So far, the vast majority of space exploration has been achieved through the deployment of uncrewed, remote systems and vehicles. Missions like the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or the Perseverance rover landing in February of 2021, have been absolutely fundamental in preparing the way to the red planet. Not only have these precursor initiatives generated substantial, valuable data and subsequent scientific findings, but they have also inspired the world to invest in the dream of Mars.
Further, the use of rovers and other remote systems will remain a crucial technology on Mars even after the arrival of human explorers. Long after the first settlements are established on the red planet, remote systems will still be invaluable for surveying, construction, industrial processes, and more. In fact, the number of robotic missions on Mars will likely increase manyfold upon our arrival.
It is critically important, however, that we do not settle for remote exploration only. Though it is more expensive and challenging (initially), the increased payoff in productivity, discovery, and socio-cultural value through sending humans will be substantial. The following considerations illustrate this fact:
Rovers Are Very Slow
The maximum ground speed of NASA’s Curiosity rover is 0.14 km/h. This is approximately 13 times slower than a crawling human1. After spending nearly 2 years attempting to burrow into the Martian soil, the Insight lander heat probe was able to dig 17 inches below the surface. A single astronaut with a garden spade could have achieved this within a period of several minutes.
This is not to detract from the accomplishments of either the Curiosity or Insight mission. Both endeavors have provided incredible scientific and social value to our society. Despite the fact that the Insight probe did not work as expected, that failure generated important data. This does, however, highlight the fact that human explorers can achieve tasks at a substantially greater speed.
Humans Are Much More Versatile
The human body is a far more flexible and versatile mechanical system than a Mars rover could hope to be. The path of a rover must be carefully plotted in order to avoid getting stuck, or to circumvent inaccessible areas. A human explorer could walk freely through a region of loose sand or scattered rocks that would be treacherous to a rover.
Robotic explorers are also heavily restricted in the type of activity they can conduct. A rover can only undertake the relatively small list of actions it was designed for. A crew of astronauts, on the other hand, would be highly adaptable to new or changing mission parameters.
Every small action taken by a robotic explorer on Mars must be carefully planned. Task decisions that a human explorer could make autonomously in a matter of seconds often require cautious deliberation and consensus by multiple individuals, when completed using a rover.
Space Exploration Is Not Just About Gathering Data
It is certainly possible to explore Mars using robots only, but this would amount to giving up on the most valuable aspects of space exploration to the future of our species. We do not explore space just to gather scientific data, we do it because it is a thrilling and hopeful journey that brings the promise of a broader future for our descendants. This cannot be done remotely.
The Apollo program has galvanized and inspired generations towards excellence, not because a Lunar Excursion Module landed on the Moon, but because it carried humans with it.
If we are to undertake the settlement of Mars, then we will open the frontier of space to millions of humans in the coming centuries. As interplanetary travel becomes sufficiently safe, Mars will need more than scientists and explorers. The growing Martian population will need plumbers, barbers, pizza delivery people, and waste management technicians. People from all nations and all walks of life will have access to the greatest journey our species has ever undertaken.
If we are to explore with remote technology only, however, then we will be restricting that journey to the small number of specialists directly involved in the operation of robotic systems.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, in order to achieve a multi-planetary future for our species on Mars, we will have to go there ourselves. Sending only robots to the red planet provides us with no security against existential risk.
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Written by Evan Plant-Weir, 2021