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




On July 20, 1969, after a four-day trip, the first Apollo astronauts reached the Moon. This photo of Earthrise over the bleak lunar horizon is one of the most famous images from space, dramatizing the importance of preserving the only planet known to foster and sustain life. Photo: NASA.
























This Chandra image of the supermassive black hole at Sagittarius A, in the Milky Way's center. While taking the longest X-ray exposure of the region, Chandra saw more than 2,000 X-ray sources, making this one of the richest regions ever observed in the X-ray spectrum. Photo: NASA.



The urge to orbit
When it comes to assessing the influence of humans in space, inspiration indeed matters, says Bruce Jakosky, professor of geological sciences at the university of Colorado, and director of an atmospheric and space physics lab.

This comes from a self-confessed "robot guy" who studies "the evolution of Mars, the potential for life, and the broader question of life in the universe."

Like many who grew up fascinated by space, Jakosky recalls the televised exploits of early astronauts. While he admits that the manned space program, "has a bad reputation within the science community as taking money away from real science, from our ability to explore," he says, "my view is a little different. We need an appropriate balance."

Gorgeous Earth, white, and blue, streaked with clouds, rises over the barren lunar plains.

Although the 1969 moon landings eventually produced good science, says Jakosky, "That wasn't what people were watching. They were watching the first steps on another space-system body, and that is a tremendous part of exploration. And that's a large part of why ISS and the shuttle are valuable. I call it exploration, and we are doing it because it excites people."

John Guilmartin, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is co-author of a history of the early space program (see "A Shuttle Chronology" in the bibliography). He says space travel changed our view of our own planet. "You can argue that the environmental movement really picked up its present head of steam" when Apollo astronauts took photos of "the beautiful planet rising over the plains of the moon." When it comes to assessing the significance of sending people into space, Guilmartin adds, "You can't separate the rational and economic from the super-rational, the subjective from the objective."

The either-or trap
In the end, the most successful space-science program shows the folly of choosing either human or robot exploration. The Hubble Space Telescope has made more discoveries about the ancient, distant universe than any other telescope.

Stunning image of multicolored spots of stars   in deep space, with a center of gleaming white flecks.

Although Hubble is run from the ground and could conceivably have been launched by rocket, it started life with bleary vision, and was largely worthless until a shuttle mission gave it eyeglasses. And much of the credit for Hubble's further successes goes to the astronauts who updated the scope's detectors during three shuttle missions.

Ironically, Jakosky says a fourth upgrade mission, scheduled for 2004, was supposed to use the only space shuttle equipped to restrain Hubble -- Columbia.

In the end, the either-or mentality about space science is a trap, says Cummins. "I don't believe you could have a space program without human participation, but the level that is needed is very much less than is there."

Yet that decision is not left to scientists but rather to NASA and Congress, and there is little question that astronauts are important in sustaining political support for space exploration. "We are risking the lives of people to do things that could be done by computer," says Cummins. "That seems foolhardy, but whether or not the people who have the power to make such decisions will see it that way, I don't know."

View the bibliography.


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