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There’s No Going Back

A top roboticist says robots will improve-not replace-manned space flight.

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.

Of course human beings have their limits in terms of what kinds of mechanical manipulation they can do, especially when they are in space. I think really the future is going to be a combination of astronauts and robotic vehicles or robots working together. Now, it’s also important to note that in many environments, human beings just can’t survive, so therefore you are forced to put robots in those environments. And when you talk about the dexterity of human beings, dexterity is somewhat compromised when you’re in a space suit as opposed to not in a space suit. Probably in the future robotic technology is going to allow you to do those things in a less dangerous way.

But whenever we have a decision between sending robotic missions and sending human astronauts, we have to take those decisions very seriously, because as our efforts into space become more complicated as we try to go to farther and farther places, the risk to human life is only going to get greater and greater. So the possibility of these kinds of tragedies will increase as our goals get higher and higher.

Q: Wasn’t the shuttle mission one of the least dangerous things that humans do in space?

Well, what people don’t realize is that bringing a shuttle into space, every single time that it happened, was a dangerous experience, and dangerous because the number of different things that have to go right to get a shuttle into space and then back to earth are tremendous.

Because of our technological prowess and our attention to detail, chances are that astronauts on seemingly routine mission are going to be fine and come home. But they know, and everybody in the space community knows, that there is a chance that they may not come home, and that’s something that they accept and they deal with.

Q: What does this tragedy mean for the future of manned space flight?

I think it’s very important that the space program continues and the space program will continue. There are a lot of discoveries we’re going to make in space using both robotic vehicles and human missions. We have no choice but to go forward, really. There shouldn’t be a discussion of going backwards. Our future is in exploration and finding out our place in the universe and NASA is doing a lot of great things in those areas. Hopefully this will just be a tragic detour in the path, but the path should definitely go on.

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