Future Space Exploration

Will future space exploration be done by robots or humans?
Answered by James L. Green, Colin Angle and 3 others
  • James L. Green

    James L. Green

  • Colin Angle

    Colin Angle

  • Michael Massimino

    Michael Massimino

  • Christopher J. Ferguson

    Christopher J. Ferguson

  • Charles F. Bolden Jr.

    Charles F. Bolden Jr.

  1. James L. Green Director, Planetary Science Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration


    Well, when you ask a planetary scientist that, me in particular, I manage an organization for which it's all robotics. But indeed as humans leave low Earth orbit and track out into the solar system, planetary science is going to be there. You have to recognize that human exploration is not like Star Trek. It's not "go where no man has gone before."

    If humans leave low Earth orbit, they need to know everything about their destinations. They need to be able to anticipate the environment, and that kind of knowledge can only be done robotically, first, and then humans to follow. And of course, humans provide a unique perspective, and we can't wait for humans to be able to move out of low Earth orbit because we'll be there ready to help them.

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  2. Colin Angle Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, iRobot® Corp.


    I think you have to be very clear on your mission. If our goal is to colonize another planet, we have to send people. If our goal is to -- let's face it, sending people into space has a lot more excitement appeal to the general population, whereas if your goal is science, there's really no reason to send a person. Robots are that good -- that we can send them there and do the science. I think where we're succeeding is by sending increasingly sophisticated robots. The adventure of exploration can start to match the excitement of sending people, and I think that for the time being, that would be a great direction for NASA to be able to go.

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  3. Michael Massimino United States Astronaut, NASA


    I think you need a mix of these things. The scientist, probably, is human. He was a human guy you were speaking to, right? So he is a human. We all are humans, and there's a practical reason to put humans in space, but there is also the sort of impractical reason. The reason I say that he is human is that, as humans, we have curiosity. We started off with that. We have curiosity. We want to know what's out there. We want to experience it firsthand. We want to be able to not just see a picture of the Sistine Chapel, but if you are really love that artwork, your dream would be to actually see it with your own eyes, to see that ceiling.

    That is kind of what it is in space. I think it's hard to explain this because it doesn't always make sense, but we want to experience things. We are curious. We want to experience things firsthand. We may want to send a probe or robot to do something to explore an area, which is a bit dangerous and we can't get to yet, and kind of lay the groundwork, but I think ultimately we want to experience that firsthand.

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  4. Christopher J. Ferguson Former United States Astronaut, NASA


    Personally, I feel that, to capture the imagination of people though, you need to send people. I think that that is the true measure of our capability as a species. While it's extremely innovative and amazing that we can send those robotic probes there, I think that to truly test our capability as humans, and to fully consummate our discovery, we need to put a foot there, and we need to have kind of that human interaction where we hear in a human voice, like Neil Armstrong did from the surface of the moon, he described it as "fine and grainy" and he didn't sink too far into the surface.

    When you hear it in terms of a human voice, there's just a connection that's made there between the listener and the describer, and I think that you kind of drag the rest of humankind vicariously along with you when you do that. I just don't think we get that from a robotic mission.

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  5. Charles F. Bolden Jr. NASA Administrator; Former Astronaut


    They are both essential, and I think most astronauts are, quite naturally, in favor of manned. What you didn't say was, when I asked them about robotic, what did they say, and I think, if you had asked most people in the astronaut office today, "What about robots?," they would tell you we're both required. 

    If we're going to do real, honest, risky, deep-space exploration, we're going to go to other planets, we can't do it just with humans. We've got to send multiple precursors for one human mission to a destination because we've got to know what's there in terms of human health and safety. We could get it wrong, but we don't want to just say, "We don't care. We'll go ahead. We'll use the human as a guinea pig." We can't do that. Not ethically, anyway. 

    So robots are essential, and I tell kids when I go to schools today, "One of you is potentially going to be the first person to walk on Mars. When I send you there, though, one thing you're not going to have to worry about, you're not going to have to build your habitat." Robots would have gone ahead, and they would have been the precursors. Robots today can build houses. They can build cars. They can do anything. 

    Robots are going to make it much easier for humans to move into a habitat on Mars or a habitat on the moon if we decide we want to do that, and they're going to make it significantly safer for the human to be there. It's never going to be safe completely because there's risk in everything we do, but it's going to be less risky because of the presence and the cooperation of robots.

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