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Space Exploration: Humans versus Robots

The debate whether people or robots should explore outer space has caused quite a bit of contention recently, so I thought that a more detailed investigation between both sides of the argument was needed. So here goes..

First, letís address each of the current reasons for space travel.

  1. Exploration: Robots can easily go where any person can go and places where people cannot. Furthermore, machines can be built to withstand harsh environments better than humans. Additionally, the long duration of some space exploration missions make robots ideal solution. Therefore, the clear winner for space exploration is robotic space probes. Thatís one point for robots.
  2. Discovery: Both humans and robots are able to discover new things. It is true that robots cannot increase scientific knowledge as much as a human being can, but the gap is narrowing. Currently, two rovers on the surface of Mars have discovered concrete evidence of recent water flowing on Mars. Of course if people were on the surface of Mars, they would be able to many more types of experiments, such as digging for water or traveling farther than the rovers. Thatís one point for humans, yet just barely and not for long.
  3. Satellites: Satellites are mostly used for communication and monitoring equipment, such as telescopes. All satellites are basically primitive robots that are controlled with minimal amount of human intervention. Furthermore, satellites are typically launched into outer space via mostly automated rockets too. As a result, we no longer need to send people into space to deploy satellites. Repairing satellites is another matter entirely. However this is quite rare and it is always easier to launch a replacement satellite than to repair one despite the costs. Thatís another point for robots.
  4. Research and Development: Scientific research and development is typically a very complicated endeavor that requires hands-on activity from people to accomplish. Robots could be programmed to do some scientific experiments, yet it would be much easier and more effective if R&D was done by people. This is the main purpose of the International Space Station. Definitely another point for humans.

So far, we have a tie with two points for humans and two points for robots. However, it looks like robots will be taking the lead in the near future because of robotic progress in scientific discoveries.

Additionally, there are two more reasons why robots are more advantageous to send into space. First, they are much safer for people. Just look at the histories of the spacecrafts of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia when human life was unfortunately lost. These deaths could have been avoided with robotic spacecraft. For instance, several failed missions to Mars, such as the Beagle 2 and Mars Polar Lander, has not caused a single person to perish.

Another reason why sending robots into space is better is because of cost. It is far cheaper to send a robot into outer space, since people need much larger spacecrafts with plenty of resources to sustain human life, such as food, water, air, environmental control systems, sanitation facilities, safety equipment, etc. All of these items add huge costs to any space mission. Robots have far fewer needs to function properly, thus they are more cost effective.

As mentioned before, the biggest advantage that people have over robots is their flexibility of tasks that they can perform and their ability to reason to solve whatever problems that may arise. Maybe one day robots could compete with humans in these regards, however this is definitely not true in the near future.

However, there is only one major advantage for sending people into space that has never happened yet and that is colonization. Letís face reality, there are a large number of disasters could destroy all of humanity on Earth, so it only makes sense to have backup plans for the survival of our species. Thus, space colonization is the only obvious long term solution, even though we do not have technology capabilities to do so now. And the only way to learn how to survive in space or other planets for long periods of time is by sending people in space now. Therefore, launching humans into space is necessary, no matter how unsafe or costly.

In conclusion, there are far more reasons why it is better launching machines into space instead of people, yet the necessity for the survival of the human race will depend on launching human colonies. Of course, sending robots into space first to help create self-sustainable environments will make colonization much easier for future human settlements to survive on their own.

by Phil for Humanity
on 20070730

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