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Last Men on the Moon?

By Sally Acharya

Photo: Under a nearly full moon, the space shuttle Discovery sits atop a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. 

Under a nearly full moon, the space shuttle Discovery sits atop a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, March, 2009. (Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

What kind of world is emerging in the twenty-first century? That’s a question that leads myriad places—from the stars to the halls of AU. 

It’s part of what led a Smithsonian space expert to team up with an SPA professor and look at the future of interplanetary travel. In the process, the scholarly pair modeled something that is becoming a hallmark of the twenty-first century workplace and classroom: teamwork.


Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel

By Howard McCurdy, SPA, and Roger Launius

If there are earth-like planets in the near reaches of outer space, and Howard McCurdy thinks there are, their discovery will certainly be followed by a great interest in exploring.

“But who’s going to go?” asks the School of Public Affairs professor, an expert on space policy. Could it be possible for humans? Or would it be a job for robots?

At the dawn of the space age, computers were too big to fit into spacecraft. “We thought we’d have to have a human brain inside every spacecraft,” McCurdy says. That’s still the popular vision of space exploration: an intrepid explorer, in a ship cut off from the home planet, going where no one has gone before.

Whether that is the arc of the future is explored in a new book by McCurdy and his frequent coauthor, Roger Launius, senior curator of space history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel poses questions that go to the heart of the space program.

“Fifty years ago we had this vision for space exploration—humans happily skipping across the solar system, living on Mars,” McCurdy says. “We think that model is undercut by developments in technology. It’s still popular, the government is still pursuing it, but we think it’s going to disappear.”

Either that, or the space program, if it puts people in space, will need to be explicit about a dramatic and very long-term goal: colonizing other planets.

“Rationales are important,” Launius says from his office in the Smithsonian. “If the purpose is to learn about the universe, we’ve got quite an aggressive robotic space program that is doing well. What is the purpose of adding humans? Ultimately to get off this planet and become a multiplanetary species. That’s the only justification for putting humans in harm’s way. If that’s not our agenda, why send people at all? We can do the other things quite effectively with robots.”

McCurdy and Launius have collaborated since they both worked for NASA almost 20 years ago. They’ve written three books together, growing out of their speculative conversations about the subject that fascinates both of them: space flight, not in its Hollywood fantasy version, but in all its real challenges and possibilities.

“Howard’s just about the only person I’d ever undertake a new book project with,” says the Smithsonian senior curator. “We keep each other honest. If you write something as a solo author, you don’t have someone who gives feedback all along the way. And we have a good synergy; first, we’re friends, and second, we bounce ideas off each other.”

For instance, what about evolution? How would people have to change to colonize other planets, even Mars?

“Just think about it for a minute,” Launius muses. “Gravity. The one constant for life on earth has been one G. Every form of life is acclimated to it and has been throughout the history of our planet.

“Now say we’re moving to 1/6 G (on the moon) or 1/3 G (on Mars). How does that force us to change over generations? The first baby born on Mars—what will it be like? How does it gestate? How does its bone structure change, its muscle structure?”

One option might be that it’s not humans who go into space at all, particularly on long treks to other solar systems to explore any potential Earthlike planets.

Nor, perhaps, might the travelers be robots. Not exactly.

Just as artificial intelligence is expanding the abilities of machines, technology is enhancing human capabilities, from devices that allow injured soldiers to recover a wide range of movement to skull implants that can allow brains to hear sensations that aren’t sound waves.

Looking at the way science is developing, there’s a chance that future space explorers would be neither robot nor machine. McCurdy puts it this way: “Humans need to breathe air. So space exploration, as it stands today, is analogous to asking fish to explore the surface of the earth in a fish tank full of water. Fish solved that problem in a very different way. They developed lungs.

“We are descendants of that natural biological process. Machines don’t need a bubble of air. Maybe humans don’t either. Maybe humans can learn to breathe in space. We don’t have to wait for 100 million years of evolution for that to occur. We think in the long run it won’t be humans versus machines.”

The two may come together, merging in yet unknown ways. At any rate, “They will be our descendants. Things we create—not the result of natural evolution, but a result of us.”