MARTY RUSSELL: Note to NASA: Make sure he's not named Hal

Now that the election is over and it’s safe to turn on the TV again, you might want to tune in Thursday morning to watch a NASA spacecraft named EPOXI fly within 450 miles of a comet and send back live pictures of the encounter. It should beat watching politicians sling mud at each other.
The comet is named Hartley 2 and is visible as a bluish green blob near the huge red star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion in the pre-dawn hours.
Thursday EPOXI, somehow a shortened version of Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization and Deep Impact Extended Investigation (those guys at NASA love their acronyms), will fly close by Hartley 2 and snap pictures of the tiny comet estimated to be less than a mile wide.
The flyby will be televised live on NASA TV and on the agency’s website from 8:30 a.m. until 10:10 a.m. This will be EPOXI’s second encounter with a comet.
In 2005, the spacecraft shot at and hit Comet Tempel 1 to see what kind of debris was thrown up.
It’s amazing what NASA has been able to do with robots in the decades of dwindling interest (and funding) for manned spaceflights. The New York Times reported Tuesday that a NASA team now wants to send a humanoid robot to the moon after the Obama administration canceled plans for a manned return there.
In fact, a prototype of the human-like robot dubbed Robonaut 2 is on board the space shuttle Discovery scheduled to lift off today for a trip to the International Space Station.
According to NASA, Robonaut 2 will take care of “housekeeping” chores aboard the space station and may eventually be used for spacewalks. No word on whether it sports a lace cap a la Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid.
But now a team at NASA wants to send him, her, it to the moon and claims it can be done for about $500 million – far less than a manned trip – and in about 1,000 days. Robots, after all, don’t need air, water, Tang or fancy space toilets, and they don’t need to bring their golf clubs along.
Robots are great tools. They do what they’re told, work around the clock without breaks and don’t have unions or contracts. But they also lack imagination and curiosity which makes them, in my opinion, poor substitutes for human explorers.
What, for instance, would be a robot’s first words upon setting foot on the moon? “Arrived at destination. Now what?”
Maybe the president got it wrong when he canceled the plan to send men (and presumably women) back to the moon.
Perhaps instead we should send robots to Washington and politicians to the moon. Only one way, of course.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu.

Marty Russell