Automation and Robotics in Space
Are astronauts no longer required for space exploration?
By Avanija Menon
Automation is a widely debated topic across several professional fields. The accuracy and efficiency of machines often drives spiraling fears of unemployment, obsoletism, and worse. Automation is well known in the space industry as well, with the advent of rovers, landers, and orbiters aiding space missions and going to areas in the solar system that are currently out of human reach given our physical and monetary constraints. However, the successes of many uncrewed missions have led to a prominent question: are humans required for space missions at all?
This is indeed a shock for those of us celebrating the glory and legacy of the champions in spacesuits, escaping from the confines of the Earth and going far and beyond into space. This is indeed a shock for the aspiring astronauts among us, hoping and dreaming to touch the heavens and appreciate our home, planet Earth, from afar.
For many of us, it forces the profound thought, ‘Is this the end of exploration and adventure?’
Keeping these thoughts in mind, it is worthwhile to ponder the question of whether automation removes the need for human explorers in space and to consider whether robotic missions are truly a feasible way of carrying out work in space.
Perhaps the main argument for crewed space missions is that of ‘curiosity’. The fundamental reason that propels us to explore and discover places not just within the confines of our planet, but also beyond, is solely due to curiosity. This curiosity, along with human intelligence, is indeed a major advantage in space missions. This sense of curiosity pushes us to enquire, analyze, and discover more about our environment rather than solely obtaining snapshots of phenomena or recording data which is mostly what robots are conditioned to do. A recent article in Scientific American emphasizes this point with a historic example of how the results produced by the uncrewed Luna 16, 20, and 24 spacecraft were more understandable along with the output of the crewed Apollo Program. The training, experience, knowledge, and intelligence of astronauts enables them to complete valuable and efficient data collection and observation that can be utilized in research to produce promising results. This notion is perhaps the major argument of using humans in space missions.
However, despite the allure of fulfilling human curiosity and intelligence, the argument of using robots for this purpose has a lot of benefits attached to it. Firstly, if space missions are to be crewed, then we need to consider the issues caused by space radiation and we would need to employ several precautions to mitigate this radiation as much as possible. The radiation doses endured by astronauts are extremely dangerous and can cause many bodily issues that have even deadly long-term effects. Unfortunately, radiation is not the only shortcoming for sending human astronauts into space. As humans, we are quite vulnerable and can suffer from both physical and mental issues in space. We are sensitive to the extreme temperatures and conditions of the space environment. There are several precautions put in place to protect astronauts from whatever they might encounter in space, which all vastly increase the cost of missions due to increased payload masses and engineering requirements.
Daniel Britt, a professor of astronomy and member of the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society, rightly mentions that there are large crews organized to manage every aspect of a crewed mission to minimize risks. This is perhaps not required in robotic missions for the sole reason that robots are dispensable while humans are not. Given the current limitations of space missions (including cost and risks to astronaut health), for the purpose of protecting astronaut lives, robotic missions seem to be the only solution for exploration of the further points in the solar system. Although this might seem like a problem with glimmers of hope for solutions in the future, robots seem apt for the job currently due to the high cost-efficiency, practicality, and minimized workload of the team.
On the contrary, humans hold some advantages over robots. Human beings are complex, intelligent, and emotional creatures. We can make well-informed decisions at the nick of time or during situations involving high pressure or tension. However, a robot is not capable of this (at least, not currently). Robots rely on instructions from crews on Earth. For instance, commands sent from Earth to a Mars rover take between 5-15 minutes. Therefore, during a situation of high stress which might include an unforeseen danger or changing weather, the continuity of the mission is endangered due to this time delay of passing information and decisions. Moreover, robotic systems in general do not have a large capacity for self-repair. Therefore, in case they are damaged, there is a risk that the robots cannot produce the expected output, thereby risking the potential success of the mission. The willpower and endurance of astronauts are beneficial in this case and could rescue the mission in extreme conditions.
Moreover, human flexibility, experience, and judgement are crucial to any space mission. Our intelligence is required to maintain the functioning of scientific machines and instruments and to solve any unpredicted problems in a logical manner. An article in Scientific American mentions a situation in space history where human capability proved its worth. As stated in the article, “When Skylab was launched in 1973, the lab’s thermal heat shield was torn off and one of its solar panels was lost. The other solar panel, bound to the lab by restraining ties, would not release. But the first Skylab crew—astronauts Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz—installed a new thermal shield and deployed the pinned solar panel. Their heroic efforts saved not only the mission but also the entire Skylab program”.
The example of quick human thinking in saving the Skylab mission is indeed a result of human analysis, experience, and intelligence and is difficult to mimic currently with robots. This notion infers that not everything can be automated and mechanized, and hence suggests a collaboration between humans and robots in space missions.
As James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has stated for a previous article in Wired magazine, “We send the robots as our pathfinders and scouts, and they open the frontiers so that we can decide where and when to send the people.”
Space missions require the help of both humans and robots, and creating a strict polarity between them will only serve to prohibit the development of space science. Missions require both the cost-efficiency, initial observation, and information and risk reduction provided by robots as well as the judgement, experience, and complex intelligence of human beings. Initial exploration and observations of robotic systems provide crews with an idea of areas to explore and dangers to overcome. Therefore, rather than forming a strict dichotomy between robots and astronauts, it is paramount to establish a complementary relationship between both to ensure the safety of astronauts, initial data, and results and efficiency of a mission.
Avanija Menon is an MSci Astrophysics student at University College London. As a Research Associate for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program, she is working with Dr. Dimitra Atri on space radiation mitigation.