Subject Matter Expert:
Donald Strayer and Jennifer Rochlis
Exploring space is exciting, yet
scary. Some people argue that space exploration is too dangerous
for humans. Should space explorers be human or robotic? Is
there a right choice?
NASA suggests that there’s a place
for both people and robots in space exploration. Astronaut
Ken Bowersox has been on five space flights and logged over
211 days in space. He believes that humans and robots are
both important to the study of space. According to Captain
Bowersox, “There are a lot of environments where it is not
safe or cost effective to send humans. There are also times
when a combination of both human and machine working together
can achieve the best results."
Why should robots
travel to places before people do? Robots have fewer needs
and can endure more hostile conditions. People need food,
water, and oxygen – things that robots never need. Reduced
gravity clearly affects the human body and causes the muscles
and bones of space travelers to weaken. Space radiation also
affects people in ways that can make them sick. Besides,
it takes years to travel to the outer
planets -- much too
long for an astronaut’s journey.
Robots can be programmed to do amazing things, but they
can only do what they have been programmed or commanded to
do. Uncrewed space probes scout out places before astronauts
arrive. Robotic explorers brave hostile worlds, like Venus
with its temperatures of more than 482° C (900° F), high
pressure, and acidic rainfall. Although the robots sent to
Venus and other planets never returned to Earth, the valuable
information they collected has been transmitted to Earth.
Uncrewed space probes are tools that enable astronauts and
scientists to safely gather information about the planets.
Understanding and using this information helps scientists
prepare astronauts for their trips into space.
mind can analyze a situation and adjust to unexpected situations
when necessary. NASA has landed three mobile robot rovers on Mars. Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity did their jobs
well – sending back amazing pictures and important information
about the Martian surface, but all three rovers moved slowly
across this surface. Astronauts could cover more ground and
make choices while scouting, focusing their attention only
on interesting and useful finds.
The Hubble Space Telescope, a space-based telescope that orbits Earth, has given us amazing
pictures of objects never before seen. When necessary, humans
repair and adjust the telescope. Space tools like the Hubble
Space Telescope still need humans to operate and repair them.
Seeing space through robotic eyes is much different from
seeing it through human eyes. The grainy black and white
pictures of the moon’s surface taken during the Apollo Missions
told only part of the story. The astronauts’ words helped
us all feel as though we were there. Technology has advanced
since we were on the moon, making images taken in space now
more real than the ones taken during Apollo Missions.
then there are the surprises of exploration that might be
lost without humans. Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk
on the moon, described unexpectedly finding a patch of orange-colored
soil on the “shades of gray” moon. During an interview he
talked about this discovery. “No one knew what it was, whether
it was old soil, new soil, soil from oxidized soil, an indication
of oxygen or iron ore deep from the inner surface or whatever.
It didn't turn out to be what people thought it might be,
but it was a major discovery. And that's why you send people.”
Robots might someday take over some spacewalking chores.
NASA is working on a robot called Robonaut to handle some
of the routine tasks astronauts do in space. What's different
about the latest robotic astronaut is its humanoid design
with a head, two eyes, arms, and five-digit hands. Astronauts
inside the station, on Earth, or on lunar habitat can control
the robonauts. Inside the station, astronauts will wear helmets
and gloves wired to record their motions. Outside, these
actions will immediately be transferred to robonaut that
will perform the motions. Working together, astronauts and
robots may make human space walks more efficient than we
can possibly imagine.
Scientists are working on ways to program robots with forms
of artificial intelligence similar to human thinking to enable
robots to “learn” the best way to perform tasks. Does this
mean robots in the near future will think like humans? Of
course not, but by mimicking humans and learning from mistakes,
robots will become more independent and more efficient. Communication
between humans and robots will be easier.
There is a need
for both robots and humans in space exploration. Working
as a team, astronauts and robots will help us in our quest
for space exploration. NASA is charting a bold new course
into the cosmos -- a journey that will take humans back to
the moon and eventually to Mars and beyond.