At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sanjay Joshi designed robots to explore Mars and deep space. In 2001, he left JPL to teach mechanical engineering at UC Davis, where he continues to study autonomous systems for space exploration. With NASA’s manned space program under scrutiny after the Columbia disaster, Joshi discusses how robots can help explore space-and why humans are still critically important.Q: Where were you when you heard about the Columbia disaster?
I was checking the news on the Internet. My connection was a bit slow and quirky and it cut off a headline that said something about a disaster with the shuttle. I almost thought it was some kind of recap of stories from the Challenger explosion.
Just from a personal observation, I immediately thought about the fact that it was the Columbia. Every shuttle would be the same magnitude of tragedy, but I remember waking up to the first ever Columbia launch-that was the first ever shuttle launch-and making sure to watch that. I remember that time very vividly because it was an important time for me in deciding to get involved in the space program. To see it be gone was very startling. Certainly it was a sad day.
Q: Today the Wall Street Journal’s top story was titled “Shuttle Crash Raises Questions about the Future of Manned Flight.” What are some reasons to send a human into space instead of a robot, or a robot instead of a human, when it’s technologically feasible to do both?
The answer to that question is going to change as the technology evolves. Humans are still the most dexterous beings out there, and for many, many things you can’t compete with the dexterity of a human being. Second of all, and probably more importantly, the reasoning capabilities of astronauts are not going to be challenged by robots anytime soon.