never send a robot to do a human’s job

Robots are a critical component of space exploration. But they're just that, a component.
explorer bots
Illustration by Igor Sobolevsky

Over at Discovery Space, yours truly is arguing that while robotic space exploration is great and really is much more efficient than sending humans across the solar systems, manned spaceflight is still not just important, but vital to the continuation of large scale space programs. Sure, landing a robot on Mars is impressive and a major feat of engineering. But humans scouring the Martian surface far more efficiently than any rover could and paving the way for future missions which will one day let mere mortals like us visit other worlds, that’s the truly exciting part of space exploration to which people can relate. Want to make people care about space? Try to make exploration cheaper and easier to give them a ray of hope that one day, we’ll walk on distant worlds.

I’ve heard countless arguments about how far more efficient and practical it is to just launch robots and while they are very persuasive, even when we take the glacial pace of exploration that comes from trying to remotely control a machine which can only carry out the most basic of tasks on its own, they completely miss the point of having a space program in the first place and ignore how to effectively drum up the money for research and development. Or as I try to word it in the article…

Humans are explorers. We want to go to new places, see new things and experience new worlds for ourselves. We were excited to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon because there were people on another world. We didn’t send a high tech camera to photograph objects of interest and send them down to a laptop at JPL.

Human eyes were looking at alien rock and human feet were making prints in [regolith] that lay untouched by any living thing. Maybe in the future, we could do it too? That’s where the excitement lay, in the possibility of science fiction novels about humans living on multiple worlds coming true, not in the joy of sending robots to look around another world for us.

Ultimately, the goal of a successful space exploration program is to give us the ability to survive beyond Earth, to escape apocalyptic catastrophes and continue on other worlds. Today, we rely on this planet’s temporarily hospitable conditions. But should we be in the crosshairs of a comet or facing an apocalyptic epidemic, we’re pretty much doomed. Having the ability to jump to another world, and becoming a truly space faring species is our ticket to perpetuating the humanity. And while many a politician or businessperson couldn’t be bothered to care any less about such global issues because they’re far from immediate and it would take decades to truly make a decent profit from our space exploration efforts, that doesn’t mean we should just ignore them too.

# tech // human spaceflight / space exploration / space travel


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