The Future Place of Men in Space

On 19 Nov. 1969, Apollo astronaut Alan Bean carried two sub packages of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) during the first Apollo 12 extravehicular activity (EVA). Human activities, like Bean's, will be preserved as areas of historical interest. Photo credit: NASA

Alan Bean carries two sub packages of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) during Apollo 12′s first lunar EVA on November 19, 1969. Future exploration might look less human. Photo credit: NASA

Spaceflight, broadly speaking, is divided into two camps: manned and unmanned or robotic flight. And people tend to fall into one camp or the other. Either you think manned flight is the only way forward or you see robotic missions as the best way to learn about the Universe around us. But what if the divide is less stark? It’s possible that our future expansion through the Solar System will involve some cooperation between man and machine wherein the man stays firmly on the Earth.

I explored this idea a little in my first post for the London Institute of Physics’ blog Physics Focus, where I am excited to say I will be a regular contributor!


  1. Jasper says

    Wow, Amy, you really are busy becoming a more and more inevitable phenomenon, aren’t you? Great news. And good for you! Congratulations!
    - And a good article, too. I think you are right in thinking the best option for now is the machine. I have to agree with you. Besides all of the points you name in the article, there simply is not enough money and global interest to really get deep space exploration going for human beings. That will be, I am afraid, something that still lies far away in the future. I just hope to see the first human on Mars in my lifetime. Being halfway into it, I am getting my doubts about seeing that happening, too…

  2. stuyoung38 says

    It’s hard to predict what humans will be doing in space in the future. What I would call the “thermodynamic/monetary” argument against human space exploration seems logical; it just takes more mass (life support, food/water, radiation shielding for beyond-LEO flight, etc.), and therefore more money, to send humans into space. The ROI seems dubious, too; if one follows “NASAWatch”‘ on the SpaceRef website, it seems that most research done on the ISS can be done just as effectively and far more cheaply on the ground.
    It would be interesting to do a comprehensive public poll on human space exploration (the polls I have seen so far are too vague). I suspect that for most people, the duration of their consciousness of space-related news would amount to a fraction of a second per month, if that much. Some headline of the news might catch their eye, perhaps a photo taken by Curiosity or by the Hubble, to which they might respond, “That’s neat!”, and then turn their attention back to their job/family/budget/meal, etc. If asked, the average person would probably say that “someday” humans will travel around the universe as easily as we fly from one country to another today; but that’s because of random exposure to popular references to science fiction, unconscious extrapolation of the advances of transport over the last century, and (for most), total lack of awareness of the distances and difficulties involved.
    It saddens me to admit this; but as long as human society is tied to a monetary system (Google Technocracy, The Zeitgeist Movement, or The Venus Project for alternatives), we will only be dabbling in space, including both manned and unmanned projects, with a fraction of a percent of the industrial world’s GDP. NASA’s budget is currently under half of 1% of the federal budget (and is likely to shrink in future); and the U.S. spends far more on its space program than the rest of the spacefaring nations combined.
    We will see more public/private partnerships. I predict that SpaceX will win NASA’s exclusive contract for transporting our astronauts to the ISS (COTS was originally intended to support multiple providers of such services, and therefore competition for lower launch prices; but Congress has done away with that provision). The schedule for NASA funding regular service to the ISS by commercial provider has slipped to 2017, due to budget cuts. We will also see space tourism for the ultra-rich, at least to LEO, perhaps circumlunar flights as well – and the occasional space stunt, such as Inspiration Mars, funded by coalitions of billionaires and private contributions (and maybe NASA will chip in some support as well).
    To me, the main problem with unmanned space exploration is the time lag. If one studies the man-hours devoted on the ground to sending programmed orders to Curiosity and Opportunity, just so each can travel a few feet/day, one wonders if we will make any significant discoveries on Mars. For a lot less delta-vee and with nearer-term technology, relative to manned landings, humans could teleoperate these and other rovers from Mars orbit in real-time. Such human/machine hybrid missions might seem a logical next-step – for the space optimist.
    Most importantly: Happy Cosmonautics Day, to all who read this (more popularly known as Yuri’s Night)!
    -Stu Young

  3. StephenB says

    I remember attending a congressional hearing at which Carl Sagan presented in 1988 I believe. He addressed the issue this way: historically, when funding for manned spaceflight goes up, funding for robotic science missions goes up too. So practically, robotic mission proponents might want to get behind man spaceflight. ;)

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