Human astronauts got the glory when they reached the moon during the Apollo program, but robotic space explorers helped pave the way for humanity's giant leap. Now the end of the space shuttle era coincides with a chance for renewed cooperation between humans and robots, as NASA looks beyond Earth orbit toward the asteroids and even Mars.
Planetary scientists who have championed robots as scientific partners in space exploration are welcoming the new opportunity. It may also offer fresh hope for robotic space exploration during a cost-cutting period for the U.S. space agency that has meant tighter budgets for proposed planetary missions.
"If you go back to Apollo, there was a whole series of robotic missions that scouted the moon before we landed on the moon," said Bruce Banerdt, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "I think the same thing will happen when we decide on the next human spaceflight destination."
Banerdt and other planetary scientists shared their fears and hopes regarding the future of human-robot space exploration during the International Academy of Astronautics' ninth Low-Cost Planetary Missions Conference held in Laurel, Md., last month.
Of humans and robots
Many planetary scientists readily admit to a constant tension between human and robot space exploration when it comes to getting a piece of NASA's budget. But the fighting for a place at the table has not prevented effective cooperation in the past — as long as the human spaceflight program aims beyond Earth orbit.
Following Apollo, NASA's focus on the space shuttle and the International Space Station offered few opportunities for synergy between human spaceflight and robotic planetary missions, said Joe Nuth, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Having human spaceflight look outward once more could revive such synergy.
"If you look at the shuttle and space station, those things had nothing to do with the robotic missions," Nuth said. "If human spaceflight goals are now to actually take humans farther out into the system, they've got to explore those destinations with robotic missions."
One such example comes from the OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to sample a potentially threatening asteroid for possible ingredients of life. The robotic mission's approach to the asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2020 may act as a dry run for future human missions to asteroids.
Moving forward together
The now-cancelled Constellation program designed to return U.S. astronauts to the moon offered another preview of how human spaceflight and robotic missions might once again work together. That chance for cooperation did not come without some controversy.
"A lot of us were arguing that [robotic missions] needed to be a bit more front-and-center than seemed to be the case," Banerdt told InnovationNewsDaily. "On the other hand, a lot of background planning did recognize the advantage of sending robotic precursors to the moon first."
Possible targets for humans and robots to go hand-in-hand seem limited to near-Earth asteroids, the moon and Mars during the next several decades, Banerdt said. He added that he would "love to be proved wrong."
The distant future of space exploration may offer even more possibilities for "clever exploitation of synergies between people and machines," said Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. But he also saw some limits on such cooperation because of a public unwillingness to invest more money into space exploration.
"It's clear that scientifically there are some things robots cannot do effectively, but it's also clear that for many scientific questions, robotic missions are much more efficient in terms of science per dollar," Lorenz said. "So I fear we'll be condemned to limping along with a sort of token manned program in low-earth orbit for the most part, and a vibrant unmanned exploration program."