(Editor's note: A presidential commission is scheduled to make its recommendations by the end of August concerning the future of U.S. manned space flight.)
President Barack Obama's recent appointment of the Augustine Commission to review NASA's plans for human space flight is timely. It is 40 years since the great pioneering achievement of the Moon landings, yet instead of going onto Mars as many had hoped we are back in low Earth orbit with a controversial Space Station.
In stark contrast, 40 years after Charles Lindbergh's pioneering achievement of the first solo transatlantic flight, luxury jumbo jet travel had been established throughout the world. We are clearly on the wrong path in space!
We have not gone onto Mars because of the enormous difficulty and the enormous cost of a manned mission to that planet. However there is another much easier, and much more affordable way " telepresence.
Telepresence is an emerging technology that could enable humans to function in, and experience, a distant space environment such as Mars as effectively, for all practical purposes, as actually going there - but without going there!
Early stage telepresence is already being used for terrestrial and space applications. For example:
Soldiers in Afghanistan are using unmanned ground vehicles to remotely find and disable IEDs - by telepresence.
Airmen in Colorado are using unmanned aerial vehicles to find and attack terrorists on the other side of the world - by telepresence.
A Food and Drug Administration-approved operating room suite enables surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgery remotely - by telepresence.
NASA has sent two Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity to Mars and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are using them to dig into the Martian surface to look for signs of water - by telepresence
How would enhanced telepresence, as effective for exploration as actually going there, differ from the early stage telepresence now being used by the rovers currently on Mars? Not in any fundamental way, but only by degree of technical sophistication. For example:
By enhanced dexterous capability of the rover's manipulators that would more nearly match the dexterous capability of an astronaut's gloved hands and fingers.
By a larger, more physically powerful Rover that could move around and do the heavy work that a space-suited astronaut might do.
By a source of more power for this more capable Rover.
By more video imagery relayed back from the Rover to the human controller.