Lost spacecraft’s and earthquakes

by Adriano Autino


It isn’t surely well wishing, while the 50th worldwide congress of the International Astronautical Federation is starting in Amsterdam, that NASA lost the Mars Climate Observer. It is worth of reflection the way and the cause why 125 millions US$ (more or less 230 billions lire) crashed to the ground of the red planet. Let’s hope that such an episode, at least, will suggest some discussion widening to the congress participants, and maybe the decision to leave the conservative and defensive style up to now adopted by the maximum astronautical planetary institutions, in order to adopt a more resolute and propositive approach (see also the letter that Dr. Marco C. Bernasconi, scientific director of Technologies of the Frontier, addressed to the presidency of the International Astronautical Academy).

But let’s see the facts. Once reached the Mars orbit the MCO spacecraft -- programmed to stay two years around the planet, take extensive pictures of its surface, and provide data for the analysis of the Mars weather and seasons – found itself much lower than the foreseen altitude. Irrecoverably attracted by the Mars gravity, MCO fell thus to the ground.

From a press release of the Media Relations Office, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, National Aeronautics and Space Administration: "People sometimes make errors," said Dr. Edward Weiler, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Science. "The problem here was not the error, it was the failure of NASA's systems engineering, and the checks and balances in our processes to detect the error. That's why we lost the spacecraft." The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the manoeuvres required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit.

While I express all my regret and sorrow for this accident, and I transmit the unconditioned solidarity, mine and the one of Technologies of the Frontier, to the NASA technicians and designers (their professionalism will surely be under the spots for some times), I wish to start two different reflections: the first, about technology and safety, the second about politics.

As far as technology and safety are concerned, it is relevant to observe that the income of electronics and informatics, that determined a formidable jump ahead of the space exploration, is nowadays showing some worrying corollary, not so difficult to restrain, provided we are able to detect and analyze them. Electronics, and even more informatics, brought the automated systems (not only in the space field) to a high degree of flexibility, unimaginable in the previous mechanic age. Such evolution determined a dizzy increase of the freedom degrees for the designers: since the design errors are much more correctable, the mind of the designer is much freer to address to the scientific aspects. He can more and more to allow himself to design a system in the abstract, leaving apart the technicalities and details, which can be solved later, at procedural level, by systematically applying the quality and safety design methodologies. Really excellent, but then it happens that we loose the spacecraft’s. I believe, as often occurs to us humans, that the freedom went a little bit to our head, and that we should recover such status. Really, the fact that, thanks to the informatic technologies, the errors became correctable, it doesn’t mean that they are surely corrected. It is still our human task to correct them, taking in consideration all the things that any electronic intelligence, though evolved, is not (and will never be) able to take into account. Though powerful and quick, the machine executes in facts nothing more (and sometimes nothing less) than what our fantasy was able to program inside it. And, as to the methodology, the fact that nowadays standard procedures and checklists exist, for each project phases, doesn’t mean that such procedures are complete and correct, and that they are always and surely completely applied. The error is, likely, to place too much confidence both in the technologies and in the methodologies. All this ended to determine a real cultural mutation: a tremendous loss of human active attention, by the side of the designers, in checking and re-checking scientifically, i.e. applying the galilean principles of the scientific experimentation (taking nothing for granted) to their project acting. Scientific method training and humanist training (i.e. able to transmit to the young’s the huge value of the human being): these two categories are a little bit lacking in our school programs, maybe also, in part, due to a mistaken primacy of the technology over the science. And such a primacy could also be son of the extreme economicism and of the market fundamentalism, which characterize the current development phase of our civilization. Another proof of what I’m saying can be found in the fact that such accidents (let’s also think about the recent nuclear accident in Japan) occur in realties universally considered the vanguard (USA, Japan) both in technologies and methodologies.

On the political level, I simply aim to use also this episode to show the complete insubstantiality of the strategy that gives priority to the automated space exploration, versus the human space exploration. It was said that the automated space exploration is cheaper of the human exploration. It was also said that it is safer, less dangerous and jeopardizes a less number of lives. As to the claimed lower cost, it is fully evident to anyone that a human crew had noticed in time of the unlucky inconsistency of the measure units (feet and meters, pounds and kilograms) and had therefore avoided to crash 125 millions US$ on the Mars surface. The delay that the Mars program will now surely bear had been avoided as well. Our acknowledge and know-how of the planet would be incomparably higher, if a human crew had already orbited around Mars and had already stepped on its surface. The human mind notices thins, even banal, that none machine will notice, unless, it was programmed to notice them. But, in order to program the observation of such things, we should have been able to imagine them, and it is particularly curious that, quite to explore alien environments, that could contain many things only by chance imaginable, we end to rely on programmed machines. It is like if we decide to observe a Van Gogh picture by means of a black and white camera: we will never catch the essence of the painter’s art, that resides mostly in the colour. We could virtually walk in face of ET and not to see him, just because he presents himself in none of the perceptive functions that we were able to program in our automated device! Last but not least, there are thoughts, processes, intuitions, that trigger in the human mind only if a person find himself on the site, and not at millions kilometres (or miles, if you prefer J ) as if he was playing with a video-game. The supreme well of the human direct experience cannot be replaced by any virtual experience, though this last can be useful during the simulation and test phases. A tremendous error would be the one to consider exhaustive, on the long period, the simulation and test phases, and to take decisions (maybe of resign) based upon the extremely limited experiences and perceptions allowed by the automated exploration.

Even if we would limit ourselves to consider, by now, only the exploration goals of the Moon, Mars and the Solar System (and not yet the one of the economic, industrial, commercial and merchant development) the Astronautics emerges an incomparably superior tool. And the astronauts, when they will be many, they will start to compare their experiences and to draw the due teachings in philosophical and political terms, they will constitute the cultural vanguard that humanity desperately needs. Anyone who obstructs such a process, in the name of any economic, ecological, environmental or other supposed principles, is simply obstructing and delaying the development of the human civilization, and will be responsible of it in face of the history (if any).

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Speaking about the safety of the space exploration, the supporters of the automated option fall in another blunder. They maintain in fact, implicitly, that our planet is the safest site, for us, in the whole cosmos. These gentlemen are evidently unaware of the tremendous catastrophes that, almost monthly, take a heavy toll of thousands victims on our planet’s the surface. I’m speaking about the earthquakes that killed maybe forty thousands people in Turkey, many others in Greece, and still others in Mexico. Or want we talk about the typhoons, the drought and the inundation’s that, as usual, bring the economy to its knees in whole regions, in the same time claiming their protection money in terms of human lives? The toll, or rent, that our planet claims to the human kind could become more and more heavier, both in case we will keep on numerically growing (making more serious the environmental and resources problems), and in case we will accept a downsizing (becoming weaker and still less able to defend ourselves). Astronautics, even in this case, appears the safer solution, because it is targeted to provide other, and safer, living and development space for us humans.

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