Future Tense

To Boldly Go Nowhere, for Now

Why we should hit pause on manned space exploration.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's self-portrait combines dozens of exposures during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, Feb. 3, 2013. The rover is positioned at a patch of flat outcrop called "John Klein," which was selected as the site for the first rock-drilling activities by Curiosity.

Future space explorers should be somewhere between human astronauts and robots like NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On Aug. 20, NASA’s administrator formally welcomed the newest candidates of the astronaut corps and released a space exploration roadmap that includes robotic and human missions to destinations that include near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and Mars.

But given the success (both scientific and in the popular imagination) of Curiosity on Mars, we have to wonder: Is human space exploration really necessary? Can’t we just send robots for exploration and let them do the dangerous work?

Most of the arguments in favor of manned space exploration boil down to the following: a) We need to explore space using people since keeping the entire human race on a single piece of rock is a bad strategy, and even if we send robots first, people would have to make the journey eventually; and b) humans can explore much better than robots. Both these arguments are very near-sighted—in large part because they assume that robots aren’t going to get any better. They also fail to recognize that technology may radically change humans in the next century or so.

The first claim is based on the assumption that placing all our bets on Earth is a bad strategy. That is probably true. But there are already folks who are willing to be vitrified so that they can be immortal by transplanting their brain into a fresh (robotic) body. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov hopes to do by 2035 or 2045. Cryonics, or the science of preserving human beings, has been endorsed by numerous scientists. This is fringe science, to be sure. But even if one does not believe that we will have fully robotic bodies in the next 20 or 30 years, it is not far-fetched to think that at least some of us might be a combination of robotic and human systems—yes, cyborgs—in 100 years or so.  Researchers like professor Kevin Warwick of the United Kingdom have been working on such brain-computer interfaces for the past decade. Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity Is Near predicts that human beings will soon “transcend biology” and traverse the universe as immortal cyborgs. This has far-reaching implications for space travel: One can imagine cyborgs (with human consciousness) that are able to explore inhabitable planets such as Venus and Jupiter or can travel for centuries to the furthest galaxies.

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet “Earth.” Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

The second argument in favor of manned space exploration—that human eyes can be more thorough—is based on the past robotic and human missions to the moon. Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all “autonomous” or “intelligent” in any sense. They are complex machines that are controlled carefully from Earth; each instruction and move made by these rovers on Mars is first tested carefully and then uploaded. These are no different from the industrial welding machines of automobile plants or the drones used in Afghanistan. Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

A third argument that is rarely discussed, but that everyone agrees on, is that human exploration of space provides a valuable public relations opportunity. Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

So what will the future space exploration robots look like? They will look nothing like the rovers that are on Mars today. While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones. The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small “sensor networks” that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Astronauts may be able to capture the imagination better now than a personality-less robot. But for humanity’s long-term goals of exploration, science and eventual survival, the “evolving” robot may be the better bet.

More from Slate’s series on the future of exploration: Is the ocean the real final frontier, or is manned sea exploration dead? Why are the best meteorites found in Antarctica? Can humans reproduce on interstellar journeys? Why are we still looking for Atlantis? Why do we celebrate the discovery of new species but keep destroying their homes? Who will win the race to claim the melting Arctic—conservationists or profiteers? Why don’t travelers ditch Yelp and Google in favor of wandering? What can exploring Google’s Ngram Viewer teach us about history? How did a 1961 conference jump-start the serious search for extraterrestrial life? Why are liminal spaces—where urban areas meet nature—so beautiful?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.