Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel

  • Published

Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel by Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 336 pp.

Roger Launius, former chief historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Howard E. McCurdy, a professor at American University, have produced a remarkably well-written and lucid book with a catchy, if misleading, title. It is not a technical manual or catalogue of the various robots that humans have sent to orbit Earth, prowl extraterrestrial landscapes, or pierce the heavens. Rather, the book is actually about the ongoing debate within the American civil space agency between proponents of human spaceflight and those who advocate robotic or “unmanned” spaceflight. And what a debate it is—one that has spanned more than five decades and that has ranged from boardrooms at NASA to backrooms on Capitol Hill to the living rooms of the general public!

The authors skillfully lead us through an eminently readable and entertaining history of the early “space race” and the nascent space program (although they focus on broad brushstrokes, not a detailed account of each space mission), including changes in the roles of humans and robots over the past 50 years of spaceflight. Launius and McCurdy’s articulate narrative examines the paradigm that effectively dominated the civil space agency for the first few decades of its existence, the dream of human spaceflight, and human interplanetary colonization.

To some extent, advocates of human spaceflight were simply lucky in their timing: As the authors point out, “The ‘space age’ opened a few decades after the closing of what commentators termed the ‘heroic era’ of earthly exploration” (p. 100). The explorers’ exploits inspired more than a generation of science fiction writers, who “primed the pump” with wild tales of space exploration and overtly utopian depictions of life on the frontier. And the American public remained in awe of the technological marvels of the atomic age. Finally, escalating Cold War tension gave impetus to the national space race, captured the attention of the American public, “energized the creation of a larger coalition that forced policy change,” and created a “pro-space majority” made up of “pro-space true believers,” scientists, senior military leaders, businessmen, industrial engineers, and politicians “hoping to benefit from the symbolic resonances of the space race” (p. 41). If ever there was a moment when all the stars aligned to create a zeitgeist favoring a bold, new direction for American “Big Science” and the space program, this was it. And so it was that proponents of human spaceflight won the debate, and robotic missions received little priority and negligible funding.

Human spaceflight, however, reached its zenith with the Apollo moon landing in 1969. Launius and McCurdy compare the competition between human and robotic spaceflights to the fable of the tortoise and the hare. The hare dashed to an early lead in the race but then took a break, only to be overtaken by the stolidly plodding tortoise. Similarly, human spaceflight raced ahead to an impressive lead with the moon missions but then stalled; in the decades since, human spaceflight has failed to develop long-term, cost-effective solutions to the numerous problems associated with keeping humans alive in the hostile environment of space. Robotic spaceflight, meanwhile, made steady, incremental gains as robotic technology improved.

The exploration of Mars offers a perfect example of this stark contrast: despite the exhortations of several presidents to begin a manned mission to Mars, the government has yet to pony up the (estimated) $500 billion that such a mission would require. Yet for a fraction of that cost ($820 million), NASA has had two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, exploring Mars in more or less continuous operation since 2004. Since 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to the aging fleet of five space shuttles, which have flown a total of 113 missions (two of which were catastrophic failures resulting in the deaths of 14 people), have cost $40 billion (adjusted for inflation) to develop and build, and have flown only to near-Earth orbit at a cost of roughly $1.5 billion per flight. In contrast, the United States has fielded scores of more economical robotic spaceflight missions, including orbiters and probes of the moon, sun, various asteroids and comets, all of the major planets in our solar system (even including a mission to the planetoid Pluto, expected to arrive in 2015), and beyond; moreover, it has established a complex global positioning system, an impressive array of sophisticated space telescopes, and more.

Launius and McCurdy contend, however, that the competition between robotic and human spaceflight is ultimately a “false dichotomy” (p. xi). The correct paradigm involves not humans versus robots but humans and robots working together. Indeed, the book’s thesis takes this thought even further: “given enough time, human and robotic characteristics tend to merge” (p. 254). The timeline contemplated in this metamorphosis spans centuries, not decades. This may be one of the strongest aspects of the book: although it explicitly concerns the civil space agency, eschewing discussion of military space programs (thus appearing to have limited utility for a uniformed audience), the discussion of the merging of human and robotic characteristics will likely interest military readers. The authors devote the concluding two chapters to exploring ideas that the future of space travel belongs to “transhumanist” and “postbiological” entities that blend human and robotic capabilities. When earthlings eventually get around to colonizing other worlds, those beings will likely take the form of “evolved” or genetically engineered humans so changed that they bear minimal resemblance to their forebears—or they may not be biological organisms at all.

Capt Bryce G. Poole, USAF

Minot AFB, North Dakota

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."