Robots Versus Humans in Space Exploration

Who Needs Astronauts When Robots are Cheaper?

Robonaut 2 photo from

It took over a decade to put a man to the moon.

In less time than that, we have explored Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and its moons landed in an asteroid, got close to Pluto, and went beyond the Kuiper Belt. And for a fraction of the price.

How? With robots.

Whereas we still have yet to return to the moon, we constantly receive live feed video from Mars thanks to the automated vehicle known as Curiosity. No lives were sacrificed in the name of exploration.

Comparatively, 14 human lives were lost due to manned missions into space. Not to mention the financial cost which is in the billions of dollars.

In the meantime, thanks to robots, we have learned so much about our solar system and beyond.

the Parker Solar Probe can reach the sun. A human could not.

By the way, the question is not if we should champion space exploration. The question is if we should rather use robots than humans.

Robots can explore, take samples and photographs. They can perform science and experiments. Robots are cheaper, safer, and better than humans to explore. They do not need food, water, exercise, and they are immune to space radiation.

We can go to the most inhospitable places in the solar system using robots. Again, who needs humans? Who needs astronauts?

Those billions of dollars saved can be invested to fight poverty or other causes.

Astronauts are so 1960s. Give me a good, sturdy, smart, maneuverable, and obedient robot.

But, I disagree enormously.

The Case for Manned Exploration

Neil Armstrong on the moon, YouTube image

Given the obvious advantages of robotic exploration, why do we need astronauts? What can a human astronaut do that a robot cannot do?

The short answer: not much. And yet, they can actually do plenty more than any robot could actually achieve.

There are better articles written about this topic. This debate is not new.

As a matter of fact, the main shortcoming of robots is latency.

Again, nothing major. There is, after all, an incredibly long distance from Earth to other celestial bodies. Even the moon, our closest neighbor, is about 238,900 miles away.

Humans are better at making decisions and at problem-solving.

Also, they can carry more samples with them back to Earth. As we try to save costs by reducing the size of craft and robots we sacrifice load capacity. Again, these are not unsolvable challenges.

Should we relegate astronauts to only visiting the International Space Station and forget about traveling beyond Earth? Absolutely no.

children playing at astronauts. Image: Moonshots

Why? Because a robot can never be a role model or a hero.

Perhaps my arguments are sentimental. However, as a man who grew up wanting to be an astronaut and who would trade his life with Neil Armstrong in a heartbeat without blinking, I can tell you, no child can relate to a robot. No matter how cute or life-like. Not even Wall-E.

Trust me, nobody wants to grow up to be a robot. An astronaut, yes; a robot, never.

Furthermore, think about the greatest explorers.

Would we be as fascinated by Marco Polo if a robot went instead to China and meet the Mongols? Would a robot or a rover have reached the Americas better than Cristobal Colón? Perhaps. And history would not be better for it.

Would the greatest, most fascinating race in the history of human exploration, Amundsen versus Scott, would be as exciting if they would have stayed on their ships and sent drones to reach the South Pole? I do not think so.

We love Amundsen versus Scott because it pitted the Norwegian explorer against the Englishman for the honor of being first and lift their respective country’s flags in the most remote place on Earth.

Robots Versus Humans? Who Wins?

Mars2020 rover prototype, photo from

Honestly, this is not even a debate. Robots are superior to humans and better suited to explore space and beyond. Robots win easily.

Conversely, I would argue all of humankind loses.

We need to think about space exploration and colonization not only as scientific research and experimentation but also in terms of our survival as a species.

Earth is our only home. Additionally, it won’t last forever.

We need to find a suitable home for us. Overpopulation is already a problem and will get worse.

Again, we need to find other homes within our galaxy and beyond. We cannot wait for tomorrow to become a problem. We must start preparing today.

We reached the moon chiefly because we were motivated as a country to beat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Without exaggeration, NASA is awesome.

NASA is the best investment of our tax dollars. We need to support NASA more.

space exploration, concept art Paul E. Ceruzzi

Do we need China, Russia, or another world power, perhaps India, to return to the moon and colonize it? Is that what we want as a country? To become observers rather than participants?

We need to be mindful of not allowing conflicts on Earth to carry into space. What we need, what I propose, is for all world nations to work together towards space colonization and exploration.

Granted, we will need robots. Send them first if you must. No one would cry over a dead robot. But make sure humans follow afterward once we know is safe and once the robots built the infrastructure needed for colonization.

We need astronauts to inspire newer generations of explorers.

Besides, if only robots explore space… What would science fiction writers would get to write about?

Readers, what are your thoughts on this topic? Save money and lives and just sent robots? Or take the risks and sent humans?

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March 2023