Astronauts’ Lives May Depend on Hitchhikers

|| Science Article |

Logically, a manned trip to Mars would be undertaken by tough, fast-thinking, and carefully picked astronauts. But if NASA researchers would have their way, “butlers” and “maids” will accompany the crew—and they’ll come, not by the dozen, but in legions. 

The hitchhikers will fit snugly inside the ship. Because they are so tiny, they wouldn’t even fill up the spacecraft’s computers. These thinking machines are NASA’s version of popular robots and androids that journey with their human masters across the galaxies. Think R2D2 of Star Wars and Lt. Cmdr. Data of Star Trek, only on a much smaller scale.

NASA is developing these intelligent microdevices because a trip involving distances, periods, and variables like those on a Martian exploration would mean exposing human beings to much more dangers compared to a lunar mission. For example, astronauts on sojourn with the moon were never more than 420,000 km from Earth. A serious problem on board and they can trail back home in a few days, which was what the Apollo 13 astronauts did in 1970. On the other hand, an average Martian trip will take years to complete. Within this period, astronauts will be vulnerable to the following:

  1. meteoroid impacts powerful enough to destroy their spacecraft
  2. cosmic rays that could cause sickness or death
  3. mechanical failures due to the coldness of interplanetary space
  4. impaired judgment and/or psychological deterioration due to isolation and uncertainty of environment

To prevent any of these and a host of other mishaps, researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California are fine-tuning the intelligent microdevices to suit the Crew Exploration Vehicle. This spacecraft will be the direct descendant of the space shuttle and will be able to bring humans to the moon and Mars. Says Steven Zometzer, deputy center director at Ames, “Life-support systems for Mars will have to be absolutely fail-safe and bulletproof. If the life-support system fails and you're four months (travel time) away from Earth, you're dead.”

Most of the microdevices will be hidden inside the spaceship’s computer circuits where they will monitor sensors and ensure that no vital components will blow up, lose pressure, or swerve away from the programmed course. Unlike their human companions, these intelligent microdevices are designed to think at the speed of light, giving them ample time to react to or make crucial decisions during emergency situations.  

That, however, is only the drawing board, and those developing the microdevices foresee difficulties along the way. One is that there will be more things that could cause these microdevices to malfunction because they are purposely complex machines. Another is that once built, a long period is required to certify that these devices will be reliable enough to let human lives depend on them. Also, the same factors that could be fatal to astronauts might have the same effect on the microdevices. False alarms, which could force the crew to abort the mission, are also possible. Given the amount of research, money, and time invested in just a single mission, an uncalled-for termination is more than just anti-climactic.

 Some computer experts even doubt whether NASA’s “intelligent” microdevices will be truly smart in the human sense. One such expert, Peter Kassan says, "Such computer programs will undoubtedly be useful, even indispensable components of such spaceships. ... But to expect them to handle unanticipated situations 'intelligently' is nothing but wishful thinking."

Kassan added that all computer programs have an inherent condition known as “blindness.” This means that computers can only handle situations that their programmers have anticipated. As an example, he cited the way Microsoft software developers continually issue updates in order to handle hacker attacks. These developers are good at counteracting the unanticipated attacks, but only after the attacks have been initially successful. When a space crew faces an unexpected situation in space, Kassan reasoned that “there will be no opportunity to issue such updates.”

On the other hand, NASA experts remain optimistic. They are aware of the difficulties of developing the intelligent microdevices but are confident that these can be worked out. If they had their way, some of these “smarties” could easily find employment here on Earth, as well.