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Stephen Hawking: The Future of Space -Manned vs Robotic Missions? (A Weekend Feature)

DVD-1081-2_300x375 "Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don't catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don't spread the human race into space, which I'm arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before." 

Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University

Will unmanned robotic missions be able to detect weird microscopic life-forms they are not programmed to recognize that might be lurking below the surface of Saturn's Titan, or beneath the murky seas of Jupiter's jumbo moon, Europa? 

The answer to this question is at the core of one of the greatest of the ongoing debates in space exploration: the question of man vs. unmanned robotic missions.

NASA currently operates more than 50 robotic spacecraft that are studying Earth and reaching throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Another 40 unmanned NASA missions are in development, and space agencies in Europe, Russia, Japan, India and China are running or building their own robotic craft.

What is not commonly known however is that many of NASA's leading scientists also champion human exploration as a worthy goal in its own right and as a critically important part of space science in the 21st century. The Obama administration's new NASA strategy that strongly favors robotic exploration, has opened the debate anew.

Recently, the President announced that he plans to cancel the Constellation program which was designed as our next step in the human flight area, focusing on a return to the moon. His goal is to move NASA away from its current role as a space transportation provider and allow it to again become a research and development organization. This will leave NASA without the capability to send humans to orbit.

"Tomorrow’s NASA space program will be different," says Wallace Fowler of the University of Texas, a renowned expert in modeling and design of spacecraft, and planetary exploration systems. "Human space flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), beyond Earth’s natural radiation shields (the Van Allen belts), is dangerous. Currently, a human being outside the Van Allen belts could receive the NASA defined “lifetime dose” of galactic cosmic radiation within 200 days. If the Sun spews out a coronal jet of radiation in a solar storm in the direction of the spacecraft, a lethal dose can be received in a few hours. Mars does not have the equivalent of the shielding Van Allen belts, so a Mars base would also need shielding. Until we develop appropriate shielding, probably an intense magnetic field around the spacecraft, human travel, even to the moon, will likely be limited."

"Robotic missions, in the short term, will be limited to the inner solar system," continues Fowler aruing the hard realities of manned space travel. "In the inner solar system (within the orbit of Mars), the solar cells can be used to power spacecraft. Beyond Mars, spacecraft power systems rely on radioactive means to create electricity, and we do not currently have a supply source for the needed material. There is a very short supply of Plutonium 238, the radioactive element used to provide electricity for spacecraft going to Jupiter and beyond. We have exhausted the U.S. supply and have been buying it from the Russians. Now they are in short supply and other sources are not currently available."

In a past issue of Scientific American Jim Bell, an astronomer and planetary scientist at Cornell University, and author of “Postcards from Mars,”  notes that “…you might think that researchers like me who are involved in robotic space exploration would dismiss astronaut missions as costly and unnecessary.”

But he then he goes on, “Although astronaut missions are much more expensive and risky than robotic craft, they are absolutely critical to the success of our exploration program."

Astroboy171104_2The heart of the debate is this: robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness: the unimaginable, the unknown, the strange non-carbon life that we may have encountered on Mars, for example with the two Viking vehicles, in 1976. Each carried equipment for sampling the Martian soil and miniature chemistry laboratories to test the samples for signs of life.The results these automated labs radioed back to Earth were enigmatic: the chemical reactions from the Martian soil were strange, unlike anything seen on Earth. But they were also unlike any reactions that living organisms would produce.

Ben Bova, the science-fiction author of Titan and The Aftermath, his most recent novels in is his ongoing series about the expansion of the human race throughout the Solar System, points out in an interview that most scientists examining the Viking results, reluctantly concluded that was lifeless: "But the fact is that the landers were equipped only to detect signs of Earth-type life. The chemical reactions observed could have been the results of Martian life. They certainly were not ordinary inorganic chemistry."

The debate over the meaning of the Viking results, Bova concludes, is still unsettled, more than 30 years later. But a human biologist or biochemist could have learned a lot more and settled the matter, one way or the other, within a few hours.

What are we looking for, exactly, when we search for alien life? That's the cosmic question pondered in the report from the National Research Council, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems. For more than five years, a committee of scientists tried to imagine what life-as-we-don't-know-it might be like. Their conclusion: Life may exist in non-carbon forms completely unlike anything we see on Earth.

The human vs.machine debate is a false construct: robotic unmanned spacecraft are directed by human beings on Earth. Unless disabled by fierce sandstorms, our rovers are in constant realtime communication with their masters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as will the New Horizons spacecraft now heading for Pluto with human monitors watching over it.

Stephen Hawking, world-celebrated expert on the cosmological theories of gravity and black holes who holds Issac Newton's Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, has strong views on the future of the human species and space trael. At last year's 50th anniversary for NASA. Hawking proposed that the world should devote about 10 times as much as NASA's current budget – or 0.25% of the world's financial resources – to space exploration. Hawking backed the space agency's goals of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and sending humans to Mars shortly after that.

The Moon is a good place to start because it is "close by and relatively easy to reach", Hawking said. "The Moon could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system," he added. would be "the obvious next target", with its abundant supplies of frozen water, and the intriguing possibility that life may have been present there in the past.

"A goal of a base on the Moon by 2020 and of a manned landing on Mars by 2025 would reignite the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy's Moon target did in the 1960s," he said.

Hawking said that any long-term site for a human base should have a significant gravity field, because long missions in microgravity lead to health issues such as bone loss.

Hawking favors human space exploration, rather than just sending robots to explore space, a position taken by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, among others.

Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars. If only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system's neighbourhood, he said.

"We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim," he said. "By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years." Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonizing space, he said.

"Even if we were to increase the international [space exploration] budget 20 times to make a serious effort to go into space, it would only be a small fraction of world GDP," he said. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of a country's economic activity.

Hawking  believes that traveling into space is the only way humans will be able to survive in the long-term. "Life on Earth," Hawking has said, "is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers ... I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space." 

Another of his famous quotes reiterates his position that we need to get off the planet relatively soon. "I don't think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years unless we spread into space."

The problems with Hawking’s solution is that while it may save a “seed” of human life- a few lucky specimens- it won’t save Earth’s inhabitants. The majority of Earthlings would surely be left behind on a planet increasingly unfit for life.

Hawking argued that the world can afford 0.25% of its collective GDP to devote to space colonization. "Isn't our future worth a quarter of a percent?" he asked. The physicist also speculated on the reasons that SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have not yet detected any alien civilizations, offering three possibilities: that life of any kind is very rare in the universe; that simple life forms are common, but intelligent life rare; or that intelligent life tends to quickly destroy itself.

"Personally, I favour the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare," he said. "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth."

About our new NASA space strategy, Robert Bishop, a specialist in the area of planetary exploration with emphasis on spacecraft guidance, navigation and control currently working with NASA Johnson Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on techniques for achieving precision landing on Mars argues that:

"In most ways, humans are now more sophisticated than those that came before us. Unlike the early earth-bound explorers, we are capable of leaving the cradle of civilization and living in space. Yet, 50 years after the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, we seem to be interminably stuck going in circles around the Earth. Indeed, the second brightest object in our night sky — the International Space Station — has been traveling in a near-circular orbit for years. Why is America so timid? Where is our spirit to explore and create new opportunities?"

Posted by Casey Kazan with Rebecca Sato, adapted from NASA materials.




Posted by Casey Kazan.

Related Galaxy Links:

Robot Evolution
Space Colonization -Our Future or Fantasy?

Jim Bell on Manned or Robotic Space Exploration


May we always have the spirit of adventure! There's so much to learn! And just in case we destroy ourselves or a natural disaster occurs we will have a way to keep the human race & the critters going if we are capable of space travel. This we have observed--life is a very powerful force! It may endure no matter what our behavior on earth is. U R LOVED

"The heart of the debate is this: robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness: the unimaginable, the unknown, the strange non-carbon life that we may have encountered on Mars"

This is true; however, it seems to me that as robot technology gets more sophisticated robots will able to do more of the tasks that only humans are capable of now. Eventually robots could reach a point that they could do anything a human could do and perhaps even surpass human abilities. In the future robots could be sent out to build space bases in advance of the human astronauts that would come later.

following hawkings thoughts - if we are serious about space travel then nuke engines are a must. nuke engines allow humans to make the journey along with robots each to do the suitable tasks. robots are part of human evolution - they can do what we can not and we can do what they can not.

Oh wow, I really like that dude. I mean seriously.


Wow, Steven Hawking is like the smartest man on the planet.


The debate over man vs. machine in space calls to mind a similar debate in the arts, specifically music.

You write: "The heart of the debate is this: robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness: the unimaginable, the unknown, the strange non-carbon life that we may have encountered on Mars, for example..."

David Cope, who writes software that writes beautiful music, says, “The question isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.”


Sometimes the most intelligent people miss the simplest things.


WOw, how can somebody so smart be so stupid. Let's see here, a quarter of a percent of US GDP is almost 35 billion dollars a year. I assume that this number was pulled completely out of stephen's ass. Who can say what 35 billion dollars a year will produce? Every government program exists because somebody said, "surely we can spend more money on THIS, I mean, it's just one more tiny program!"

Not only does this "genius" put amazing faith in a government program, he fails to understand the concept of economizing resources. 90% of the output our global economy will produce over the next 200 years will occur between one hundred and seventy from now and two hundred years from now. The money we spend today on a multi century project will be completely irrelevant. We could wait one hundred and seventy years before we spend one penny, and it would barely delay this multi century program.

Plus, couldn't private companies get in on this stuff within the next century or two? The fact of the matter is that we get the biggest bang for our buck in the near term with unmanned travel. Stephen Hawking seems to be making emotional points as if they were scientific or logical points.

Yes, destroying opportunities and value today is good because we'll have more opportunity 400 years from now? Is that man high? I am, and I think he's crazy!

Either we die or we don't.

If our race dies, I hope that we created some good amongst all the horrible. I hope that there is another chance, at some other time during the infinate time that remains afterwards, that another race gets to wake up and become conscious.

If Our race goes to another planet, I hope we create some good amongst all the horrible, and that during the infinate time that remains afterwards, that another race gets to wake up and become conscious.

Either way, it's much the same. We're going to die, and thats actually ok. let's stop worrying about it, become decent people, eat some tasty food, and be greatful as hell we got such a rare chance.

the President announced that he plans to cancel the Constellation program which was designed as our next step in the human flight area

tkwelge "Not only does this "genius" put amazing faith in a government program"
What the article says is that "Hawking argued that the world can afford 0.25% of its collective GDP to devote to space colonization." Where does the article state that Hawking is putting faith in a government program? I believe that "private companies" are still a part of this world.

At a certain point, mission distance will become so great that real time control becomes impractical. That's when autonomous machines will be needed, and human control will become more like the messages sent from one country to its explorers during the days of sail.

I'm amazed at some of the short sighted criticisms leveled towards Hawking.

Look up at night. What covers the face of the moon and mars?

Gigantic craters from large meteor strikes. There's plenty of meteors and asteroids still out there. One might have the earth's name on it, too.

If not a meteor strike, some psycho might develop an insane virus which would kill us all. Or perhaps a super caldera errupts and creates hell on earth. There was an article only days ago about an erruption 77,000 years ago which reduced humanity to 1,000 breeding pairs. We were THAT close to extinction.

Don't like the scenarios I've provided? Fill in your own doomsday scenario then.

The fact of the matter is that as a people, we're increasingly facing all sorts of threats which could wipe us out completely. Some domestic, some foreign, and some extra-terrestrial in nature.

We might find a way of deflecting a global nuclear attack. We might find the cure to every ailment that will ever be. And then one giant meteor strikes hits us and we're wiped out.

All for naught. Our history, our culture, our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, our dreams, our aspirations. Gone. Just gone. Wiped off the face of the Earth like we never existed. Just the luck of the draw - we get wiped out as the dinosaurs did. Just as helpless as we bickered over our petty things, unable to see the big picture.

Stephen is right - for humanity to survive in the long run, we must spread beyond the earth, so that if the unthinkable happens, there will be humans alive to carry on our tradtitions, somewhere out there in the void.

Personally I applaud the man for being able to not only use science but also to weild an emotional appeal to try to hammer into the VERY thick skulls of some people just what might happen.

The question remains if we're smart enough to get past all this and work towards a certain future. For if we are not, perhaps we don't deserve to save ourselves.

We should send steven hawking to the moon.

He seemed pretty insistent that NASA INCREASE ITS SPENDING ON SPACE EXPLORATION PROGRAMS. That seemed pretty clear. In no way did he mention any private space company, even though private corporations have put a man into low earth orbit, and virgin galactic is working on manned spaceflight as we speak. The private companies at least shoot for realistic goals that can be acvhieved in the short term.

Hawking wants us to spend 35 billion dollars a year in this country on a project that HE EXPLAINED we wouldn't see the benefit of for centuries. We have billions of people living in abject poverty NOW!

Hawking also was insistent that we do this, as if it were a social necessity. Actually, what he's suggesting is the organized theft of the masses to inefficiently fund programs of limited benefit. Space travel is a luxury item that should wait for voluntary customers in the private sector or shut up.

"Look up at night. What covers the face of the moon and mars?

Gigantic craters from large meteor strikes. There's plenty of meteors and asteroids still out there. One might have the earth's name on it, too."

How absolutely ridiculous. That is a calculated risk I am willing to take. I'd rather spend a dollar on an immediate benefit than a dollar on some dream program for the next century that might benefit some people theoretically who face a highly unlikely risk. Can't we do some real time specified, cost-benefit analysis before we start discussing risk with utter hyperbole?

Robotic probes & recon 1st, then flybys. NASA's budget may have been slashed, at least the Constellation program, but JPL, whose specialty is unmanned missions, is benefitting a lot. Probes from JPL launched on Atlas - Centaur & Titan rockets can do recon, then manned missions w / international crews can do the exploration. What does it matter if it's done by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, China, the UK, or all of them ?

tkwelge, you seem to be under the impression that Hawkings wrote the article. If Hawkings wrote the article would he write about himself in third person and quote himself? Wouldn't he write in first person and simply say what he has to say? The author of the article put Hawkings name in the title, the author mentions Hawkings several places and quotes him several times. The author also quoted several other people and interjected his or her own opinions into the piece. You are entitled to your opinions; however, I feel that your critcisms should be directed toward the author rather than at Hawkings.
You also seem to be under the impression that money that is used for space exploration is stuffed into a rocket and launched into outer space. Money that is spent on the space program is spent here on earth. The money produces jobs here and now for scientists, engineers, researchers, support staff, manufactures, etc. These people will spend their salaries on food, clothing, shelter, etc., creating a trickle down effect that benefits society as a whole. Discoveries made from their research will also benefit society. Your claim that the benefits will not be seen for centuries demonstrates a lack of understanding of basic economics.

Many people object to extremely expensive space programs because we have so many extremely poor people on the planet. But this seems to be a rather temporary condition. In 1998 60% of the world's population lived in low income countries as defined by the World Bank. In 2008 that number was down to 15%, one quarter of what it was ten years earlier.

The combined population of the high income countries now exceeds the combined population of the low income countries. Most of the world's population lives in middle income countries, countries whose economic output per person is approximately one to twelve thousand dollars a year.

In a largely positive and uplifting piece, there is this one weird "out of left field" moment:

-Another of his famous quotes reiterates his position that we need to get off the planet relatively soon. "I don't think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years unless we spread into space."

The problems with Hawking’s solution is that while it may save a “seed” of human life- a few lucky specimens- it won’t save Earth’s inhabitants. The majority of Earthlings would surely be left behind on a planet increasingly unfit for life.-
mens"? A "seed" only? The rest of the human race left to die on a blighted planet?

Presumably the "blighted planet" will be caused by Hawking's proposed spending of one wuarter of one hundredth (that's one four-hundredth) of global resources on manned space travel rather than spending that one four-hundredth of global resources on efforts to preserve the home world?

Seriously? If spending 399 of every 400 dollars won't save the Earth, that last dollar would "turn the trick"?

I fins the logic here more than a little dubious, if not actually laughable.

Hawkings proposal is not to put a "few lucky specimens" somewhere as "species life insurance" in case of a world ending disaster on some "blighted planet" of the future, some "Soylent Green" scenario.

Hawking's proposal is to spread humans onto other worlds, many worlds, so that those worlds all can become thriving societies much life that of our current world (and also, I hope, richer and more peaceful). The hope of Hawking is that if a world destroying disaster happens to any one world, (and such disasters can happen, even if humanity itself keeps the world in good shape a natural world destroying disaster is always populations to carry on the human experiment in whether intelligent life can last more than a few thousand years without destroying itself.

What an epic failure of imagination to reduce such a hric conept to the idea of a "seed" or "a fe lucky specimens".

By the way, if that were to be the best we could hope for, to preseve a "seed" etc,, that could start anew, what's so bad about that? Even that, for one four hundredth of what we have, seems like a prudent investment.

As for people who think Hawking wants to steal from teh people to benefit an elite that with unneeded technology: Please! Can you do the math? If you spend ONE FOUR HUNDREDTH of every dollar on this Hawking project, can the world still get rich and take care of all those billions of poor people with the other 399 parts of its dollars?

It's a question of whether you want humanity to make it, or not.

We can sit here, waiting for the inevitable (and it IS inevitable,. Do some research.) "world ending" disaster, or we can settle other planets and have our "eggs" (the human race) in more than one "basket" (earthlike planets). We can afford to thrive on this world AND settle others.

"Rest enough for the individual man - too much, and too soon - and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning."

H. G. WellsKim SMith

Great. This board is useless. It completely chops what you post into gibberish.

A loser board for people with no life.

Stay on your blighted Earth, and we'll settle the universe without your sorry asses.

Gibberish, again, I imagine!


I cannot agree to keep sending humans right now back to the Moon or even in perhaps for the next 100 years onto Mars. The cost is too high and the world economy too depressed. Yes robots should be sent everywhere and capable of doing soil analysis and even rocketing samples back to Earth. Yes, “robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness” as this article proclaims however robots can be reprogrammed (programs are not written in stone. Punk intended) and with soil samples sent back to Earth additional analysis can be preformed. We can then determine what minerals can be mined and use these raw materials to make space craft in Space.

I also agree with Stephen Hawking that the long range activity of the human race is to explore the universe. However to do that we need to know what it will take to build multi generation space craft that are safe from radiation. And these space craft will not be traveling anywhere near the speed of light (as is some people’s dreams). Therefore these space craft must be made capable of being totally self sustaining for hundreds if not thousands of years that it will take to reach the closest stars.

There are plenty of things that we need to learn and lots of those things can be learned at low Earth orbit and we already have a place to do a lot of those experiments: the International Space Station! Let’s keep that alive way past 2020! Replacing or repairing old ISS modules would be a lot cheaper than building new space stations on the Moon or Mars!

thats great news now that days are not far when people will take a trip to other planets for their vacations

I think people have not spent enough time thinking these different far-reaching outcomes through. Take a look at www.humanityssun.com and see what you think of a logical argument for existing space exploration.

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