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final frontier

Are humans or robots the future of space travel?

“We are a long way from the Terminator, or the Matrix” says Nasa chief historian.

SPACE ROBOTS HAVE been in the news a lot lately. We have the Curiosity rover on Mars doing science and other rovers, landers, and orbiters studying the planets in our solar system and beyond.

But there’s also been a lot of talk about sending humans back to the Moon or even to Mars. So what’s the future of space travel — humans or robots?

Since Eugene Cernan left the moon in 1972, humans haven’t travelled further than the International Space Station. We’ve sent dozens of robots and machines further into space, though.

While sending robots to space is cheaper and less dangerous than sending humans, the future of space travel relies on human exploration, Nasa chief historian Roger Launius says. “We individually have a lot more capability than they do. We are a long way from the Terminator, or the Matrix.”

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, he used two space robots on display to illustrate his point. The first he discussed with Robonaut One which you can see here:

Jennifer Welsh/Business Insider

He’s just a torso, but has incredibly dexterous hands. Sadly, he can’t think or make decision on his own — he’s just a tool at the mercy of astronauts and researchers. These kind of robots could be great to send out on a space walk outside the ISS, which would save the astronauts time spent dressing and keep them inside out of harms way.

There is currently a Robonaut Two on the space station, and he’s getting a pair of legs later this year which will help him maneuver, but in microgravity, do you really need legs? He’s already spent time in space, performing similar duties to astronauts, Nasa says:

One advantage of a humanoid design is that Robonaut can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station. Because R2 is approaching human dexterity, tasks such as changing out an air filter can be performed without modifications to the existing design.


The other astrobot they had on display at the museum was DARPA’s Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) robot. This one actually has a brain and can make decisions, though not very well. He can also be used in a variety of military applications.

Here he is waving to the crowd:

Business Insider

Launius recounted the first time he met ARM, who he affectionately calls “Robbie the Robot”.

He’s supposed to sense and then act. You give him a task, you don’t necessary tell him how to do it like you would something else.

And he will perform the task, at least in theory. The first time I saw him, I went over to the DARPA lab, and I saw them working with him. They said, let us show you how he can staple.

So okay, he’s an office worker.

The researchers placed a stapler in front of him, and placed paper inside the stapler. Then they gave him the instruction to staple:

And he looks down and he sees the stuff that’s on the table and moves his arms around, he looks around a little bit, moves his arm over, pushes it down on top of the stapler and staples the piece of paper just like he’s supposed to.

So that was great, and I said, let’s do it again, so they told him to do it again.

This time, he missed and he just ended up raking everything onto the floor. He reminds me of a six-month-old. He might or he might not do what you want him to do.

Launius had just successfully made the case for human space travel in less than ten minutes. Robots, he said, “aren’t really there yet. We might get there sometime but it’s not quite there yet.”

- Jennifer Welsh

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