The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

Who will rule the business of space? Humans...or robots?

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KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

Sunday’s landing of the Mars rover Curiosity has generated a lot of excitement about the space program. And with the arrival of commercial space-exploration startups in the big way — see SpaceX and its Space Station servicing mission, Virgin Galactic and its push into space tourism and launch services for NASA — the Curiosity mission has also revived an old debate: Should we focus on sending robots, or people, into space? 

We’ve been asking ourselves that question ever since we started blasting rockets into the void. The physicist Stephen Hawking strongly backs manned flights. He believes that it's imperative to colonize outer space if humanity is to survive (the Earth won't last forever, and you never know if a catastrophic event will occur, such as an asteroid strike or runaway climate change).

On the other hand, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg considers manned space flight a “spectator sport” that diminishes the impact of what he considers the real-deal: research into the essence of the universe. (He has a recent article in the New York Review of Books on this very topic.) We get a lot more bang for our buck from low-cost robotic space exploration.

But there are others have no patience for the debate. Scott Hubbard once ran NASA’s Mars program. Now he teaches about robotic exploration at Stanford, calls the choice between humans and robots a "false dichotomy." 

He adds, "I think it isn’t humans or robots. I think it’s humans and robots." 

But he concedes that robots are the cheaper way to go. Virtually every piece of science that we want to do as a community can be done better and less expensively and certainly with less risk by using robots.” 

However, he insists that humans bring a lot more to the table because of our big evolutionary head start over robots. That’s also the view of George Whitesides, CEO of the private space company Virgin Galactic. He envisions the potential number of human astronauts that could be sent on a mission to Mars.

“I do think that it’s possible that a crew of six could well do five times as much science or five times as much exploration," he said. So there’s a huge benefit to having a human being on the surface of another planet.”

That said, he also imagines that those humans could be joined by robots, which was actually a plot point in the 2000 film "Red Planet."

Whitesides points out that it could cost ten to twenty billion dollars to mount such a mission (and there are other estimates that put it at more like $100 billion). This is where the economics tilt decisively in favor of robots. The past two Mars rover mission combined cost only a billon. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. 

Some space entrepreneurs, notably SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, have stressed that private spaceflight should ultimately aim to go to Mars and make the human race "multiplanetary." That's a grand objective. Others are hopeful about one day making it simply affordable to send humans into space.

Randii Wesson is an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, working on the Curiosity landing. He’s watched private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX cut costs. He recalls that in the days of the Apollo moon missions, it cost NASA a million dollars a pound to get payloads into orbit.  

“The Shuttle is a hundred thousand dollars per pound," he adds. "The expendable [rockets] today are around ten thousand dollars per pound. If you look at SpaceX, they’re starting at five thousand dollars a pound - they want to get to a hundred dollars a pound.”

Wesson sees a future in which private space companies continue to expand into low-Earth orbit and maybe even go to the Moon, developing a space tourism industry along the way. Meanwhile, tight budgets mean NASA’s future is far from clear. So in the end, in the debate over whether people or robots should rule the stars, it could be the entrepreneurs who come out on top, as space becomes a bigger business.

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