Should Robots or Humans Explore Space?

by Fraser Cain on August 27, 2013

You might be surprised to know that I have an opinion. People often ask me for it, but tend not to give it. But I was getting into a discussion with Amy Shira Teitel from Vintage Space about the priorities of humans versus robots for space explorations and offered up this opinion.

On matters of humans versus robots exploring space, this is what I think. Both, with different agendas.

Opinion: Should Robots or Humans Explore Space?

What’s the best way to explore the Solar System? Should we send humans, or robots? Robots are durable and replaceable, while humans are creative and flexible.

Space advocates line up on both sides of this discussion, and the debate can get heated.

Really heated.

Don’t be fooled. This whole conversation is a red herring.

We shouldn’t have to choose between human space exploration and robotic science, and it is absolutely ridiculous that the funding for it comes into a single agency.

Earth Waves at Cassini on July 19, 2013

Earth Waves at Cassini on July 19, 2013

The future of humanity will depend on us learning to live in space; to get off this planet and spread to the rest of the Solar System. The longer we remain trapped on this planet, the greater risk we face from a global catastrophe; whether it’s from an asteroid strike or a global plague.

We, as a species, are keeping all our eggs in one basket,

I don’t need to tell you how important science is. Our modern marvels are a direct result of the scientific method. The fact that you can even see this video (well, or read this article) should be all you need to know about the importance of science.

And we have no idea what we’ll find out there in space when we go exploring.

Were it up to me, I’d separate space exploration into two agencies, with completely different agendas and budgets.

On the science side, we need a fleet of robotic spacecraft and satellites continuously launching into space. We’d settle on a rugged, multi-purpose vehicle, which carries a variety of payloads and scientific instruments.

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic

The Curiosity Rover was an amazing success, and NASA should just keep building more rovers exactly like it. Give it cameras, grinders and scoops, but then keep the instruments open to the scientific community. Every two years, another identical rover will blast off to the Red Planet, hurling a fresh set of instruments to a new location.

Let’s send a rover and an orbiter every two years to Mars, and similar probes to other worlds, only the scientific instruments would need change. In a few years, there would be versions of the exact same spacecraft orbiting planets, asteroids and moons.

Over time, our observation of the Solar System would extend outward like a nervous system, gathering scientific knowledge at a terrific rate.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history - exactly 44 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history – exactly 44 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA

For human space exploration, we need to learn to live in space in increasingly complex ways: low Earth orbit, lunar orbit, on the lunar surface, on Mars, on asteroids, at Saturn, in the Lagrange points, et cetera.

Remember the Gemini program back in the 1960s? Each mission was an incremental step more complicated than the previous one. On one mission, the goal was just to learn if humans could survive in space for 14 days. In another mission, the goal was just to learn how to dock two spacecraft together.

This gave NASA the knowledge they needed to attempt an ambitious human landing on the Moon.

Chris Hadfield in the Cupola of the ISS. Credit: NASA

Chris Hadfield in the Cupola of the ISS. Credit: NASA

Instead of flying in low-Earth orbit for decades, our human space program could continuously advance our knowledge of what it takes to survive – and eventually thrive – in space. If NASA investigates the technologies that the private sector considers too risky to invest in, it will help jump start space exploration.

In this modern era of budget cuts, it breaks my heart that people are forced to choose between space science and human exploration.

It shouldn’t be this way. They have almost nothing in common.

Let’s do science, because science is important.

And let’s put humans in space, because humanity is important.

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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