Where will humans be in the future of spaceflight?

Credit: NASA

Broadly speaking, spaceflight can be divided into two camps: manned missions and unmanned missions. And historically, both have been received very differently since we can relate to humans better than we can to robots. On the one hand are the Apollo manned Moon landings that riveted the world in the late 1960s and the more recent retirement of NASA’s space shuttle that had space fans around the world mourning. On the other hand are deep space probes and rovers that have garnered far less attention save from die hard space exploration fans; Curiosity might be the exception. But looking at the future of space exploration – not just years ahead but decades and centuries – the stark divide between manned and unmanned exploration might give way to something completely different.

There are a number of problems with manned spaceflight. Namely, keeping the crew alive and in a sound mental state. We humans are awkward creatures in need of a host of aides to travel from point A to point B. On this matter, Kurt Vonnegut offers a sound statement in his novel Hocus Pocus. Speaking of humans and space travel, he asks “How could all that meat, needing so much food and water and oxygen, and with bowel movements so enormous, expect to survive a trip of any distance whatsoever through the limitless void of outer space? It was a miracle that such ravenous and cumbersome giants could make a roundtrip for a 6-pack to the nearest grocery store.”

Having a human passenger is what makes spaceflight so complicated and expensive. The life support systems and the need to bring the crew safely back to the Earth aren’t conducive with a quick and dirty mission.

But having a human on board can also save a mission. In 1966, when the Gemini 8 spacecraft spun out of control in orbit, it was Neil Armstrong’s quick thinking and brilliant piloting skills that saved his and Dave Scott’s lives. Of course, if there hadn’t been men in that spacecraft it wouldn’t have needed saving. It’s a catch-22.

Unmanned spaceflight is simpler. Robots don’t need a specific atmospheric pressure, food, water, or washroom facilities. Rovers and probes need power and a link to the ground, that’s it. And they don’t have the pesky emotions that make humans so hard to deal with in adverse situations (though many engineers maintain that each rover on Mars’ surface has a distinct personality).

We can send rovers and probes so much further into space – to the Sun, the surface of Venus, diving through Jupiter’s atmosphere, and, hopefully soon, fishing through the ice sheets of Europa. With a crew, the same missions would be impossible. Not only because we lack the technology at the moment, but practically speaking it takes too long to travel that far and the risk of death is too great. Few would sanction the mission, though there’s always the chance that a Dennis Tito-type would use his millions to send a volunteer crew regardless.

But looking at the merits of unmanned over manned spaceflight brings up the question of why we ought to have men in space at all. In the short term, it is useful to have a human pilot with human reactions and the ability to draw from experiences. But it is the long term that proponents of manned spaceflight point to. Having humans in space learning how to live and work in hostile environments is the first step to the preservation of our species as a multiplanetary one.

But what about the idea that there’s no such thing as unmanned spaceflight, that there’s a man on every mission and the only thing that changes is just where that man is? Curiosity, which is roving Mars at the moment, has a certain amount of autonomy. But the bulk of its decisions and work is done courtesy of engineers on Earth looking at what the rover sees and directing it to a given point. It’s a kind of man-machine hybrid.

Proponents of manned spaceflight point to the survival of the species as the strongest reason for continued manned spaceflight, but we’re so ill equipped to the task. We’d do well to use the tools we have to explore space; though I’ve spent my life studying Apollo I’m a strong proponent of robotic missions. The man-machine hybrid is a great one. Using technology to extend our reach into space but keeping the man at a mission’s core is the best tool we have against hostile environment in our quest to explore space.

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