Better the robot than the astronaut – MEDIA INAF

The end of astronauts. Why robots are the future of exploration. By Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees. Belknap Press from Harvard University Press,
pp. 185, 23.50 euro

Half a century after the end of human exploration of the Moon, space agencies have pledged to return to our satellite to study it, also in light of the exploitation of its resources. According to the plan, several robot probes will be transported by private companies, which are looking with interest at the opening of a new market. The new lunar rovers will have to carry out the exploration work with special attention to the location of the ice, which we know is found in the depths of the polar craters, the interior of which is always in shadow. Ice not only means water to drink, but represents a basic resource from which one can get hydrogen and oxygen to be used to fill the rocket tanks. Water is the fuel of space and could form the basis for the economic exploitation of the moon’s resources.

Media attention, however, is focused on Artemis, the program for the return to the moon that will bring the first woman and first non-white man to leave their footprints on moon dust. Turning the project into reality requires many years of work and significant resources, because every effort is made to minimize the risks of the mission. Our species evolved on planet Earth, protected by its atmosphere and its magnetic field. It is enough to move away from the earth a few hundred kilometers to discover how inhospitable the space is. Outside our atmosphere, the cosmic vacuum boils in the Sun and cold in the shadows, nothing stops the rain of charged particles and micrometeorites that can endanger human health, moreover, the micro-gravity disorient our balance circuit and cause space pain. Everything becomes difficult, and to work outside the space stations requires complicated, uncomfortable and very expensive suits that must keep the astronaut at an acceptable temperature and pressure. It’s enough to scroll through NASA’s web pages to realize that returning to the Moon half a century later can not be considered a walk, also because Artemis, despite being Apollo’s twin sister, certainly does not enjoy the same treatment. which was reserved for the historical lunar program. Now the funding is much less generous, and the SLS launcher (for the Space Launch System) has encountered a number of problems that have only been overcome a few days ago, with the successful completion of the fuel tank filling test with the countdown being interrupted. get 10 seconds after launch. Next time it will be serious and the Orion capsule (still without astronauts) will be launched towards the Moon, where it will make the insertion into orbit and a series of technical tests. NASA says the landing will take place in 2025. We have no reason to doubt, although the assessments of the NASA Inspector General are not so optimistic. Among other things, the new suits for the first historic walk are not ready. Perhaps to remedy this problem, NASA has decided to rent the suits (at a high price) from a consortium of companies that will take care of building them. Given all these objective difficulties and the risks that crews run, why do space agencies keep wanting to send astronauts into space? Would it not be better to leave the exploration of space to robots who do not have to breathe, drink and eat, who can work in the cosmic vacuum and are not in danger of getting sick during long interplanetary journeys?

The problem is not new and has already been widely discussed with astronaut fans, who say that it is only the human presence that attracts the public’s attention and provides a level of flexibility that is beyond the reach of even the best robots. The attention paid to the Artemis program compared to the many robot missions that precede it is proof of this. Yet it never hurts to take a critical look at the past, with an eye to the future, to ask whether and how space exploration should depend on the (much more expensive) human factor.

Anders Guldsmed And Martin Rees they respond with the title of their book The end of Astronauts. Why robots are the future of exploration. Clearly, the two want to be provocative because they have an attitude that allows them to go against the flow and say clearly how they think. In the style of the exhibition, I see the unmistakable signature of Martin Rees, a great astrophysicist from the University of Cambridge appointed lord for his scientific merits. Former President of the Royal Society, Rees holds the position of Astronom Royal, the one who updates the Queen on the news in astronomy. A character of undisputed authority that sets aside the discussion of basic astrophysical topics to contend with the pros and cons of human space exploration. With a style without stains and without rhetoric, the book wants to demonstrate that the ongoing advances in robot technology and in the use of artificial intelligence will make machines perform more and more by reducing human competitive advantage over robots.

The book is not against astronauts, but rather against using public funds to cover the enormous costs of flying them in relative safety, knowing that the risks are and remain very high. Clearly, if the funds were not public, it would take a different turn. In the case of private astronauts, the risk, always high, would become a personal problem.

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