The failure of multiple experiments on the Russian Bion M biosatellite mission shows the limitations of automation.

Due to technical malfunctions, most of the test subjects (39 out of 45 mice, and all of the fish, newts, and gerbils) died. An aquarium malfunctioned, mice starved, and gerbils suffocated due to failures of the life-support system.

Such failures could have been easily corrected by a human technician. The Bion M failures show one of the flaws in anti-human spaceflight arguments. Yes, it costs more money to send a researcher along with his experiment, but it also costs money to automate an experiment and debug the automated equipment to ensure it works reliably.

In the software industry, companies spend as much money on testing as they do on development. Anyone who’s developing automated hardware should expect a similar ratio. As the Bion M mission shows, skimping on testing is a false economy.

Automating an experiment is a significant expense that needs to be weighed against the cost of flying a human operator. With current launch systems (orbital, expendable launch vehicles), automation almost also wins. The cost parameters of the equation will change, however, when reusable vehicles enter operational service. Automation will be much less of an automatic win.

That’s especially true for suborbital vehicles. While the cost of access to orbit will decrease in the future, reusable suborbital vehicles will be be much cheaper than reusable orbital vehicles, for the foreseeable future.

Experiment designers should take note of the changing cost parameters when deciding between automation and human-tended experiments, especially for suborbital missions. In some cases, it may be possible to fly several additional flights for the cost of automating an experiment.

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2013 , Astrobiology, Space Policy and Management Tags:

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