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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Opinion: Does space belong to the robots?

Above: An astronaut floats by the window of the International Space Station, an enduring image of spaceflight with immense power to inspire.

It's the space nerd argument that never dies: Should space exploration be the province of right stuff astronauts, or of humanity's tougher servants, robots?

If you're going to set science and exploration as your goals and do a cold hearted benefit/risk & cost analysis.... sorry human spaceflight fans, it's the robots for almost every destination

True, humans have advantages over robots: We can work independently, think on our feet, negotiate our way through tricky terrain and unexpected situations. But space exploration costs, and all human advantages tend to fall rather flat in the face of a simple fact: Robots are much cheaper and much, much more disposable. So much so that, even taking into account human's advantages, on most worlds sending a human being, and getting the risks to them down to acceptable levels, costs so much that we'd still get more science done by spending the money on lots of robots instead.

But... 

The risk/benefit argument's a narrow viewpoint, and misses something crucial: Space exploration is not simply about doing science and exploration as efficiently and safely as possible. Space is an endeavour bound up in things like national pride, public enthusiasm, and what it contributes to our culture. Those are things that need a human face - and there are some humans who are much more comfortable with risks than most od us. 

Look at it like this: Russia landed a lot of successful robots on the Moon. But history doesn't remember Russia as the winners of the Moon race because they had a better cost to benefit ratio from their probes and rovers - it remembers America as the winners, because they managed to send people. 

And the risks to those people were so great that the U.S. president had a speech ready to go for if they died.

When the science and pure exploration rests on the shoulders of all the other, more emotional and human, aspects of space exploration... it seems pretty clear that loosing the manned aspect if spaceflight would have a pretty damaging knock on effect on the unmanned side.

Today there are still more factors to consider: Newspace companies are working to reduce the cost of putting humans in space (SpaceX are even planning their own Moonshot), and at the same time advances in AI and robotics are making our droids more versatile. But I don't see that race as ever having a definitive winner - both robots and humans look set to keep their places in space for a good long while.

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Above: Apollo was motivated by politics, but still did reams of good science.

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