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Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel

By Howard McCurdy (School of Public Affairs) and Roger D. Launius

By Sally Acharya

If there are earth-like planets in the near reaches of outer space, and Howard McCurdy thinks there are, we’re liable to know pretty soon. “When that happens, there will be a great interest in exploring,” he says. “But who’s going to go?”

Questions like that lie at the heart of Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel, the latest book by the School of Public Affairs professor and NASA expert and his frequent coauthor, Roger Launius of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Will the space explorers of the future be more like Captain Kirk or more, perhaps, like HAL, the artificial intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey? The dichotomy, McCurdy says, may be an outdated one. It goes back to a historic and still ongoing debate traced in the book, the so-called “man-machine debate,” whose very name, McCurdy notes, belies its age and outmoded assumptions.

Fifty years ago, 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. “What we’re trying to do with the book is to get people to think beyond that,” he says. “Fifty years ago we had this vision for space exploration—humans happily skipping across the solar system, living on Mars. 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.”

The arc of development in space and military technology suggests a different future. Drones piloted from consoles in Langley, Va., can fly across Afghanistan. Robots rove the surface of Mars.

“Advances in (technology) occurred much more rapidly, and advances in human flight technology occurred much more slowly,” he says. As if in a retelling of the old Aesop’s fable, “the tortoise—the robot—is making steady progress, while the hare, the human space flight program, has paused for a nap.”

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. So perhaps there will be no Captain Kirk piloting a Starship Enterprise to distant planets, like a Magellan of the future. The explorers may be closer, say, to Data, the human-like android of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or they may be something—or someone?—we haven’t yet envisioned.

At any rate, “They will be our descendants. Things we create—not the result of natural evolution, but a result of us.”