Will Robots Replace Astronauts?

Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.

NASA's Robonaut once lived on the space station, but was more of a research experiment than a crew member.

The question of how best to explore space—with astronauts or robots—has never been settled, and is rarely even debated in a rigorous way. Each camp has passionate advocates and well-worn arguments. NASA, for its part, takes a neutral stance (“We need both!”), hoping that the controversy will go away.

In their new book Robots in Space, Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum and Howard McCurdy of American University breathe new life into the subject by examining its history as well as its possible future. They call for a new vision of human spaceflight—a transhuman program that takes into account current trends in robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other fields that are rapidly changing the nature of both humans and machines.

The question of “humans or robots” may soon have to be settled: Astronauts and Mars rovers do, in fact, compete for scarce federal funds. One of the current U.S. presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama, has said he would consider shifting the balance between human and robotic exploration, while Republican John McCain has expressed support for NASA’s current plans to build a moonbase and send astronauts on to Mars. Before making any decisions, both candidates would do well to read this book. Launius and McCurdy recently sat down with Air & Space Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt to talk over some of their ideas.

A&S: Let’s start with what I think is an especially provocative quote from your book: “The dominant vision of space exploration, in which humans with the assistance of machine servants complete heroic journeys into the cosmos, is already outmoded. It may persist for a few more years, but it is technologically and culturally archaic.” What do you mean by that?

Launius: We mean that something happened that no one predicted at the beginning of the Space Age. Our technological capabilities in some areas far outstripped our capabilities in other areas—we were able to build robots that are massively more sophisticated than what we dreamt of in the 1950s. Humans have not had a similar increase in capacity, which is why [the current approach] is really outmoded. The vision as it is currently promulgated may persist for a few more years, but I believe that in the not-too-distant future, within 20 or 25 years at the latest, we’ll have to come to grips with this new reality.

McCurdy: If you go back and look at the [old] cultural concept of a robot, both in science fiction and popular science, it’s basically a vision of the robot as servant. The ultimate example is the robot that cleans your house or your swimming pool. In a way, it was the substitute for servants that began to disappear after the Edwardian era, when people who would have been servants got educated and didn’t want to do that work anymore. So how do we replace the cook? The answer is, you build a machine that does that work. Now that’s all changing, because the capacity of machines is quickly coming to a stage where that relationship is no longer viable. What we ultimately want to do in space—particularly beyond our own solar system—can’t be done with robots of the conventional mode. It can’t be done with robots as servants. It has to be done with robots that are as smart as human beings.

Launius: Or smarter.

A&S: Because of the distances?

McCurdy: Because of the distances that are involved. There was a wonderful television show we mention in the book called “Alien Planet,” which ran a year or two ago. Humans send a robotic probe to a nearby star, which has a habitable planet. When the probe gets there, it dispatches three smaller craft that are supposed to land and explore. The first one blows up on entry. So the other two have to conduct their own investigation to find out what went wrong with the first one to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That kind of problem-solving capacity has so far been restricted to human beings, but we’re going to need machines that have that capability. There’s a flip side to it: If humans go, they’ll need the endurance of machines. They’re going to have to be able to resist radiation to the same degree that machines do.

A&S: One of the points you make in the book is that if we just keep following the same script that Wernher von Braun and others laid out beginning in the 1950s—first Earth orbit, then the moon, then Mars—it’s essentially a dead end at Mars.

McCurdy: It doesn’t go beyond Mars. Even if you could terraform Mars into a new Earth over 1,000 years, maybe the dreams of some space pioneers will come true and it becomes a place that humans could live. And that would be fascinating—I’m certainly in favor of a multi-planet species. But it stops there. The outer solar system is not going to be very conducive to human exploration. That will largely be done by machines. If humans are going to go anyplace else, it’s going to be outside of the solar system. And that raises the question, “Well, how do you do that?”

A&S: Let me throw out a couple of the conventional arguments for sending humans into space. One is that “it’s in our DNA,” or maybe just in American culture, to “conquer frontiers.”

Launius: First off, I reject the premise. That’s not what defines America, and it’s also not a very attractive feature in many respects—displacing peoples who were subjugated in a brutal way in some instances, and pillaging the land and extracting from it all of the resources without any thought about the future. That’s not a very attractive metaphor for an expansion beyond this planet, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve heard lots of NASA folks say, “It’s in human nature to want to explore, to climb the mountain and cross the river and do all those sorts of things.” That’s one instance of exploration, but only one instance. One might suggest that the truest exploration you’ll ever undertake is an exploration of your own self-awareness, which might not involve physical movement anywhere. So, even if you think that exploration is somehow in our genes, it takes a variety of forms.

As a historian, I tend to look at these things with a long view. And if you look at American expansion and exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not because we were just seeking to explore. It was because we were in search of resources, in search of wealth. That seems to be one of the true problems with spaceflight thus far. We have not found those economic gains in space. We didn’t find anything when we landed on the moon that made us want to go back. Had we found it, we would have been going back over and over again. And that’s why it’s been such a tough sell since 1972.

A&S: Another argument for humans in space is that we need to move “off planet” because Earth could be destroyed at any minute—either from an asteroid strike or from our own doing. I have to say, that argument has always bothered me. I don’t like the idea of having a “backup planet” that gives us license to do whatever we want with this one.

McCurdy: Roger and I are very clear on this: The notion that humans are stuck on this planet is a very disappointing one to us. I built rockets when I was a kid, and was a space exploration fan. We would very much like humans to diversify, to spread themselves galactically. But I find the “asteroid strike” argument a bit strange. If we have a trillion dollars to defend ourselves against an asteroid strike, why would we move a couple hundred people to Mars instead of spending the money to protect the eight billion that are already here? That doesn’t seem very democratic to me. I think you’d invest your resources in asteroid deflection.

As a species, we have prospered because we have dispersed, and there’s no reason to think we can’t continue that in the interstellar realm. But you’ve got to get into the question of exactly what part of humanity is dispersing, and how does it happen. The von Braun paradigm says you take a human being, you put him on Mars, you have a colony, and all of a sudden Mars becomes the second Earth. Well, that’s biologically unreasonable. It’s not likely to happen.

The people who live on Mars won’t be Homo sapiens. They will have their roots in humanity, but they will be something different—Homo cosmos. You’re not going to move humans off the Earth like fish in a bubble. Transformations will occur, either planned or unplanned.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when NASA had a lot of money and no one was looking, the agency sponsored a series of studies on how humans might speed up the process of evolution if we spread to other planets. Why rely upon the forces of natural evolution when you’re a technologically advanced society? Why wait ten thousand or ten million years for nature to make these adjustments to different planetary conditions when you can speed it up? It’s biological engineering, some of it mechanical, some of it genetic. You can hardly avoid reading about the transhumanism movement on the Internet these days. Some people believe that within 30 years, humans will have control over their own biological makeup through genetic engineering.

A&S: I hadn’t known about those NASA studies. My first reaction is, “Wow, they had a lot more imagination back then!”

McCurdy: Well, they had a lot more money (laughs).

Launius: But they had more imagination as well. I mean, in the 1960s, the two scientists who coined the term “cyborg” were operating under a NASA grant. They conducted a study that asked which was easier to do—create an environment where humans can survive in space, or change the humans so they can survive there naturally? And they thought, actually, it might be easier to do the latter.

A&S: If NASA took your “alternative paradigm” to heart, what should they be doing now to become a modern, forward-thinking space agency again? It seems to me they’re still playing out the old von Braun script.

McCurdy: Well, the current paradigm still has legs. I mean it’s not over today. It could be 30 years, it could be 300 years. But ultimately it’s a dead end. And the question is: Why can’t we start laying the groundwork for what lies beyond? It’s because the fiscal demands of sending astronauts to the moon and all the science projects are basically driving out the innovative work to lay the groundwork for what lies beyond.

A&S: You have specific recommendations in the book for what might be done. You talk about making a big push to identify earthlike planets around other stars.

McCurdy: Yeah. If Mars didn’t turn out to be the Mars we imagined, then where is Mars? If that’s not too Zen-like for you, that’s the question. Where is the Mars we thought Mars was?

Launius: Or, frankly, where’s the next Earth?

A&S: Your other priorities are bringing down launch costs and developing new propulsion systems. What if NASA were to focus on that kind of research and leave human spaceflight to the private sector, now that space tourism is starting to develop? Would NASA still get $17 billion a year from Congress? Some defenders of the traditional astronaut program say it would be, “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.” NASA’s budget would be cut, and none of the forward-looking things would happen.

Launius: I’ve heard over and over again that it’s the human space program that floats all of NASA’s boats, and that you wouldn’t get political support for these other, more mundane things. I don’t think the other things are that mundane, to be perfectly honest. I think what we’ve seen is a transformation of society in the last 25 years. We’re so much more technology-savvy. We’re used to machinery that does all kinds of things for us, and to robot explorers that go out and are connected to our computer workstations at home or in the office or in a coffee shop. It’s a new way of looking at it. And I think you find, especially among young people, that they don’t have any issues with [robotic exploration]. In fact, they look at the human program as being kind of boring and passé.

A&S: Another quote from your book: “The civil space program works best when it is pursuing the next big thing. It does not lend itself well to repetition.” But here we are, going back to the moon, with hardware that looks a lot like Apollo hardware. And even that won’t happen, optimistically, until after 2020. A moon landing may seem pretty dull in 2020, given other technological and cultural changes likely to be happening by then.

McCurdy: The whole idea of going to the moon was to prepare to go to Mars. Which, in itself, is exciting because we haven’t done that before. But, now, since it’s being stretched out and NASA’s running out of money, the moon’s becoming an end in itself. And the technology being developed to go back to the moon is not going to get us to Mars—not within NASA’s budget. It’s just economically infeasible. It’s the wrong technology.

A&S: Here’s another common argument for sending humans to Mars: Even though robots have the huge advantage of being cheaper and safer, an astronaut geologist on Mars could accomplish in 15 minutes what it’s taken the Mars rovers five years to do.

McCurdy: Well that’s true...

Launius: But it’s a false dichotomy.

McCurdy: Sending astronauts is going to cost a trillion dollars.

Launius: One thing we haven’t discussed yet is why do we want to send people? Howard and I are children of the 1950s and ’60s, the heroic era of spaceflight. And we think it’s cool. But the fun factor probably isn’t a sufficient reason to support it.

McCurdy: The military doesn’t have the “send humans” point of view. In the book we  get into the robotics work being done by DARPA and other military organizations. Their attitude is completely the reverse of NASA’s: Send no soldier into harm’s way.

Launius: If you can do it with a robot, do it with a robot.

A&S: Ocean exploration went the same way. In 1960 two explorers went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a bathyscape. They took a little flag down there and everything. But nobody ever felt compelled to go back, or to build a colony on the ocean floor.

Launius: We have not really come to grips with what is it we’re trying to accomplish. Why do we want to send these people into space? I would contend that if it’s not to become a multi-planetary species, then there’s really no point.

McCurdy: And if that’s your goal, let’s start thinking about what part of humanity is going, which gets us into these transhumanist questions immediately.

A&S: If it’s transhumans who are going to colonize space, then maybe the real space program is happening today in the Human Genome Project, not NASA.

Launius: Yeah, conceivably.

McCurdy: John Glenn was not launched on a NASA rocket [but on a missile developed by the U.S. military]. So the real work today may be being done at DARPA and the Human Genome Project, which NASA will eventually have to tap into. In the next White House, whoever’s elected in November, there will be tremendous pressure to cut the federal budget. And my warning to fans of [traditional] human spaceflight would be: You’re putting yourself into a dead end because you’re doing things that don’t have a long-term capacity for generating public interest.

Launius: We’ve attached all these hopes and dreams to Mars from the very beginning. And we’ve modified those hopes and dreams, but not all that much. We’re still talking about Mars as a place where we can live, and we still think we’re going to find evidence of life there. We have these preconceptions about Mars that go back more than a century, to the canals and all the stuff that Percival Lowell talked about. When I was kid in the ’60s, my science book said almost as a certainty that there had to be life forms on Mars. Then Mariner 4 went there, and sent back pictures of craters. And it wasn’t that we abandoned our hope of finding anything intriguing. We just said, “Well, okay, we’re looking in the wrong place.” So the Viking landers were designed to look for signs of biological life. They found nothing. And, again, we didn’t abandon the idea altogether.

McCurdy: We just didn’t dig deep enough.

Launius: Didn’t dig deep enough. So now we’ll look for evidence of past life. Leon Festinger’s book, When Prophecy Fails, is about a millennial group whose prophet predicted the end of the world. Well, the date came and went, and nothing changed. Logic would suggest that maybe these people would realize this is all nonsense and leave. No, they didn’t! Not at all! They simply modified their beliefs slightly. You know, maybe they got the date wrong, or maybe the world did end and they just didn’t realize it. Any number of explanations. But they didn’t abandon their idea. And that’s what we’ve seen with Mars over and over again.

McCurdy: The idea of extraterrestrial life is very compelling on all levels, from intelligent life down to the microbial level. We would really like to know whether we’re absolutely alone. We’d like to know the answer to the question of whether or not Earths are rare. And then there’s the whole flying saucer thing, which has mystical and religious connotations that somehow there are greater powers more technologically advanced than we are. So at all levels, it is one of the most powerful social factors supporting the space program. Some of it’s pretty outmoded. But, like Roger says, if it’s outmoded, all you have to do is to change it slightly.

A&S: Let’s talk about a recent case where NASA compared the capabilities of humans versus robots in space—the question of how the Hubble Space Telescope could be repaired without jeopardizing the lives of astronauts. They asked a National Academy of Sciences panel whether robots could do the repair. And the answer basically came back, “no.”

McCurdy: We looked at the capabilities of humans and robots on a number of levels—distance traveled by rovers versus humans, and things like that. At the present time, humans are more efficient as explorers than robots. But, the gap was enormous 50 years ago, and it has closed considerably. If you just plot the trend lines another 30 years or so...

Launius: Robots are going to surpass humans...

McCurdy: ...it may turn out that robots have greater capabilities than human beings. But, right now, today—and the Hubble repair is very interesting because it’s one of the few missions where robots and humans go head to head—the robots are riskier, and just as expensive, if not more so.

Launius: This is kind of the bottom line in the book. Humans have great capability for problem solving and creativity. And when they’re faced with something that’s out of the ordinary, that they haven’t trained for or plotted out in detail, they can often figure out a way to solve the problem. That’s not true with most robots. Yet that may change. If [futurists] like Ray Kurzweil are correct, it’s going to change soon. But we’re not there yet.

On the other hand, humans are enormously fragile, and the space environment is instant death to us, while robots are quite hardy and becoming more so all the time. How do you combine the best elements of both? This is where we get into the cyborg stuff, the transhuman story. Maybe the best of both worlds is a merger of humans and machines to be creative and insightful as well as hardy and robust.

I was talking to a flight surgeon at a conference recently, who was dissing the moon program that NASA’s got under way. He was talking specifically about the radiation hazard that exists on the lunar surface. Obviously, you can build bunkers and have people live underground. We understand how to do that. But it’s not easy to do in a place like the moon. And he says, “The guys you see wandering around on the lunar surface in spacesuits? That’s not going to happen! We can’t allow them to do that, because they’re going to be toast.” So NASA’s now trying to build radiation-hardened rovers so the astronauts can drive someplace and send smaller machines outside to do work for them. And the flight surgeon says, “Well, why don’t we just go the next step, and have them drive the machines from their offices at the Johnson Space Center?”

A&S: To which the answer is...

Launius: That they don’t want to hear that!

McCurdy: Maybe for the first 50 years of spaceflight, there was a dichotomy between humans and robots. But the more things we want to do in space, the less of a dichotomy there is, and the more the two sides tend to merge.

A&S: The trouble is, NASA’s lunar base is still 20 years off. So we could get into the ridiculous situation of finally finishing our base for astronauts, only to find that the robots have been there for years.

McCurdy: Sort of like the military fighting the wrong war. Which is one of the issues we’re trying to raise in the book. We hope that people will start to think now about what will be out there in 30 or 50 years, and not necessarily be governed by a paradigm or vision that was created 50 years ago under very different technological and cultural conditions.

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