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Robots With the Right Stuff

By The Washington Post

July 21, 2009

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Humans are outsourcing space exploration to machines thanks to remarkable technological advances that came about in the second half of the 20th century, writes American University professor Howard McCurdy. Robotic spacecraft have become vastly more capable and cost-effective thanks to innovations that include remote sensing, digital imaging, solid-state electronics, electric power generation, space communication, and computer capacity.

Of the $257 billion that humans spent on space and related activities last year, less than 8 percent was committed to human flight, according to the Space Foundation. McCurdy notes that human exploration of the inner solar system was emphasized at the start of the U.S. space program with an eye toward colonization on other planets, but subsequent discoveries that both Venus and Mars were inhospitable and barren — discoveries facilitated by robots — have pushed automated exploration to the fore.

Still, McCurdy observes that humans are more capable than robots in performing really complex tasks. He points out as an example that the Dextre robot was once a candidate for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, but was rejected by a special panel of the National Research Council, who deemed it less capable than people. Nevertheless, McCurdy postulates that Dextre or a successor may yet replace astronauts in the future if recent trends continue.

"Advocates of human space travel want people to participate in this work, not from a distance, but by traveling in rockets," he writes. "For now at least, the space race belongs to the machines."

From The Washington Post
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