These are glorious days for robots. While NASA’s shuttle programme has yet to fly again after the 2003 Columbia disaster, two little rovers are still exploring Mars, nine months beyond their projected tour of duty. The Cassini probe is peering into Saturn’s many mysteries and Deep Impact, a comet probe, is scheduled for launch this week. But no matter how well our machines perform, they are not enough. We must go as well.
Obviously the correct course for the exploration of space is to use a mix of humans, unmanned probes and robots. But some scientists believe that there should be no humans in space.
We are too fragile and too expensive, they say. Robots and probes can do things humans can’t and they can do it for less money. It’s a good argument, but not good enough.
Yes, robots/probes are cheaper, tougher, and nobody cries when they don’t make it home. Yes, robots/probes have increased our understanding of the universe tremendously. But gathering information about the universe is only half of what we need to do up there. We also need to colonize space. And this can only happen if we keep sending people.
Colonizing space is not an ego trip. It is survival. At some point in the future, an incurable epidemic, the eruption of super volcanoes, an asteroid strike, a methane burb from the ocean floor, or a massive nuclear war will push us to the brink of elimination on Earth. When one of these scenarios occurs-and it will sooner or later-we need to have some of our eggs in another basket.
Colonies on Mars and the Moon, for example, could be stocked with the works of Shakespeare, Mozart and, of course, people. If all is lost on Earth, all need not be lost of us.
Robots can do a lot, but they can never be us.