The question of who can best explore space, robots or humans, has been debated since the beginning of the space age. The debate has been given new impetus because of recent budget cuts to NASA planetary science.
How best to do a Mars sample return mission
A story in Space.com reports that NASA planners are struggling with how best to conduct a robotic sample return mission to Mars in the wake of the Obama administration budget cuts early in 2012. The consensus seems to be that such a mission must proceed in advance of a human Mars mission. But considering the expense of such a mission, even one that has been stripped down to just a land and grab operation, others are wondering if human beings would make better field geologists than even the most sophisticated robot.
The case for Robots
Robert Park, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Maryland made the case against human space exploration in a 2004 article in The New Atlantis. Park's thesis is that robots can do anything the humans can do on other worlds far cheaper than humans. Field geology would not work as well on Mars than on Earth because of the need to wear space suits. Other justifications for human space exploration, ranging from technological spin-offs to national prestige, do not impress him.
The case for humans
Writing in the same issue of The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and an advocate of Mars exploration, disputes Park's notions about field geology on Mars, suggesting that space-suited geologists can pick up and manipulate Martian rock samples and then take them to a habitat for further analysis. He also suggests that the challenge and the idea of preserving human civilization are sufficient reasons for sending humans to Mars.
A study conducted by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004 tended to support Zubrin's position, at least in terms of which, humans or robots, would do the best science on other worlds. The study concluded that robots would fall short of the capabilities of human explorers for the foreseeable future.
The current debate
The robots vs. humans debate has acquired a new twist, according to Space.com. If NASA were to proceed with a Mars sample return mission, a lot of other, more conventional missions would have to be sacrificed in an era of tight budgets. Given the superiority of human beings as field geologists, with the capacity to gather more relevant samples more rapidly than any robot can manage, the question has arisen, why not just bypass a robotic sample return missions and just send humans? In the meantime, a lot more science could be acquired with cheaper robotic missions, especially done with the view of evaluating possible landing sites for the first humans to go to Mars. The best landing site, considering the desire by scientists to find signs of life on the Red Planet, would be one where such signs are ascertained by a robotic probe.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.