How much do we need humans in space? How much do we want them there? Astronauts embody the triumph of human imagination and engineering. Their efforts shed light on the possibilities and problems posed by travel beyond our nurturing Earth. Their presence on the moon or on other solar-system objects can imply that the countries or entities that sent them there possess ownership rights. Astronauts promote an understanding of the cosmos, and inspire young people toward careers in science.
When it comes to exploration, however, our robots can outperform astronauts at a far lower cost and without risk to human life. This assertion, once a prediction for the future, has become reality today, and robot explorers will continue to become ever more capable, while human bodies will not.
Fifty years ago, when the first geologist to reach the moon suddenly recognized strange orange soil (the likely remnant of previously unsuspected volcanic activity), no one claimed that an automated explorer could have accomplished this feat. Today, we have placed a semi-autonomous rover on Mars, one of a continuing suite of orbiters and landers, with cameras and other instruments that probe the Martian soil, capable of finding paths around obstacles as no previous rover could.
Since Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972, the astronauts have journeyed no farther than low Earth orbit. In this realm, astronauts’ greatest achievement by far came with their five repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, which first saved the giant instrument from uselessness and then extended its life by decades by providing upgraded cameras and other systems. (Astronauts could reach the Hubble only because the Space Shuttle, which launched it, could go no farther from Earth, which produces all sorts of interfering radiation and light.) Each of these missions cost about a billion dollars in today’s money. The cost of a telescope to replace the Hubble would likewise have been about a billion dollars; one estimate has set the cost of the five repair missions equal to that for constructing seven replacement telescopes.
Today, astrophysicists have managed to send all of their new spaceborne observatories to distances four times farther than the moon, where the James Webb Space Telescope now prepares to study a host of cosmic objects. Our robot explorers have visited all the sun’s planets (including that former planet Pluto), as well as two comets and an asteroid, securing immense amounts of data about them and their moons, most notably Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, where oceans that lie beneath an icy crust may harbor strange forms of life. Future missions from the United States, the European Space Agency, China, Japan, India, and Russia will only increase our robot emissaries’ abilities and the scientific importance of their discoveries. Each of these missions has cost far less than a single voyage that would send humans—which in any case remains an impossibility for the next few decades, for any destination save the moon and Mars.
In 2020, NASA revealed of accomplishments titled “20 Breakthroughs From 20 Years of Science Aboard the International Space Station.” Seventeen of those dealt with processes that robots could have performed, such as launching small satellites, the detection of cosmic particles, employing microgravity conditions for drug development and the study of flames, and 3-D printing in space. The remaining three dealt with muscle atrophy and bone loss, growing food, or identifying microbes in space—things that are important for humans in that environment, but hardly a rationale for sending them there.