Scitech  One man’s small step, mankind’s giant leap

Why the future of space travel is - and needs to be - robotic

The 1969 landing of Apollo 11’s Eagle on the surface of the moon was the defining moment of the 20th century and arguably of all of history, turning the swords forged in the hellhole of industrialized warfare into plows that planted the first seeds of human experience beyond Earth. Long after almost every other person living in the 20th century has passed from living memory, the legend of Neil Armstrong will be remembered. Armstrong’s “small step” is credited as inspiring generations of astronauts, scientists, and engineers to pursue their future careers. Since 1972, no one has again set foot on the moon, and the technology required to bring people there and back safely no longer exists.

After this heyday of moon exploration, the emphasis has changed from moonshots to low Earth orbit missions and unmanned probes. In August of this year, NASA landed Curiosity on Mars, the latest and most ambitious in a series of Martian rovers and landers. Curiosity is a six-wheeled, nuclear-powered, laser wielding, car-sized robot that will research geological indicators of water and possibly any life that could have lived on the planet. NASA engineers developed an entirely new “skycrane” technology for the rover, essentially an automatic jet pack combined with a crane that fires to slow down the rover. Most critically, the rover is carrying hundreds of pounds of scientific equipment representing a virtual laboratory, which will allow scientists to make all the important measurements on site.

While the landing of an atomic space robot science tank on Mars is unquestionably awesome, it is unlikely that Curiosity or any other robotic missions will have anywhere near the cultural impact of a manned mission to Mars. We have unprecedented access to the fruits of this exploration, but more people on Twitter were talking about system engineer Bobak Ferdowski (a.k.a. Mohawk Guy) and his star-laden haircut than any of the scientific and engineering achievement of Curiosity. Even President Obama said in his congratulatory message to the team that “you guys are a lot cooler than you used to be.”

It was the old school of “white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer[s],” as Neil Armstrong described himself, that brought us the Apollo triumph. Half a billion people – over a fifth of the world population – a tuned in to watch the grainy black-and-white photos of the first lunar steps. It was a moment where all of humanity was united in one humble man’s experience.

Coincident with this high water mark of public admiration was NASA’s virtually unlimited budget required to ‘win’ the space race, and therein lies the paradox of the path that NASA manned and unmanned programs have taken since then. With inflation, the cost of Apollo would have come in at a hefty $109 billion in 2010, and in fact, at the height of the sixties, the program took up 3.45 per cent of the American government’s spending. After Apollo 11, though, the program was drastically scaled back, causing two planned scientifically-minded moon landings to be cut.

Furthermore, after Apollo, NASA was tasked with developing the Space Shuttle as well as a long-term program of robotic exploration of our solar system. With an ever-diminishing budget, successive directors were faced with tough choices on the future of the undeniably inspiring manned space program. When President Obama axed the next generation Aries-Constellation spacecraft that would have brought tomorrow’s astronauts back to the moon and perhaps even Mars, Neil Armstrong was blunt in his criticism. At a congressional hearing he stated that “for The United States, … to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit … destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

We should keep in mind that the primary motivation for Apollo funding was political rather than scientific – indeed, only one of the twelve astronauts who walked on the moon was a scientist. When America won the space race, the public awareness of NASA continuing scientific missions dropped to relative obscurity.

Since the days when the only players in the space game were superpowers engaged in proxy warfare, the aims and accessibility of space flight have changed dramatically. In recent years, privatized companies have begun ferrying cargo and passengers into orbit. The company SpaceX recently docked an autonomous spacecraft, Dragon, to deliver supplies to International Space Station, an arrangement which will become increasingly normal as this newly-formed “space economy” begins to grow and thrive. Far from being the only player in the game, NASA now benefits from an industry devoted to making space travel more economical. Indeed, portions of NASA’s budget are earmarked exclusively for investment in these private companies to spur further innovation.

The nascent space tourism sector is also democratizing access to space – to a point – with Virgin Galactic beginning to offer trips to low orbit for tiny fractions of the price demanded by former superpowers. Private investors in Interplanetary Resources have signaled their interest in asteroid mining, which may eventually create the infrastructure necessary for human interplanetary space travel.

The de-emphasis on manned space travel rubbed Neil Armstrong the wrong way, and understandably so. In a post-space race context, NASA has shifted its primary focus away from manned missions and towards purer scientific research.  While this has minimized the ‘human interest’ aspect of their missions and thus their public support, the post space-race years have also been the most fruitful in terms of scientific output. Curiosity is set to explore a geologically promising section of Mars for the next two years, and is very likely to be exploring for much, much longer.

Unfortunately for our pioneering spirit, it is both difficult and expensive to get a fragile human to outer space and keep them safely alive long enough to do interesting science. Consider that some of the earliest space probes launched just after the heady days of the moonshot, Voyager I and Voyager II, have begun to leave our solar system altogether. It is simply more practical to extend a human consciousness to the cosmos through robotic proxies than it is to do so ourselves.

The thought of distant probes may not be as romantic as a man standing on the moon, but these robotic sojourners will remain intact long after the sun itself has died, a permanent testament of human ingenuity and audacity forever adrift among the stars.