The End of Astronauts – and the Rise of Robots

How much do we need people in space? How much do we want them there? Astronauts embody the triumph of human imagination and engineering. Their efforts shed light on the possibilities and problems of traveling beyond our nourishing Earth. Their presence on the moon or on other objects in the solar system could mean that the countries or entities that sent them there have property rights. Astronauts advance understanding of the cosmos and inspire young people for careers in science.

However, when it comes to exploration, our robots can outperform astronauts at a much lower cost and without risk to human life. This claim, once a prediction for the future, has become a reality today, and robotic explorers will be increasingly capable, while human bodies will not.

Fifty years ago, when the first geologist to reach the moon suddenly recognized strange orange soil (the likely remnant of previously unsuspected volcanic activity), no one claimed an automated explorer could have accomplished this feat. Today we placed a semi-autonomous rover on Mars, one of an ongoing series of orbiters and landers, with cameras and other instruments scanning the Martian floor, capable of finding paths around obstacles like no previous rover could.

Since Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972, the astronauts have traveled no further than low Earth orbit. In this realm, the greatest achievement of astronauts with their five repair missions came to the Hubble Space Telescope, which first saved the giant instrument from uselessness and then extended its lifespan by decades by providing improved cameras and other systems. (Astronauts could only reach Hubble because the Space Shuttle that launched it couldn’t get any further from Earth, which produces all sorts of disruptive radiation and light.) Each of these missions cost about $1 billion in today’s money. The cost of a telescope to replace the Hubble would also have been about a billion dollars; one estimate has equated the cost of the five repair missions to the cost of building seven replacement telescopes.

Today, astrophysicists have managed to send all their new observatories into space to distances four times farther than the Moon, where the James Webb Space Telescope is now preparing to study a host of cosmic objects. Our robotic explorers have visited all of the sun’s planets (including that former planet Pluto), as well as two comets and an asteroid, and collected vast amounts of data about them and their moons, most notably Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, where the oceans that lie beneath lying an icy crust can harbor strange forms of life. Future missions from the United States, the European Space Agency, China, Japan, India and Russia will only increase the capabilities of our robotic envoys and the scientific importance of their discoveries. Each of these missions has cost far less than a one-way trip that would send humans — which will remain an impossibility for decades to come, for any destination except the Moon and Mars.

In 2020, NASA unveiled achievements titled “20 breakthroughs from 20 years of science aboard the International Space Station.” Seventeen of these involved processes that could have been performed by robots, such as launching small satellites, detecting cosmic particles, using microgravity conditions for drug development and the study of flames, and 3D printing in space. The other three dealt with muscle atrophy and bone loss, growing food or identifying microbes in space — things important to people in that environment, but hardly a reason to send them there.

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