Is there a consensus developing that space exploration for the moment should be carried out by robots only?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Victoria Crater on Mars, explored by the unmanned Opportunity rover from 2006 to 2008.

Just a week after had an article supporting the idea of exploring space primarily through robots for the time being:
In other words, in seven decades our rockets sped up by a factor of ten, but in little more than half that time our cameras improved by a factor of five thousand. There's no comparison: probe technology is marching to the beat of a faster drummer.

Probes have always offered the advantage of lower cost and minimal risk. For interstellar travel, their smaller size makes them especially practical. For the same energy bill, you could propel a one-ton reconnaissance craft to another star in one-tenth the time of sending even a small clutch of humans.
today the Economist has an editorial saying pretty much the same thing:
Luckily, technology means that man can explore both the moon and Mars more fully without going there himself. Robots are better and cheaper than they have ever been. They can work tirelessly for years, beaming back data and images, and returning samples to Earth. They can also be made sterile, which germ-infested humans, who risk spreading disease around the solar system, cannot.
I wonder if the ongoing success of the Mars Rover program (going on 5 years now even though they were only expected to last for about three months) and other recent missions to Mars and other locations has something to do with that. A bit over a decade back exploration through probes was looking pretty unreliable considering the large number of failures, but we've been doing pretty well since the late 1990s with robots alone.

The article also makes the argument that private space industry might be able to pick up the slack in manned exploration, which may be true considering that at the moment a large amount of funding going that way is based on sending people into space (not quite LEO, but that should happen eventually). Companies such as Bigelow Airspace are planning to sell or lease out their modules too:

Expected uses for Bigelow Aerospace's expandable modules include microgravity research and development and space manufacturing. Other potential uses include space tourism, such as modules for orbital hotels, and space transportation, such as components in spaceships for Moon or Mars manned missions. The company plans to sell BA 330 modules for US$100 million apiece. Bigelow also plans to launch by 2010 an orbital resort, tentatively called the CSS Skywalker. The company though is working for the launch much ahead of 2010.

On April 10, 2007, Bigelow Aerospace announced business plans to offer (by 2012) a four-week orbital stay for US$15 million, with another four weeks for an additional US$3 million. An entire orbital facility could also be leased for US$88 million a year, or half a facility for US$54 million a year.


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