Skip navigationHumans vs. Robots: Who's best in space?

1. Learning from Columbia

2. A troubled hybrid

3. The argument for people

4. Pointless exercise?

5. Making sense of the debate





Critic: "You certainly can't justify the shuttle and space  station on the basis of science."













Two Voyager spacecraft, shown in a full-scale model, were launched in 1977. Right: The science boom, holding cameras and other instruments . Center: the high-gain antenna for communication with Earth. The shiny gold disk is a record bearing messages and pictures from our planet. The Voyagers checked out Jupiter and Saturn before leaving the solar system; they are now the most distant artificial objects. Photo: NASA.













A splendid spring at the north pole of Mars! As the pole thaws, a temperature difference between the cold frost and warming surface causes swirling winds and dust storms. In the above mosaic from Mars Global Surveyor, the white stuff is frozen carbon dioxide. The choppy clouds show at least three dust storms. Photo: NASA.


Rockets and Buck Rogers: Odd combo?
small toy robot floats: Robbie the RobotThe "conquest" of space has all along been a hybrid animal. When the space program was conceived during the Cold War, "keeping up with the Russians" was an unquestioned goal. After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States raced to launch its own satellites.

astronaut floatsAs astronauts rode bucking space capsules on increasingly ambitious missions, science started as a hitchhiker. By the first moon landings, in 1969, however, space science had come into its own: Moon rocks carried priceless information about the origin of the solar system, and robot spacecraft were reaching deeper into the solar system.

But the astronauts paid a heavy price. In 1967, three died on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. In 1987, seven died in Challenger. This year, seven more died on Columbia.

Behind the headlines about manned triumphs and disasters, however, commercial, military and scientific space programs were flourishing with a lot of help from radios, computers and robots:

Commercial: Telecommunications, weather forecasting, global positioning systems.

Military: Spy satellites and secret communications systems.

Science: Missions to Mars, Jupiter and beyond sent astounding images of the solar system.

Astronomy and astrophysics exploded with the help of orbiting telescopes like Hubble and Chandra.

Costs mount
But as the cost of space exploration grew and the Cold War waned, the inevitable conflict between what could be bought and what should be bought intensified. The final crunch came with a project promoted by President Ronald Reagan as "Space Station Freedom." When the first bits of the International Space Station began orbiting in 1998, it was already way over budget.

The leggy spacecraft, looking shiny, pristine and buglike, against a dark background. Bowl-shaped antenna aims upward.

In 2001, NASA, lead for the first time by a bean-counter (Sean O'Keefe, who had criticized the agency while at the Office of Management and Budget), confronted the growing tide of red ink by cutting station plans back to a minimum, called "core complete."

We'll see details later, but the cutbacks were a problem. Herman Cummins, a professor of physics at the City College of New York, served on a National Research Council committee evaluating science on the station. The group, he says, "concluded that current budget considerations that are driving ISS finances make it the equivalent to building a $100 million mansion, but not having enough money to run electric wiring or plumbing."

Critics carp
In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, some scientists have tempered their criticism about the wisdom of using people rather than robots. But a longstanding tradition of opposition, especially to the space station, is on record. In 2000, for example, University of Maryland physicist Robert Park wrote that robot and remote-control satellites are doing the critical space tasks -- astronomy, meteorology, communications, espionage and navigation -- "far better and more cheaply than would ever have been possible with humans."

Mars, shrouded with beige and gray swathes of land, looms against the background of space. A white disk at the center shows the frozen pole.

Park, a noted debunker of what he considers pseudo-science (see "Voodoo Science" in the bibliography), added that space-station studies of the effect of microgravity, "Come at a very steep price, it is more hype than substance, and the scientific community regards the ISS with something akin to contempt."

Post-tragedy, even the acid-tongued Park was more circumspect, telling us, "I've been getting a certain amount of hate mail." But he argued that the human vs. robot the issue would not fade away. The doomed Columbia mission "was the last scheduled science mission for a shuttle," he observes. "From here on they were supposed to do that [science] on the ISS, to make it look good."

Although the Columbia crash was costly in human terms, Park says it may further the debate over how to explore space. "This whole thing is going to open a discussion of whether we should continue with the shuttle program at all," says Park. "The argument I have been making is that you certainly can't justify the shuttle and space station on the basis of science."

Oh yeah?


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