Merging Man and Machine to Reach the Stars
An educator shows his students the martian landscape during the March 2007 FLAME expedition to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
Credit: The Mars Society.

Robots and humans always seem to end up at odds, whether it's battling over pieces of NASA's budget or literally fighting in science fiction stories such as "The Matrix" and "Battlestar Galactica."

Now a former NASA historian and an American University professor suggest that the future of space exploration could very well depend on a merging of metal and flesh.

Their new book "Robots in Space" (2008, The Johns Hopkins University Press) looks at the competing visions for robotic vs. human space exploration, and concludes that neither will get far beyond the solar system without one another.

That means humans may need to draw from the Sci-Fi realm yet again and morph into something new, like a cyborg, to head for distant stars.

What's lacking

Human efforts dominated early space exploration because machines simply lacked the brainpower. Even Arthur C. Clarke, the visionary science fiction author who died recently, first imagined a network of geosynchrous communications satellites as space stations with human operators onboard.

German scientist and American space pioneer Wernher Von Braun drew support for human spaceflight from the Cold War rivalry and from pioneering themes of the American West. The public imagination was fired up by early speculation that planets such as Venus and Mars harbored Earth-like conditions for life — something that robotic explorers later found to be untrue.

"We were certainly interested in the fact that none of the spaceflight godfathers who talked about flying in space really focused on the robotics side," said Roger Launius, National Air and Space Museum senior curator and co-author of "Robots in Space."

Robotic capabilities gradually improved and allowed cheaper robotic missions to make long journeys to the outer planets. At the same time, near-Earth human programs such as the space shuttle and International Space Station racked up billions of dollars in unanticipated costs.

Many scientists now support robotic missions as cheaper alternatives to human missions, but human spaceflight advocates still dream of returning people to the moon and perhaps even going to Mars.

However, support for the dream of human spaceflight has fallen away with the end of the Cold War and the pioneering American West receding into historical memory. That leaves a gap in the public imagination that robotics has yet to fill.

"The lack of a compelling story associated with robotic spaceflight means that side of the equation has not been developed as well as the human side," Launius said.

Suicide missions

Launius and co-author Howard McCurdy of American University argue that NASA needs to take a hard look at its real goals in space exploration. Among five major reasons they list to go into space — including scientific discovery, commercial applications, national security, geopolitical prestige, and survival of the species — only the last absolutely requires humans.

That blunt assessment is unintentionally echoed by the artificial intelligence Agent Smith of "The Matrix," who sneers "Never send a human to do a machine's job." Smith may have a point despite his villainous nature, as robots increasingly become cheaper and safer proxies for humans on dangerous space missions.

"Nobody told Spirit and Opportunity [Mars Rovers] that they're on a suicide mission," Launius said. "If the objective is science, that's all well and good."

Human spaceflight advocates who want to see people get off Earth have a legitimate cause, according to the authors, but need to openly discuss that rationale instead of masking it.

"If objective is to become multi-planetary species, then we have to fly people," Launius noted. "I wish we were a bit more honest about that."

Funding human spaceflight based on survival of the species would be a hard sell, though, and may just get harder. Several national and online surveys have shown a trend where 18-24 year-olds largely oppose sending humans to Mars, citing reasons such as "too far and too much money" and the risks to astronauts.

On the other hand, many young adults express more enthusiasm over robotic missions to Mars, such as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

"What we find is that young people seem to be able to relate much more easily to robotic missions, and therefore get more excited about them," said Mary Lynne Dittmar, President and CEO of Dittmar Associates, Inc., who conducted some surveys.

Reality check

Perhaps the only thing that can inspire fresh zeal for space exploration comes from finding new Earth-like planets around other stars, according to Launius and McCurdy.

However, humans and robots can't even attempt an interstellar journey yet. Robots lack the mental power and flexibility to conduct distant missions far from human handlers, while humans remain vulnerable to the effects of space radiation, aging, and other physical hazards in space travel.

A solution may arise from the vision of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, who sees humans and robots eventually merging to combine the best traits of both. That's not entirely a fantasy.

"In the process of enhancing yourself technologically, you've become a cyborg," Launius said, listing glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, and hip replacements as examples of technological aids people use daily. Launius and McCurdy also point out that NASA conducted studies on cyborg technologies in the 1960s.

The idea of human-robot hybrids is popular in science fiction, and most recently in the critically acclaimed show "Battlestar Galactica." The show depicts humans fighting for survival against robot-like Cylons, but also examines what happens when certain Cylon models have biological parts and appear human.

"The humans in the show view the Cylons as machines and not entities which they should have any compassion or concern for," Launius observed. That allows the humans to justify killing or torturing Cylons, although the line between human and Cylon has become blurred as the show enters its fourth and final season.

So the real question may not be if humanity reaches for the stars, but what it needs to become to do so.

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