Defining Human

Yutu…the Chinese word…references a thousand-year old folk tale of a rabbit who went to the moon via a magic chariot. Seems it isn’t only farmers who name their cows, their fields, their pickup trucks and tractors. The chariot’s name was Chang’e. On December 14, 2013 the Chang’e-3 lander touched down on the Moon’s Mare Imbrium, located about mid-section of the Moon’s face among a sea of debris not unlike the landscape of Central Wisconsin, latitude 44.12° N, 19.51° W. The Moon day, as we all know, is 28 Earth days, half in sunlight, half not; day temperatures reach 200°F., the lunar night descends to minus 280°F.
This first Moon mission was avidly followed by the Chinese for the statement it is of a maturing space program and of a nation that can afford in coming years to be even more assertive. A poll revealed 70 percent of Americans viewed the Chinese Moon landing negatively, as a challenge to American superiority in space exploration.

As a national goal, space missions come with significant costs, often viewed by the general public as “geeky” unless international competition inspires such an ambitious and expensive program. China’s Moon landing may well provide the public support the American space program currently lacks. The phenomenon understood at the late night stoplight as a Camaro and Mustang pull up side by side. The language is a blip of the throttle, and part of the patriotic legacy of the space program. When budgets get tight the flag doesn’t fly in strange and hostile places.

Was at the end of its first lunar day that a controller jammed as it was putting the Yutu rover, known as the “Jade Rabbit”, to sleep for the harsh lunar night. Without the ability to close the shutters, the rover’s electronics and the battery were exposed to cold it wasn’t designed to tolerate.

Unlike the 126 planetary probes America has launched, the Jade Rabbit came with an advanced analog, which is to say “human” voice. Its computer algorithm was designed to impart a personal life and being, similar to the algorithm voice of the NOAA weather band. On the evening the closure failed, the rover’s algorithm responded, “The sun has already set here, and the temperature is falling very quickly. I’ve said a lot today, yet still feel it’s not enough. I’ll tell everyone a secret. Actually I’m not feeling especially sad. Just like any other hero, I’ve only encountered a little problem while on my own adventure. Good night Earth. Good night humanity.” It was this voice given to a machine that attracted attention for its human quality. What ought have been a purely mechanical report in digital code of the malfunction, just so many gauges and readouts, was instead the mind of a salient creature, that the rover was “alive.” At this simple stroke the Chinese opened a new and popular public connection to space exploration with their humanized robot.

Space science has for decades debated over whether planetary exploration should be via costly and problematic manned flights or instead by cheap but boring robotic probes. Given our long history of exploration; Drake, Magellan, Byrd, Anderson, Columbus, Hudson, Marco Polo, Armstrong, we are naturally biased toward human exploration. Attached is a known heroic quality that often includes death. Columbus sailed with three ships and a crew of 90, he returned with two ships and a crew of 40; Magellan left with a crew of 260 and returned with 18, not including Magellan; Byrd did not return nor did Captain Cook.

Elon Musk, best known as the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has invigorated this debate with his privatization of space flight and the prospect of civilian orbit excursions at a price of $5 million, (to think maybe Paris Hilton would take me along.) Musk has advanced the notion of one-way flights to Mars, what we can’t bring ourselves to allow as a government project, a one-way death trip to Mars. Mountain climbers, solo sailors, race drivers, ultra-lights, rapids-runners risk this all the time. For a one-way trip to Mars the price seems fair. Some in the launch community think we need to bring space exploration to the same verve known to other generations, expressed vividly with their lives. All those seamen, missionaries, experimental aircraft, mountain men, Étienne Brûlé, not to forget Madam Curie.

So…what’s wrong with one-way missions, whether to Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Kuiper Belt. The mission cost is instantly cut in half. To send people to their death on an interesting ride, seems a fair price, and what the word hero is about.

I am reminded of friends during Vietnam, combat medics, all of whom were viscerally opposed to the war. On the out-flight passed around a pair of jeweler’s shears to cut off their wedding rings as a way of freeing their minds against the odds of their survival. That bag of wedding rings was secreted at a well-known Saigon watering hole. Each man when they left ‘Nam could reclaim their ring, re-weld and back on their finger for the trip home. We were trying to make it easier to die.

Sometime in the near future there will be an app to download our thoughts, our personality, our words, our attitudes, our history into some robotic equivalent, to include a synthesized voice. So that long after we are dead our children, our great-great-grandchildren will be able to dial up their great-great-grandparent in the cloud to ask a question, to recall their history in their own voice. It will sound real, just like Grandma.

When the Jade Rabbit said “Good night Earth, good night humanity” as the lunar night closed in, the future of space exploration seemed not only more possible but more real.