High quality production photos of Robonaut (R2) in Building 14 EMI chamber and R1/EMU photos in Building 32 - Robonaut Lab. Photo Date: June 1, 2010. Location: Building 14 - EMI Chamber/Building 32 - Robonaut Lab. Photographers: Robert Markowitz & Bill Stafford.
The real Question: Humans Vs Robots. Courtesy of Robert Markowitz & Bill Stafford.
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Who is better in Space? Us or the Robots? A creative inquiry.

Human Vs Robotic exploration has been – and is still- of a major reason for debate between many scientists. Each presents their own claims and why their ideas are better. It has also been( as usual) a major topic in SciFi movies and has attracted a lot of fans. Before we delve into the pros and cons of space exploration, let us first discuss the opinion held by both parties.

On SpacePlace, NASA discusses the various types of robots they send to space. Most known to the public, there are rovers and others like the hedgehog and humanoid robots which are of less fame in the public. NASA argues the importance of robotic missions, and the missions’ preeminence over human exploration. NASA says “We can send robots to explore space without having to worry so much about their safety… Sending a robot to space is also much cheaper than sending a human. Robots don’t need to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom. They can survive in space for many years and can be left out there—no need for a return trip!

Plus, robots can do lots of things that humans can’t. Some can withstand harsh conditions, like extreme temperatures or high levels of radiation. Robots can also be built to do things that would be too risky or impossible for astronauts.” The claim seems to be very convincing; it costs a lot of money sending humans to explore space. However, others, like the one I am going to discuss, might argue that the robotic missions although, seemingly very efficient and cheaper, are not actually necessarily cheaper or better than human explorations.

In this May 2017 photo, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer works outside the U.S. Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station. Courtesy of NASA
In this May 2017 photo, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer works outside the U.S. Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

Ian A Crawford, the writer of an arXiv paper arguing human exploration of space is efficient, lists the main points where human exploration of space had an undebatable lead over robotic space exploration. One instance he uses to argue is the Apollo mission. By far, it is one of the most important missions undergone. He argues “Spirit and Opportunity are fantastic things on Mars, but the fact that they’ve traveled as far in eight years as the Apollo astronauts traveled in three days speaks volumes.” Perhaps, Mars, being approximately 142 times more distant than the moon, we might think the assumption might be absurd. However, the assumption is still a valid point if we consider the time gap. Crawford, again, argues “We may be able to make robots smarter, but they’ll never get to the point where they can make on the spot decisions in the field, where they can recognize things for being important even if you don’t expect them or anticipate them,”. Although all this has to do with the AI of robotics, the assumption seems to be valid, at least for now. Generally, Crawford states that Human Exploration dominates the exploration for the following reasons:

  • On-the-spot decision making and flexibility
  • Greatly enhanced mobility and attendant opportunities for geological exploration and instrument deployment
  •  Greatly increased efficiency in sample collection and sample return capacity
  • Increased potential for large-scale exploratory activities
  • The development of a space-based infrastructure 

Crawford argues that the cheapness of the robotic missions should not be taken for granted since it is more probable than not that the robots will not return. And compared to the sample they return back to Earth, Crawford argues that the cost may be worth spending, as Crawford puts it “We’re still benefiting from the scientific legacy of those few soil samples brought by the Apollo mission, but we can only do this because we went to the Moon, got these samples, and came back, If we sent a rover to Mars along with a return vehicle, that would enormously increase its scientific impact, but that’s hasn’t been implemented yet because its still incredibly expensive.”

The Curiosity rover takes a self-portrait on a Martian sand dune.
The Curiosity rover takes a self-portrait on a Martian sand dune.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
 

On the other hand, significant others, like Daniel Brit, a member of the International Astronomical Union, argue “For crewed spacecraft, Venus and Mercury are impossibly hot, and the asteroid belt and Jupiter are impossibly cold. The longer travel times to these worlds would be a death sentence from radiation exposure, not to mention bone loss and muscle atrophy.” Further, on contamination, while on the search for life, he notes that “Imagine trying to search for life on Mars with human explorers who are shedding pollutants and terrestrial contamination with literally every step and breath.” Some scientists believe that there is actually a possibility that we may already have contaminated Mars.

At this point, we know which factors are decisive in Human Vs. Robotic  Space Exploration: cost, survival(humans), sample amount per cost, accuracy and on-spot decision making, over the others.

From the SciFi movies we know, we may learn much about space exploration without actually going through one. For instance, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see that the robot “betrays” the crew, and although we may not have reached this level of intelligence in robotics, it is still something to be weighed during decision making. From the movie First Contact, we see that robots might not be needed at all. Diverting to real situations, for instance, the landing of the Hayabusa on an asteroid; it is something very difficult to be achieved for manned space missions. For missions that are very far from Earth, like the Voyager, robotics might be the only solution. 

So, the bottom line is, it all depends on the types of missions we are undergoing and the specific things we are looking for in the missions. As Britt put it, “Both are synergistic and mutually dependent.

References

Crawford, I. (2012) Dispelling the myth of robotic efficiency: why human space exploration will tell us more about the Solar System than will robotic exploration alone. Astronomy and Geophysics. 2.22-2.26. Retrieved 18 November 2019 from the arXiv database

Britt, Daniel, and Joshua Colwell. “Are robots or astronauts the future of space exploration?” Pegasus Magazine. Web. <https://www.ucf.edu/pegasus/opinion/>.

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Aaron is the founder and president of The Physics Times. He is an undergraduate college student majoring in physics. He likes physics and enjoys listening to classical music.

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