In a Jan. 21, 2013 piece in The Space Review, Dan Lester, a historian at the University of Texas, seeks to debunk the idea of human space exploration based on historical models of exploration, such as Columbus and Lewis and Clark. He suggests that advances in robotics have made human space explorers all but unnecessary. In so doing, Lester fails to account for the physical limitations of robotic explorers and oversells their capabilities.
While teleoperated robots like Mars Curiosity have done remarkable things, such are limited in their capabilities by the laws of physics. It takes 20 minutes, more or less, for a signal to reach a robot on Mars to command it to do something and then another 20 minutes for the results of what was commanded to be known to a controller on Earth.
Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist with exhaustive experience in robotic space missions, suggests in a piece advocating a return to the moon, that even the few second delay that occurs in teleoperating robots on the lunar surface is a cumbersome burden. “Minds cannot roam free if shackled in time-delayed, robotic chains.” Human explorers on site can perform tasks and react instantly to results.
In touting robotic exploration, Lester makes this observation, “It goes without saying that if Thomas Jefferson had earth resources satellites, his Corps of Discovery might never have been constituted.” Actually it does not go without saying. The counter-factual that Lester advances is silly on its face. If anything, if President Jefferson had such information, it would have made the efforts of the Corps of Discovery far easier, just as the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor probes eased the efforts of the Apollo astronauts. Robots can be great precursors, but there is no substitute for human beings.
A 2004 study by the Royal Astronomical Society on the question of human space exploration came to the following conclusion, “We find that profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best – perhaps only - be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems.”
Snarky rhetoric about “cargo cult” exploration is no substitute for sober analysis. Calls to depend on robots to explore space are simply calls to not explore space adequately.