, and you break the sound barrier in
45 seconds going straight up. And then just in
another few minutes, the big blue sky of Earth
has turned into the blackness of space, and there you are. And you look out the window, and
the first thing that you notice is that your whole
perspective has changed. You fly on an airplane
and you look out, and you can see entire
cities below you. But from an orbiting
spacecraft, you can see countries or
even whole continents, like the Himalayas and
Tibet here to the right, India to the left. I’ll never forget during
our Hubble mission, where we were up at 600
kilometers, which is about as high as the shuttle
ever goes, and we were flying right over Houston
in the middle of the night. And I could look out
one window and see the lights of Los Angeles
and the other window at the same time and see the
lights of the East Coast, with Washington, New
York, and Boston. Now, during that Hubble
mission, we were pretty busy. But every once in
a while, we had to wait a few minutes
while we were outside while the ground did some checks
on a piece of instrumentation that we had just installed. And during one of those
moments, the arm operator flew me out over
the wing so that I could take a photograph of what
the entire payload bay looked like, so I could share with
people an astronaut’s eye view of what it’s
like being in space. Now, this is not
an advertisement for the Flat Earth Society. I can tell you from personal
experience the Earth is round. I circle it every 90 minutes. But of course, wide
angle lenses produce some interesting optical
effects, as does, actually, the highly
curved reflective surface of the telescope itself. And my favorite
of those images is this one, which I call the
transparent Hubble telescope. So you can see the Earth
right through the telescope. And I will leave the
explanation as an exercise for the students. But for everybody, as you
look at these pictures, quite seriously, trying
to think about, how would you program
a robot to look for humor in the environment
that it’s exploring, or beauty, for that matter? And talking of beauty, when we
installed new magnetometers, we had to go all the way up to
the top of the telescope, which was about 15 meters– I don’t know whether to
say above the shuttle because you can see the
Earth down below us. But in any case, we were
moving pretty far away from our home territory. And for me, this was one of the
most spectacular and emotional moments that I experienced in
space because there I was– I’m the one with the red
stripes around my legs. I was floating between
heaven and earth, really, attached to the arm
just by a slack stainless steel cable. And every few minutes– again, when we had a
little bit of spare time while they were
doing the checkout on the new magnetometers– I could let go and become
a free floating satellite. And it was really quite
an extraordinary feeling, especially if I turned my back
to the shuttle, in which case I really had the feeling of kind
of being lost in space, which was quite exhilarating,
but certainly, no place to be for anybody
who suffers from vertigo. And I’ll remind
you that crews who are going to be spacewalking
outside the International Space Shuttle are going to see
the shuttle even farther away than we did, as the
station gets bigger and bigger. So that’s a little bit about
what it looks like in space. What about the question
of, how does it feel in space, which is
obviously more subjective and harder to communicate. Well, I’m sure you can
appreciate the initial euphoria that I felt as soon as
the engines shut down after my first launch
because after all those years of
dreaming and waiting, I was actually in orbit
and weightless in space. I actually couldn’t stop
smiling for about 15 minutes. I looked out the window to
see how fast we were going. But of course, there’s no wind. There’s no noise. There’s no vibration. And so there’s no
real feeling of speed. But nevertheless, when
you fly over San Francisco and you look at your watch,
and 10 minutes later you’re over Cape Cod, you
know you’re going fast. Now, there are some very strong
physical sensations involved in the initial experience of
weightlessness, not all of them pleasant. Right when the
engines shut off, I felt like I was
hanging upside down. Now, of course, there is
no up or down in space. But that’s the sensation you get
because without gravity pulling blood down into
your legs, it does tend to rush up into your head. I’m sure everybody
here has probably hung upside down for a little while. But have you tried doing
it for hours or days? You can get quite
a headache, really. And also, when you
release gravity’s pressure on your spinal
column, it actually increases its height
by an inch or two, which may be very ego boosting
if you’re just a tad under six feet, but it probably
has a physical effect similar to what
happens when they put people on
medieval torture racks and tried to stretch them. And then, of course,
there’s space sickness, which results from a total
confusion of your body’s vestibular system, which is
responsible for maintaining your balance here
on earth and suffers from the lack of the
expected gravity induced cues when you get up into orbit. Now, actually, we can treat most
of these unpleasant symptoms pharmacologically. But you should realize that
the initial accommodation to weightlessness does
involve significant stress. But humans are
remarkably adaptable. And after a few days in
space, just about everybody gets over the initial
problems of adapting to this new
environment and starts really enjoying the experience
of actually being in space– floating, weightless, looking
at the world beneath you, space all around you. And everybody, of course,
reacts in their own way. But I found that
being in orbit almost universally evokes a
sense of awe, real awe, in the deepest
sense of the word. I love climbing mountains. And for me, I think it’s
not dissimilar to what a lot of people feel when they
go into the high mountains, where you have to work hard
in an unforgiving environment and take certain risks
to gain the summit. And on the high ground,
your view is expanded. Your mind is kind of cleared. But of course, space is higher
than the highest mountaintop. And the environment is
even more unforgiving. And the most powerful and unique
feeling in spaceflight you cannot get on a mountaintop,
and that’s the physical freedom of weightlessness itself,
which is an utter delight. For me, the
weightless experience goes beyond being just physical. It has psychological, emotional,
and maybe even spiritual dimensions. And unfortunately,
we don’t really possess the language to
adequately express this because we don’t have
the shared experience. And I find that even
pictures can’t really convey the inner feeling
of weightlessness. So I try to use
pictures symbolically. Have you ever dreamed of flying? A lot of people do. But this magic carpet
is not an illusion. We do it. Weightlessness gives you this
wonderful sense of freedom. It’s an ability to do outrageous
things which you can barely imagine on the Earth. And this joy of weightlessness
is one of the main reasons that I believe that humanity
really has a future in space because I’m convinced that
large numbers of people are going to want to
explore space personally. And they’ll be willing
to pay to do it, and they won’t be content
just to send robots. And actually, the development
of the infrastructure necessary to transport and
support large numbers of people in space will end up being a
huge boon for space exploration beyond Earth orbit. Now, I have to
make a disclaimer. I still work for NASA. I have to remind you
that NASA does not send me or my
colleagues up into space so that we can see
beautiful views or experience the physical
bliss of weightlessness. There’s no question. I’ll carry moments like this
in my memory for all my life, but we were sent up there
to do important work on all of our flights. And I’m glad to say that we did. Nowadays the work
that most astronauts are engaged in when
they go into space involves the International
Space Station. Now, my talk formally is
about space exploration. And I have to say that what
we’re doing in low Earth orbit these days is, in a sense,
not so much about exploring as learning how to live in space
comfortably and take advantage of this unique environment,
while at the same time trying to figure out eventually
how to explore further away from the Earth. But since the space station
is human spaceflight, at least for the foreseeable future,
I should make some comments about it. First of all, scientific
experimentation is one of the primary
functions of the space station. And most of us have worked in
laboratories on the Earth here, and we know what it’s like to
conceive and develop and carry out new experiments. When we find ourselves
faced with repetitive tasks, we generally try to automate
the process because nobody likes to waste time. But we don’t automate
laboratory experiments until we thoroughly
understand the systems and we’ve worked out all
the bugs because it’s almost always the case that
during the initial phases of getting a new experiment
working, there are surprises. And when you have to do
a lot of troubleshooting, you need to be personally
involved with your equipment. The time for
automation is when you understand the hardware and
the software and the processes. And that’s how terrestrial
laboratories work. We all understand that. And I have to say
that it amazes me when I hear people saying
that laboratory type research on the space station
could just as easily be carried out automatically as by
having humans involved. Now, as I said,
scientific research is an important goal
of the space station. But it’s certainly
not the only one. And the station is going
to be used extensively as a testbed for new space
technologies, I hope, such as being able to try out
more efficient solar power generation systems, for
example, or deployment mechanisms for large
foldable antennas, or closer to home,
control algorithms for large multi-satellite
constellations before we have to
commit to using these technologies for new and
expensive autonomous systems. But of all the things that I
hope the new space station can become, the most important
is as a testbed for new space robotic technology
because this is going to be one big space station. Now, we’re going to
work hard to figure out how to increase the number of
people living and working here. But even if we had
10 people on board, when you look at
all the laboratories that are imagined for here, if
we really fill up all this lab space with experiments,
then robotic technology is going to be absolutely
essential to allow human beings to fully utilize
the opportunities that the station presents. And of course,
robotic technology is also going to be essential to
eventually allow us to explore further away from Earth. This is the place
where we should be testing robotic servicing
techniques that eventually we can use to allow repair robots
to go out to the Earth Sun Lagrangian points, for instance,
to service what we expect in a decade or so are going
to be fleets of astronomical, solar, and Earth
observing satellites, much in the same way that we
astronauts serviced Hubble. Now, after we repaired the
Hubble Space Telescope, I was often asked
whether robots couldn’t have performed these
repairs as well as we did. Well, the answer was,
and still is, no. They could not. Neither then nor now
do we have space robots sophisticated enough or with
sufficient tactile capability to do a lot of the fine
work we carried out. As an example, replacing the
solar array drive electronics, we were dealing with
tiny, non-captive screws on the back of the
electronic connectors which kept coming loose. And they were floating
all over the place like a swarm of
flies, and we had to keep grabbing them
with our fingertips, putting them in the trash
bag and eventually chasing one of them with me on the
end of the arm hanging out. It was quite exciting– certainly, nothing that
we were expecting and way beyond the capability of any
robotic system right now. However, I hope that this is
not always going to be true. As I said, robots are tools. And the better our tools
are, the more useful work we can do with them. Let me introduce
you to Robonaut, which is a research project
underway at the Johnson Space Center. And they’re connected with
a lot of university groups, including some
people here at MIT. The idea here was to make an
anthropomorphic robot that could use the same tools
that EVA astronauts use so you don’t have to develop a
whole new robotic tool suite. And I visited the
laboratory several times. The results, I have to
say, are very impressive, especially the
dexterity of the hand. The guy who is the
chief designer here actually gave a talk
at the American Society of Hand Surgeons. My brother is an orthopedic
surgeon, specializes in hand. And he heard him, and he said
it was absolutely fascinating the way that they’ve
built similar tendons and actuators to
really try to mimic the motions of the human hand. And I saw a very
impressive demonstration in the lab of Robonaut
actually using an EVA tether clamp to put on and off a hook. And I have to tell you,
this is not an easy thing to do with an EVA glove on,
and Robonaut was able to do it. The biggest limitation
currently is the lack of an effective
force feedback system. And the operator told me
that when he went to grasp something, he had to use
primarily visual feedback, and that it was really
like trying to work– what it would probably
be trying to work– with your hands being totally
numbed by a local anesthetic, where you really
can’t feel anything, and you have to work
just by what you can see. There are force feedback
systems available, but currently they’re
much too bulky and not nearly as sensitive as
our human nervous system. But progress is being made. And hopefully, the
situation will improve. And I certainly look forward
to someday seeing Robonaut get a test flight on the
International Space Station because if we don’t eventually
have robots capable of the sort of repair work that we did on
the Hubble Space Telescope, then that will mean that
progress in robotic technology will have stalled out, which
would be a huge pity for space exploration, because no matter
how much progress we make in human spaceflight, there are
always going to be places that we cannot go
ourselves physically. And the better robots
we have, the more sophisticated exploration we’re
going to be able to carry out. Now, there’s another area
where human presence has an advantage, and
this transcends just being able to
manipulate things manually. While repairing Hubble,
we had several surprises that forced us to adopt
procedures that were completely different from those
planned before the mission or suggested in real
time by mission control. For example, these
doors that you see underneath the wide
field planetary camera, which contain the gyroscope
compartment, we opened them the first
day we went out there. And then when I went to close
them, they wouldn’t close. And that would have absolutely
crippled the telescope if they were left open. And so I spent about a half
hour playing with the doors, trying to figure out
what the problem was. And it was hard
to figure out what we were going to have to do. It required a
combination of looking from lots of different
angles, feeling how the different
latches were engaging, wiggling things, and also– and here it gets a little bit
more complicated to explain. But somehow after
doing all these things, then being able to step back
and get the whole gestalt out of the situation and
use my years of training and experience to hope for
an inspiration, which we did get, of how to adapt
a standard EVA tool and use it in an unconventional
manner to fix the problem. So we described the problem
in our proposed solution to mission control in
words, and we sent down lots of TV pictures to
give them the best– how should you say it– the best virtual impression
of what we were seeing. But somehow the people
on the ground just didn’t seem to get it
in the way that we did. They came up with lots of
suggestions, which we didn’t think would work, and
one which we even thought would damage the telescope. And they were afraid,
on the other hand, that what we wanted to do was
going to damage the telescope. And I’m not really sure if
even the best virtual reality tools that exist could
have bridged the gap. In the end, after
considerable discussion, the flight director
made a command decision that since NASA had
gone to a lot of trouble to train us and send
us up into space, we were there and could
understand the situation better than they could on the ground. And in the end, they
needed to trust us and let us use our judgment and
get on with our plan, which we did successfully. It’s certainly true
that in unplanned, time critical situations, humans are
far more efficient and flexible than even our best robots. Now, deciding whether to
use humans or machines for various tasks
isn’t limited to space. We deal with this issue
in factory assembly lines and surgical operating
rooms, deep in the ocean, on military battlefields. And in general,
decisions about using humans or automated
systems in most endeavors are made on the basis of
utility and economics. But for various historical
and sociological reasons, which probably would be a good
thesis topic in space policy, the questions of humans
and robots in space has assumed almost the nature
of a religious conflict, which I think is unfortunate. I would prefer to deal with
the issue more dispassionately. And maybe looking at a
few examples will help. You take surgery, where
robotic assistants already allow doctors to operate
with more precision than human fingers can provide. Now, of course, these are
all teleoperated systems. They should really be
considered, I think, as ultra sophisticated
tools for the surgeon. After all, it isn’t
the surgeon’s finger that does the cutting
in the first place. It’s the scalpel. And so what do we
care if there’s an additional tool between the
surgeon’s hand and the scalpel? And even if the operator
is in a remote location, we’re going to have other
surgeons and assistants standing by in case
something goes wrong because generally these
robotic systems are designed for very specific tasks. Things can get a bit
emotional if you’re talking about
automating a factory, and workers are
afraid that they’re going to lose their job. But this isn’t a
religious fervor. It’s bread and butter economics. And in the military
field, it’s certainly true there are
pilots who are not happy about the
possibility of losing their primary role
in aerial warfare with the advent of
unmanned aerial vehicles. But in all the
military services– actually, I was looking
for Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. I couldn’t find any Marine UIVs. And maybe you can’t replace
a Marine by a machine. I don’t know. But in any case, the decisions
on adopting these automated combat systems
ultimately are going to get made on the basis of
cost and strategic and tactical effectiveness and
of course, the added factor of trying to minimize
casualties to our own troops. And finally,
oceanographic research and deepwater
commercial operations are another example
of sharing tasks between remotely operated
systems and systems where humans travel
to the work sites. Now currently,
ocean systems don’t have a whole lot of onboard
artificial intelligence. And so almost all ocean
systems, whether they’re tethered or not, are what
we would call teleoperated. But even the human carrying
systems, such as Alvin here– which by the way, this is a
new altitude record for Alvin in the other direction. Even with these
systems, you don’t put human hands
in direct contact with the deep ocean environment. Humans certainly have
on-site presence, but they work via
manipulators and other tools. I’ve actually spoken
recently with the director of Woods Hole
about this question of human and robotic
choices in ocean work. And he tells me that,
actually, more and more it’s true, that unmanned systems
are used for commercial tasks and for reconnaissance. They’re very good
at taking pictures. They’re cheaper to operate. They don’t involve
risk to humans. However, Alvin
still seems to have an advantage for collecting
useful rock samples and also core samples. Now, he’s not sure
if this advantage is going to persist
10 years or 15 years from now as robotic
systems improve. But he also mentioned
another difference, which was much harder to
quantify because he told me that he and his colleagues
really look forward to their dives. Being inside Alvin
at great depths– and the inside, it really looks
a lot like a spaceship here. And when they’re in there,
it focuses their minds, and it gives them a sense of
the environment in which they’re working in a way that they
never, ever experience when they’re working with
remote submersibles, sitting around consoles
up on the surface. And he really considers this– he calls it ocean awareness– that it’s valuable in
directing his research. And when I heard him
say that, I really did feel an echo
of the feelings I tried to describe to
you before that I heard when I was working on Hubble. Just before I return
to space exploration, I’ll end this digression into
other human-robotic areas with a quote from Scientific
American on deep sea exploration. And Scientific American is a
pretty reasonable publication. They say, most
scientists involved in exploration of the
deep ocean have moved away from human occupied submersibles
toward robotic craft. They’re relatively
inexpensive and of course, carry no risk to
a human operator. Indeed, remotely
operated vehicles have become so popular as tools
for the offshore oil industry that economic forces
could soon render conventional
submersibles extinct. But for humans to lose
altogether the ability to explore the ocean depths in
person would be unfortunate. Quite aside from the question
of whether some subsea jobs can best be done by
someone on the scene, this loss would be a blow to
the human spirit of adventure. For these reasons, it
seems a worthwhile goal to develop a better class
of deep sea submersibles, not to replace remote
or autonomous vehicles, but to offer a complimentary
in situ capability for those who want it. Well, maybe the last
part of his quote sort of approaches
being quasi-religious in its overtones. But I think it’s
basically a balanced view of the utility of human
and robotic systems that could also apply to
many activities in space. Personally, I loved
robots in space. They have taken me
as close as I’ll ever get to the surface of Mars. Like most of you, when I watched
the ’97 Martian Pathfinder poking its way around the
surface up against rocks and finding its way
against obstacles, I really had a sense of the
presence of human intelligence on the surface of Mars. Because while tools were
originally limited to enhancing human physical capabilities,
modern technology has really made it
possible to use tools to project human presence. Now, I wouldn’t talk about
robots competing with people in exploring space any more
than I would talk about robots competing with telescopes. Think about humanity’s most
distant physical explorer, which is Voyager 1,
which is now about, oh, 12 billion miles
away from the sun– a little over 12
light hours, which is about 0.03 of a percent of
the distance to Alpha Centauri. It’s been traveling a long
time, and it hasn’t even left our own heliosphere. And I don’t want to get
bogged down in the details of the geometry of the
universe, but in a sense, we can say that our
robotic probes have access to about roughly one part
in 10 to the 30th, maybe, of the volume of
the universe that’s accessible to our telescopes. So we can dream of sending
probes to the stars. But barring the realization of
some science fiction space warp technology, almost the
entire volume of the universe is going to have to be explored
with telescopes and not with robotic probes. Now, when we come inside
our own solar system, and we put telescopes
and other remote sensings in orbit around
celestial bodies– oh, no. So what do I do here? I’ll just push okay. I do my best to test all these
things out before we start, and then they hit me at the end. Okay, virtual memory is low. So it goes. In any case, so here we
are getting a nice look, much better than we
can get with telescopes around our own Earth. And of course, they give
us a much better view of the surfaces when
they’re in orbit. And if we have machines that
can actually land and manipulate objects on the surface
of another planet, this gives us tremendous
power to explore, much beyond just looking or even
taking in situ measurements. Good vision is essential,
but touch and maneuverability takes us into another dimension
of control over the environment being explored. In places where robots can get
to, they can do things that telescopes can’t. And there’s nothing so
complicated or controversial about this. In places that
people can get to, we can do things
that robots can’t do. It’s just that it’s a lot harder
and riskier, and generally, a lot more expensive to
send people than robots, just as it’s harder,
riskier, and more expensive to send robots than to
look through a telescope. There’s really very
little area of overlap. The farthest away from home that
human beings have ever explored is the moon, which
is less than a half a million kilometers away. And we didn’t stay very long. And even when we get to Mars
someday, which we will– I won’t say when, but we will– but even when we get
there, human beings will still have reached
only a tiny fraction of the domain which is
already accessible today to our robotic probes, just
as our robots have only reached a fraction of the domain
explored by our telescopes. And that’s what I really meant
when I said at the beginning that most space
exploration has been and always will be done by
machines, meaning telescopes, satellites, probes, and robots. But where people
have gone, we’ve done things that
machines could not do. And we’ve experienced these
environments as human beings. And we can discuss
the flexibilities that humans bring to carrying
out scientific experiments in space. It’s important. But we also need to
remember that there are other types of knowledge
besides scientific. And human presence can
make a big difference in communicating the
experiences of new environments in ways that go beyond science. Think about the
Earth’s polar regions, the land of the midnight
sun and of the Aurora, which we see here from space. These are areas of intense
exploration and research activities. Now, I’ve never been
to Alaska or the Yukon. Probably few of us in this
room have ever been there. But I suspect that
every one of us has an idea of what these
arctic regions are like. And I wonder how much of
our general perception of, what’s it like to
be in the Arctic, comes from scientific journals. And how much comes from Jack
London’s famous short story, To Light a Fire? Because exploration
goes beyond science. People realize
this intrinsically when they’re asking that
question, what’s it like? To truly know an
environment in human terms, and especially to communicate
what that environment is like, can often require art,
as well as science, and it helps to be there. Alan Bean was an astronaut who
landed on the moon on Apollo 12 back in late 1969. And 10 years later,
Alan was the mentor of our group of young
astronaut recruits. And I was impressed. Here’s an old Navy
fighter pilot. But we enjoyed talking together
about literature and art. And Alan eventually left
NASA to try his hand as a full-time artist. And he said he wanted some way
other than words or photographs to express what it looked
like on the moon, what his experiences
were being there. Now, most of the lunar
landscape is certainly very well represented by
black and white photographs. The only color in this picture
comes from the human artifacts that we put there. When Alan looked at the rich
variety of surface textures at Hadley Rille,
which in this case, was explored by Apollo 15,
and it was a magnificent sight to explore, probably the
most visually impressive of all the regions
explored during Apollo. But Alan knew what it looked
like to the people who were there. And he tried to express
the variety of texture through an almost
impressionistic use of color. Now, Alan would be
the first person to tell you that the moon
doesn’t necessarily really look like this, anymore than
the Rouen cathedral or the haystacks that Monet
painted so many times really appeared, literally,
in all those colors. But for me, Alan
has showed something of what it’s like
to be on the moon that I never would have
been able to experience just from looking at a photograph. Now, certainly, robots may not
write books or paint pictures. But as I said, there
will always be places that our robots can go where
our bodies can’t follow. So if exploration is
ultimately the expansion of human consciousness,
then we need to do everything that we
can do to enable our minds and our spirits to
follow our robots where our physical bodies can’t go. So future space
exploration needs to use all the
virtual reality tools that we possess to put
ourselves inside our robots, to use robotic presence to
extend our sensory experience, because our consciousness
of the world is ultimately tied to
our sensory experience of the world. So I think, actually,
the Media Lab should be playing as large
a role in future exploration as places which are designing
new propulsion system. When we go through the
list of our senses, actually, with vision, we
already can do pretty well. Given proper sensors
on the lunar surface and sufficient
telemetry bandwidth, we still have a little problem
with peripheral vision. But nevertheless, I
could stand on the Earth, look around, and have almost
the same visual experience that Alan Bean had
standing on the moon. And sound isn’t
going to be a problem if we’re in an environment
where sound is important. The ill-fated Mars
’98 Lander actually had a microphone
on it, which would have let us hear the wind
and the dust on the surface of Mars, and maybe even
the sound of the shovel digging in Martian soil. And eventually, we will
have a microphone there to complement the visual with
the auditory sense experience. The senses of taste and smell– well, I don’t know
if any of you are familiar with Norman Mailer’s
book about the Apollo program. It’s called Of a
Fire on the Moon. It’s an interesting book. In it he says that
ultimately, to know the moon as human beings, we need to
be able to smell a lunar rock. I think he had the
same idea in the mind about sensory experience. It’s a nice thought. I’d love to try it if I could
get my hands on a lunar rock. But in general, taste and
smell play such a small role in human society that
we’ve never even bothered to develop technologies
to transmit these senses over a distance. So I certainly don’t see the
lack of virtual smell and taste as a significant barrier
to space exploration. But touch, the fifth
sense, of course, is something else completely
because as I already said, the ability to manipulate
the environment that we’re exploring is critical. So to really expand
human presence into a new environment,
we need to incorporate sophisticated haptic– that is, touch
feedback systems– into our space robots. Given sufficiently sophisticated
visual and haptic feedback, I can certainly imagine putting
a mobile version of Robonaut on the surface of the moon
and having back on the Earth a good part of the
experience, not just of seeing but now, actually, of
exploring the lunar surface. Yeah, we have a two-second
roundtrip light travel time, but that’s short enough so
with sufficient training, you could guide
a robotic partner around the surface of the
moon almost as if you yourself were there on the spot. And you would
eventually come to feel that a significant fraction
of your consciousness was present on the
surface of the moon. That’s the nature
of virtual reality, to create a convincing,
internally perceived environment. Not only would it
be great fun, but it would be an incredibly powerful
tool for lunar exploration. But when we extrapolate
this to Mars, not to mention farther
out in the solar system, we have to face the problem
of the finite speed of light. Now, I’ve talked with
robotic specialists about predictive algorithms,
optimized feed forward loops, and they say that if you’ve
got all these things organized properly, the
humans can actually operate a robotic system
with up to a five- or six-second time lag with not
too much loss of efficiency, as long as the environment
isn’t changing too fast. But with other planets, we’re
talking about minutes or hours, not seconds. Now, we can certainly transmit
back sufficiently sophisticated information from Mars
to permit reconstructing a virtual presence
after the fact. So you can use
your computer mouse and fly virtually
through Martian canyons. It’s really exciting. But the idea of interactive
virtual presence changes fundamentally as you
increase the communication travel time. Flying a computer mouse
through a virtual canyon is a lot different from
controlling a real airplane flying through real canyons,
where you can really crash into the walls. Now, obviously, from a strictly
technical robotic point of view, what we want to do
is build more intelligence and autonomy into our
robots so that they can do a maximum of
useful work on their own while they’re waiting
to communicate with us. But the degree to which
autonomous robots far away in the solar system
are ever going to give us a real conscious
awareness of new environments is going to be far less than
totally interactive, real time virtual reality. And of course, the
speed of exploration will be a lot slower. Now, I don’t foresee this
as a long-term impediment to exploring Mars because
as I said, eventually, we’re going to have
human beings on Mars. Because it’s such a fascinating
place with abundant evidence of a rich geologic history,
that once we have the capability to send people there for a
reasonable cost, whatever that is, and with reasonable
risk, whatever that is, I have no doubt that
we’re going to do it. And it will be in large
part because the results of our telescopic and
robotic exploration of Mars will have been so
exciting that people will feel that they want
to get to know this planet as well as humanly possible. And that’s the key– as well as is humanly possible– because ultimately,
the best vessel to carry human consciousness
into a new environment is the human body. But when we go, we’re not
going to throw away our robots. Just the opposite. Human explorers on
Mars are almost surely going to exercise real
time control over armies of exploration robots. And they’ll mostly be
autonomous but susceptible, when necessary, to
real time assistance to overcome problems beyond
their capability to solve. We don’t necessarily
have to develop robots that are as good
at complex decision making as human beings for them to be
useful explorers, especially if the human explorer is
nearby to redirect them when something unexpected
happens, and they don’t know how to proceed,
and, of course, to fix them when they break. Imagine what one
human explorer could do with a flock of
robots even as smart as, say, an average sheep. Or a dog– much better. But in any case, what I’m
looking forward to, in a sense, is a symbiosis between human
and robotic exploration because each makes the
other more efficient. And the closer together
they are physically, the more opportunities
there are for symbiosis. One of the strongest
lures for exploring Mars is the indication
that in the past, it was almost surely very
different from the dry desert that it seems to be today. And learning the detailed
history of Mars, I’m sure, is someday going to
occupy the attention of as many field geologists
as we can support on the surface of the planet. I have yet to meet a
field geologist who believes that they could
explore as well using robots as in person because
field geology is a highly interactive, highly
unstructured activity, with lots of surprises
being the norm. And that’s just the sort of
activity in which humans excel. In the long-term, once
we have the capability to transport and support
people far away from the Earth, ultimately, we’ll have to
decide which environments are interesting
enough to warrant this additional exploration
capability that humans can provide. Mars certainly will require
a lot of human effort to fully explore. But would, say, 100-meter
diameter asteroid be worth the trouble
of human exploration? I don’t know. We’ll have to decide. As far as Mars goes, if
current hunches are correct, our field geologists will
eventually almost surely be joined by some
drilling rig roughnecks to prospect for
subsurface water. And then once the scale
of human activity on Mars gets large enough, we’ll
need support personnel as well to maintain
scientific bases, take care of all the
logistical activities necessary to support
human survival in such a hostile environment. That’s the way things
are in Antarctica. But in addition to
vastly extending the range of
scientific exploration that can be carried out on the
surface of Mars beyond what robots could do on their
own, I would certainly hope that at least one of
these human explorers on Mars will turn out to be
another Jack London, who will be able to give the
rest of us who are never going to go there a sense
of what Mars is really like. Not just the data,
not just the views, but a sense of what
it’s like to be on Mars. And when this time
comes, and we have the technology and
the economic means and the political will for
humans to explore Mars, I’m absolutely sure
that at the same time, we’ll be working on
sophisticated robotic exploration of the outer solar
system and perhaps beyond. If Terrestrial Planet
Finder actually does find Earth-like planets
around neighboring stars, aren’t we ultimately going
to want a closer look? Developing the
artificial intelligence and the self-repair
capabilities that are going to be required for
robotic interstellar probes is probably going to be easier
than developing a civilization with sufficient social
stability and foresight to be willing to undertake
exploration on a time scale of decades or centuries. But in any case, the parallel
of challenges of future space exploration are going to be
to push the outer boundaries of robotic exploration into
realms previously explored only by telescopes,
and at the same time, to push the boundaries
of human presence into realms previously
explored only by robots. So let me end my talk with a
metaphor for exploring space. It’s an expanding sphere
of human consciousness and experience, which is
composed of three layers. On the outside is the
overwhelmingly large part of the universe
that’s accessible only to passive sensing. And then tens of orders
of magnitude smaller is that part of the
universe that we can physically interact with
through autonomous and remotely controlled machines but with the
level of virtual human presence limited by the speed of light. And then in a volume smaller
by tens of orders of magnitude still will be that
part of the universe that humans can
experience directly with no speed of
light compromises. Now, I would like to see all
three of these layers grow. How fast they grow
is going to depend on lots of different
factors, most of which we probably can’t even imagine,
much less be able to predict. That’s the challenge we face. Whether we’re enabling
people to live and work more comfortably and
efficiently in low Earth orbit, or searching for water
and life on Mars, or sending probes to
Pluto and the Kuiper belt, or studying the
atmosphere of planets revolving around nearby
stars, or observing quasars over 13 billion
light years away, we’re expanding this multilayer
sphere of human experience. Exploration brings us to
places we haven’t been before. And I’ve been very fortunate
to experience directly a little bit of this
new world of space. And I have to say,
it’s always a pleasure to relive some of my experiences
with a sympathetic audience. Of course, there’s a lot
of space left to explore. And one of the exciting things
that I’ve found here at MIT is how many of us are explorers
in a whole wonderful variety of ways. So I thank you
again for inviting me to share some of my ideas
about how space exploration may ultimately proceed. And I look forward to
exploring together. [APPLAUSE] YOUNG: Why don’t you turn
on the lights in here? Thank you thank you very
much for that, Jeff. For those who’ve
wondered what it’s like working with
astronauts in training, if I just call your
attention to the way Jeff went through the
two computer glitches at the beginning and
during the mission. Not that he didn’t
worry, but just carry on and do
what had to be done. Before we break
for refreshments, we’ll have time for
a few questions. Then I have a couple
of announcements. Don. AUDIENCE: What do you think
about sterile return from Mars in terms of safety and the loss
of scientific knowledge we may have if– say it’s heated, for
example, above the temperature to kill off any microbes. HOFFMAN: You’re certainly
aware, planetary protection is not something I’m going to
answer in a one-minute answer to a question. And I suspect that the
answer is every bit as much political as technical. From a technical point
of view, maybe we will try to heat sterilize
the first samples because you won’t destroy all the
information in them. Ultimately, we
have to have a way to be able to convince the
public at large that it is safe to bring back samples,
not just from Mars, but we’re going to be bringing
back samples from comets. We’re bringing back
samples of the solar wind. There’s lots of
pieces of space that are going to be brought
back to the Earth to study. And we need to convince
people and convince ourselves that we can do it safely. AUDIENCE: So I really
enjoyed your talk– YOUNG: Thanks AUDIENCE: –especially about
the different capabilities of humans. And so by ending up with the
Antarctic research station, that brings up an
interesting possibility. NSF supports artists to go
to the research station. Why not have artstronauts? YOUNG: Well, I’ll tell you. There are incredible
artistic possibilities making use of the
environment in space to have things that can
float, kinetic sculptures. I didn’t show any
pictures here of what it’s like when you do a water
dump out of the shuttle, and you get these ice crystals
coming all over the place, lit up like little prisms
glittering in the sunlight, which are just
breathtakingly beautiful. There’s a whole aesthetic
environment to be pursued. And that’s a good example of
part of the human experience of getting to know a new
environment, which you don’t get just by sending
a remote probe, although cameras take pretty
beautiful pictures in any case. But yeah. I’d love to see space
explored artistically, as well as scientifically, because it
is a fascinating environment. AUDIENCE: One last question. Any comparative respect on the
timeline for human exploration of Mars today versus what
you thought when you joined the Astronaut Office in ’78? HOFFMAN: It’s the same story, no
matter what astronaut you ask. If you ask the
Apollo astronauts, the ones who came in towards
the end of the program said, well, never mind if I
don’t get to fly to the moon because in 10 years,
I’ll be flying to Mars. When we came in as new
astronauts in 1978, everybody was sure that
by the end of the century we’d have scientific bases
on the moon and on Mars. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s a goal which
recedes in the future. There are sociological
and economic reasons to explain why Apollo,
in fact, was probably an anomaly, historically, rather
than the way space exploration is going to be
done in the future. And I think, on the one hand,
it was a magnificent endeavor. And everybody who was
alive at the time of Apollo was fortunate to have been
able to experience it. But for people who look at
it as the model of how we’re going to get to Mars,
it can be a curse, which I think has
infused, certainly, the NASA mentality for decades. And we still haven’t quite
figured out another way to do it. And until we do, the goal is
going to continue to recede. YOUNG: I have just a few
announcements before I make the presentation again. First, for those students
in the modern space science and engineering, with
Tom, Harry, and myself, if you will wait at the back and
meet with us after refreshments are devoured. I’d like to thank
Helen Howers, who was at the back room, who
has organized this lecture, as well as coordinating
the Space Grant. [APPLAUSE] I’d like to thank in
advance Jeff Hoffman, who will be taking over as the
acting director of, actually, the Space Grant
in June, allowing me to go away on a sabbatical. And Jeff and I are looking for– HOFFMAN: To France,
where you won’t have to work on May the first. YOUNG: But you have to
put on French elections. And then finally, I’ll take
advantage of the number of you that are here to
place a classified ad. Jeff and I are looking
for a halftime assistant director for the
Massachusetts Space Grant. And any of you who would
be interested, please contact Jeff or me. We have a certificate
of appreciation on behalf of the Massachusetts
Space Grant Consortium to Dr. Jeffrey
Hoffman for what I’m sure you will all agree was an
outstanding and inspirational lecture. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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