The Astronaut Question

How long will humans remain better than robots at exploration?

When John Glenn (here looking through a training device) became the first American to orbit Earth, a yaw thruster caused attitude control problems, so he flew the last leg manually. Half a century later, spaceflight still requires both automation and human skill. (NASA JSC)
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That’s not what the robot-wranglers want. The day I visited Jet Propulsion Laboratory was also the day the last shuttle launched. Work on unmanned probes, rovers, and other automated gear came to a quick halt so staff could watch Atlantis lift off. The Von Kármán Auditorium rang with their cheers.

“Replacing scientists or geologists—that’s not what we’re about,” says JPL Mars mission engineer Ben Bornstein. “Absolutely, we need them. We need humans for exploration. I know for myself and my colleagues, we all feel the same way. We’re all very enthusiastic about space exploration.”

 Or as JPL’s Erik Bailey phrases it, “We need to start projecting ourselves off this rock.” 

James R. Chiles has been writing about history and technology since 1979. He blogs at Disaster-

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