In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

i n t r o d u c t i o n A False Dichotomy In the fall of 2000 we traveled to Boston to tape a television program on space exploration, discussing a book we had just completed, Imagining Space. The book contained fantastic images anticipating the wonders of space exploration juxtaposed with photographs of actual accomplishments. A favorite set of images opened the chapter on the exploration of Mars. On the left side, the book displayed a 1949 painting by the renowned space artist Chesley Bonestell, depicting water flowing toward the setting sun as might be seen by a person standing on the polar ice cap of Mars. On the right side, a full-page photograph of the Ares Vallis flood plain appeared, taken in the summer of 1997 by the Mars Pathfinder lander on actual Martian soil.1 We closed a subsequent chapter with a painting by Pat Rawlings depicting an astronaut in a space suit bending down to retrieve the Sojourner rover that the Pathfinder lander had delivered to Mars—the first human on that planet greeting the first robot to arrive on that distant world. Those images and similar ones depict a central issue in the course of space exploration —the relative emphasis given to human spaceflight as opposed to expeditions conducted by robotic or automated craft. On the airplane flight back to Washington, we resolved to examine this issue in more detail and to do so in a wider time frame than the hundred-year period our book had allowed. When asked to comment on the virtues of “manned” and “unmanned” space- flight, leaders of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration issue a consistent reply. The venture, they insist, will be a cooperative one. Space exploration will be accomplished by “robots and humans together.”2 NASA’s position is well represented by the Rawlings painting in which an astronaut retrieves the robot that helped open the way for humans to explore Mars. Over the course of space exploration, however, cooperation has progressively given way to competition . People advancing proposals for activities in space increasingly view humans and robots as competitors in the celestial realm. As we examined the issue of humans versus robots, what we found startled us. The debate over humans and robots in space does not well represent the full range of possible alternatives, especially when one anticipates developments over long periods of time. Pitting humans against robots, we found, produces a false dichotomy. The issue is multi-sided, with approaches like “manned” and “unmanned” giving way to less conventional concepts as exploration activities mature. phases of spaceflight As children of the mid–twentieth century, we were raised on visions that placed astronauts and space cadets squarely at the center of exploration. Humans were clearly in charge. We met robots, to be sure, such as Gort in the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still or the silly robot in the 1960s television series Lost in Space. As youngsters encountering space science for the first time, however, we knew that human beings would be needed to manage the machines that people sent into space. The technology of our youth required it. Humans would change the vacuum tubes in communication satellites, we assumed , a thought encouraged by writers no less perceptive than Arthur C. Clarke, who invented the communication satellite concept and insisted that such switching stations would need to be manned. We marveled at the diorama painted by Chesley Bonestell, appearing in the March 22, 1952, issue of Collier’s magazine, that helped launch public interest in space travel. Astronauts were everywhere—piloting a winged space shuttle, tending a large rotating space station , and driving space tugs. Between the shuttle and the space station, astronauts serviced an automated space observatory, a precursor of the Hubble Space Telescope. Why were astronauts crawling over the automated observatory? They were needed, Wernher von Braun assured us in the accompanying article, to change the film.3 At the beginning of the space age, both popular culture and the state of technology demanded a strong human presence in space. Given the primitive state of space technology, machines did not operate well when so far removed from human control. Disseminators of popular science and science fiction encouraged people to believe that humans would pilot spaceships to exotic destinations . Rocket technology and large-scale project management facilitated this goal. “Man will conquer space soon,” editors of a national magazine assured us, slighting the...


Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.