Why robots make sense for space exploration, and what would humans do…

Is the era of passionate, flesh-and-bones explorers like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, all the way down to their modern counterparts Neil Armstrong, over once and for all? Are human explorers just not "sturdy" enough to face the hurdles of modern space exploration? May be yes, but with a twist.

A recent articles in Wired, "Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think", makes a very nice job disentangling what would be the role of humans and robots in space exploration, and how their complementary capabilities can nicely interlock to provide economically viable ways to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond, without putting the astronaut's life at huge risk.

Economy is a very important factor: if the mission is too expensive, it just won't happen. But humans, with their extremely advanced brains and motor skills, are still above what robots can provide at the present day in terms of autonomy and dexterous manipulation. Well, at least that's the point of the article, which suggests how teleoperation of robots by humans orbiting a planet or a satellite can be more viable economically than landing humans on the surface, while reducing communication delays to a fraction of what currently scientists deal with from Earth.

This is all true, but the article assumptions are still that autonomy is fairly limited, and therefore teleoperation is required. While teleoperation from close ranges would be a step forward with respect to state-of-the-art, this solution would not scale up with dozens or robots simultaneously roaming the surface. Autonomy, and with it cognitive-perceptual-planning-motor capabilities in robots are still a huge desiderata, and inescapable need for space exploration (see for instance here). The truth will most likely lie in the middle, with a mixture of teleoperation and autonomy becoming more pervasive in future years.