Tuesday, 11 June 2013

It’s about people, not robots!

Something wonderful happened at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) last week.  Yes, there were robots and lasers and gadgets and remote control-stuff going on in a Mars-like environment, but that was not the best part.
The best part was that a group of students, affiliated by common interests through a training program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), learned how to operate a space mission.

Guided by their professors, these students learned how to set the scientific objectives for a mission, determine how to meet those objectives through investigations, design experiments using instruments to make measurements, plan a mission for a robot to go out and make these measurements in the Mars yard, deal with anomalies, gather data, and analyse the data.  They had to work as a team, develop efficient communications, and they had to develop decision-making protocols to be able to make the so-called “analogue mission” a success.

From create.uwo.ca
I love these analogue missions because if you do it right, it’s not about the robots, it’s about the lessons the people learn while carrying out these missions.  Operating a mission is a skill in itself that is best learned in a hands-on environment.  Robots and instruments need to be designed around scientific questions, not the other way around.  It's through this type of activity that you really learn how to do science in space.

Despite deep cuts in their budget and staff, the great people at CSA made their facilities available and what is left of their expert staff to the joint activity.  They are working with academia, industry (who built the robots), and NSERC (who fund the universities), to try make sure that the human capacity to fly missions in space might actually still exist in Canada when the federal government wakes up and realizes that Canada has fallen behind internationally in space activities. 

Even if in two years, a new government comes in and “turns on” the money again for space in Canada, we won’t be able to react efficiently.  People are leaving CSA now and leaving the country now and we will not be left with the human capacity to invest the money smartly, unless more of this relatively cheap type of training activity continues.  It can take 10 years to train someone to become a contributing member of a community like the space community.

Let us never lose sight that there are people behind technology.  Even if the money for space is not a priority, the money for people must always be a priority.


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