Space Exploration Man versus Robots

Space ExplorationOne of the major debates about space exploration is the idea of putting people in space versus the idea of focusing on robotic exploration. It’s an argument that brings out a lot of nerd rage and I aim to take it head-on today. I’m bracing for some backlash!

I’ll tell you my position up front and avoid any suspense. I’m not a proponent of manned exploration. I think money is better spent on robotic exploration.

Now let’s take a critical look at both types of exploration and their advantages and disadvantages. Oh, and for the politically correct crowd, when I reference manned versus unmanned I’m talking about people, men and women.

Manned Exploration

The biggest advantage of sending people into space involves their ability to react to an unknown situation in a way that a computer cannot, at least cannot yet. The argument runs that if something were to go wrong that people would be able to fix it on-the-fly as it were. My rational against this idea is that at the speed events are happening humans largely cannot react fast enough, the space shuttle disasters being examples of this. The counter-argument is Apollo 13 where men were able to find a solution to a problem and fix it. My argument against that would be that there never would have been a problem if men weren’t aboard Apollo 13 in the first place. The systems involved to transport people are more complex than those used to transport machines. Oxygen catches on fire. Robots don’t need oxygen.

The second big reason you hear to promote manned missions is that if we as a race are to eventually colonize the moon and Mars we must learn how to live in a deep-space environment. This is a reasonable argument but I think there is plenty of time to test those complications out after we send in the robots to explore and prepare the way for manned missions.

Unmanned Exploration

The advantages here are many. The cost of sending robots into space is far less than sending people. The complexity of sending robots is far less than for sending people. One of the major obstacles for sending people into space is that they must have food and water. The biggest job the shuttles to the Space Station have is sending up food and taking back waste. Believe it or not, human waste is a major problem in space.

Another huge advantage of sending robots is their durability. Rovers on the moon and Mars can operate for years in the open. While it is true men would be able to drive the rover far more quickly from place to place, they are heavily restricted by radiation concerns. Shielding is a major issue for a journey to Mars or an extended stay on the moon. Men must stay in shelters a great deal of the time and prolonged exposure to radiation is a major problem for which there are not really good solutions as of yet.

To my mind the entire International Space Station idea has been a terrible waste of time and resources for the United States and the world. It is locked in low earth orbit. The total cost of the ISS is calculated at $150 billion dollars which includes shuttle flights and components provided by other nations. For that $150 billion we’ve gotten exactly what? We’ve learned about how deep space affects the human body, something we don’t need to know if we only send robotic missions. I’m not sure what else we’ve learned? It’s a long article with many links and I’m sure a proponents of Manned Missions can fill me in!

Meanwhile our robotic exploration continues to provide actionable information about planetary bodies, meteors, the sun, and other useful things that will help us eventually exploit the solar system.

I’m not completely opposed to manned exploration, I just think our resources return much more value when spent on robotic exploration. Curiosity cost about $2.5 billion although operational costs will continue (at a far cheaper rate than the ISS) to rise. Opportunity continues to provide useful information eight years after it landed and the twin rovers (Spirit conked out) total cost to date is about $1 billion.

The manned moon missions, while certainly romantic, brought us back a bunch of rocks of little value. If we put people on Mars or establish a station on the moon what is our goal? Just to do it? That’s noble but I’m all about practical when it comes to spending my tax dollars. I’m a huge proponent of space exploration and I’d keep my support if manned missions to Mars continue apace, I’d just rather see all that money spent on robotic exploration. Robotic science is in its infancy and the ability of these tools to explore space, deep-sea, underground environments far exceeds those of men.

Don’t hesitate to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments!

Tom Liberman

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