Thanks for your comments.
A telepresence mission to Mars provides a human presence on Mars but not a physical human presence. Analogously, a business phone call to another city provides a human presence in that other city but not a physical human presence. Nevertheless telepresence and the telephone enable the ?world?s work? to be done remotely in these two cases. Although almost all intercity business conversations are conducted by phone, occasionally a person will instead travel to the other city in order to talk face-to-face. Telepresence and the telephone do not exclude the option of a physical human presence ? provided that someone can pay the travel costs!
Organizational-culture and popular-culture are certainly obstacles for telepresence. Unmanned aerial vehicles, initially called ?remotely piloted vehicles? (RPVs), were slow to gain acceptance. However, to paraphrase a well-known saw ?necessity is the mother of acceptance? and today UAVs and UGVs are becoming increasingly important. Hopefully, NASA?s manned-program culture will likewise adapt to necessity.
Another issue is that the (politically important) popular-culture may be distorted by terminology such as ?Mars is now being explored by unmanned robotic missions? This terminology is unfortunate because the word ?robot? is suggestive of an alien being such as R2D2 from Star Wars, while the term ?unmanned? seems to imply the absence of a human. The false impression can thereby be created that the exploration is not really human exploration. From that viewpoint unmanned robotic missions, no matter how sophisticated, can never be regarded as a valid substitute for the manned missions that we are unable to undertake. This confusion, which may distort space policy, can be avoided by using the term ?rover? instead of ?robot? and by the terminology ?Mars is now being explored by humans on Earth using early-stage telepresence?, where telepresence is an emerging technology that can enable a human to do physical work at a distant location, without going-there. Analogously, the telephone is an established technology that can enable a human to talk at a distant location, without going-there.
Why robotics? Where I work we have been tremendously successful with outsourcing not only our engineering but much of our R&D to India, the costs savings are great. I suggest as a nation in economic turmoil we look at outsourcing many NASA functions to cheaper bases for engineering. This would coincide well with both India's and China's emerging space exploration. Management and other critical and essential tasks would of course be kept here in the US.
Why not develop and prove the 'telepresence' technology exploring the 'dark' side of the moon? Shorter flight time for missions and close enough to real time control.
We can develop delayed control algorithms while having a real time monitoring system.
Presently, manned Mars missions are also suicide missions; they cannot be aborted for two years and must carry supplies and waste disposal for the same amount of time. Robots with half-hour control loops are slow, clumsy exploration methods, but they are presently possible. Increased robot presence, might yield the ability to prepare sustainable, habitable ecosystems. We do need to specialize our installations, however, so that dozens or hundreds of cheap robots might be controlled via centralized communications stations. Additionally, increasing the talent pool from one and two to hundreds will also increase the rate that robots will improve and will generate public interest in the endeavor.
Telepresence for complex tasks is not viable at the moment because of the long delay between Earth and Mars which is around 4-20 minutes depending on where both are in their orbit. This makes complex control near impossible. The robots would need to be largely autonomous. On the other hand if there are microbes on Mars and any were returned by visitors we would have the potential for a pandemic like we have never seen before. I'm for telepresence with all its shortcomings as the alternative could be the end of us all.
Even the head of the Mars rover project has said you can only do so much with robots and telepresence. He cited the fact it's taken years for the Mars rovers to travel a few miles--distances which were covered in only hours by Apollo astronauts on the moon.
I agree that telepresence methods are likely the best choice for Mars exploration, but there are some fairly significant differences between such an operation on Mars vs. the several earth-based examples mentioned. One is transmission time--even at the speed of light, the radio waves currently employed can take 10-20 minutes to reach their destination. In addition, requisite antenna alignment only supports communication twice a day for one or two hours each session.
The earth-based examples all have attributes of relative real-time interaction, and relatively uninterrupted service, which I assume provide key value to the telepresence experience (though I don't claim to know the formal definition of same).
Is there any research going on to address these shortcomings?
The notion of an enhanced telepresence push for Mars strikes me as the right answer and probably the only realistic option in the near-term. Such an effort would undoubtedly lay important groundwork for any manned missions which brings me to the point that it needn't necessarily be seen as an either/or option. I've no detailed knowledge of all the facets involved in getting a person to Mars but given the realities of enhanced earth-orbit missions as the best we've achieved in manned spacelight post-Apollo, I'd guess more robots are the only possibility for now. Until we decide to spend 10X the current levels for NASA - no small feat in today's economic climate - machines to give us Martian telepresence as a stepping stone to a human landing is as far as I can see. International cooperation will help and perhaps be an essential ingredient but the global will seems weak for now. Man's desire to land on distant shores is noble but when will we be willing to bear the enormous costs?