by Jose Garcia
The last twenty years of spaceflight have been a mix of wonder and frustration. Manned spaceflight, once an inspiring force for all mankind in the heady days of Apollo, has been taken over by white elephants like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Meanwhile unmanned spaceflight often seen as a bit part is now stealing the show. While astronauts on the space shuttle have been making conference calls to school children the Hubble Space Telescope has changed the way we look at the universe. And as robotics steathily advances at a breathtaking pace that disparity will grow even larger.
The main problem with manned spaceflight isn’t one of technology but of finances and politics. Manned missions require massive spending commitments that span administrations. This ensures that they become political footballs to their detriment. JFK’s famous rallying cry for a manned mission to the moon came at the height of the cold war and enjoyed broad support that transcended political factions. A manned mission to Mars enjoys no such advantage. Several american presidents have uttered their own rallying cries for a mission to Mars which have all invariably dissipated only to be co-opted by future presidents with equally vacous calls. This situation isn’t likely to change until manned spaceflight either becomes dramatically less expensive or as high a priority as a nation arming itself. I don’t see either happening any time soon.
Unmanned spacecraft on the other hand are growing in sophistication. Deep Space 1 used a novel solar electric propulsion system while manned space propulsion seems to have advanced little since 1970. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, will be constructing their Furoshiki satellite using two spider like robots. Nasa is developing a robonaut with an eerie resemblance to Boba Fett that promises a level versatility once thought the exclusive domain of humans. Meanwhile manned spaceflight has been preoccupied with spending vast amounts of resources delivering humans into orbit only for them to hit the on switch on otherwise automated experiments.
For the cost of a single manned Mars mission we can deploy an armada of robots and unmanned spacecraft throughout the solar system. While none of these missions taken on their own is as inspiring as a video of astronauts walking on another world they’ll net us much more science and trial more technologies. These unmanned missions also give us room to take risks and make mistakes that we couldn’t with missions carrying human cargo.
Robots aren’t taking the place of humans in space. Cheap spaceflight will eventualy arrive and when it does humans will eventually be leaving their footprints all over the solar system. Until then robots will be paving the way, exploring and allowing us to test new technologies. And when humans do move out into the solar system they’ll undoubtedly be accompanied by a host of indispensible robotic familiars. It won’t be a question of humans or robots but how we can make best use of both. For the next few decades though, the stage belongs to R2D2.