Endeavour Space Shuttle

Impossible. That's what the 2009 Augustine committee reported about prospects for NASA's human exploration of space, at least for the next seven years. NASA's budget issues remain at the top of the list holding humans from space but the same future may not hold true for its robots.

Two recent robot adventurers, rovers Spirit and Opportunity, lend credence to the idea that NASA's future may rapidly become reliant on robots to carry out missions in space. The Mars exploring rovers cost the agency more than $400 million apiece but have returned nearly six years of insightful data and imagery from the red planet's surface.

Contrast this against the charge for merely launching human passengers into orbit via space shuttle, at roughly $450 million per launch, and the fiscal benefits become quickly apparent. Not to mention, space shuttles such as Endeavour cost the agency almost $1.7 billion to manufacture alone.

NASA's Space Faring Robots of the Past

The Mars rovers aren't the first robots to plumb the mysteries of space for NASA. In fact, robots have investigated and visited more locations in our solar system than any human--oftentimes to locales an astronaut couldn't survive.

In 1973 the robotic space probe Mariner 10 traveled to the inner system planets of Mercury and Venus while its younger sister, Mariner 9, made the trip to Mars more than thirty years before Spirit and Opportunity. Alongside, Pioneer Venus 2 ejected robotic probes which dared an actual foot landing on the surface of Venus, a vacation spot bragging temperatures well over 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of those probes managed to survive the risky descent and dutifully report back for 45 minutes inside roasting temperatures and atmospheric pressure that no sane human would tempt. Clearly robots can take an exploratory role that would be too costly and too dangerous for a person.

While we have managed to put footprints and flags on our nearby Moon, robots have traveled to virtually all of the planets and even some of their moons. Of course, robots have visited our rocky celestial partner as well, among them include various NASA Pioneer spacecraft and an array of Soviet Luna spacecraft. Most of these robotic Moon explorers have taken a role as simple orbiters but a few have impacted the surface to pick through rocks and wander the barren surface.

NASA Robots on Earth

Many ideas and projects for robots at NASA have inevitably filtered down to worthy applications on Earth. After all, it is sometimes expensive or dangerous for a human to travel and visit locations on our own space rock.

One example is the Altus II, a robotic airplane developed by NASA. Originally designed as a scientific aircraft, in 2001 NASA presented the craft as a tool for fighting fires.

Human pilots have often risked their lives piloting aircraft in an attempt to survey and monitor deadly, often vast, wildfires. Because the Altus II can fly for such long duration--at one time the craft held a 26-hour record for single-flight endurance--it can continually co-operate with both ground based firefighters and off-planet satellites to photograph and monitor fires below.

In the future, NASA is likely to entertain ideas for using this sort of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) in a role exploring and monitoring the surface of alien worlds, carrying out automated scientific experiments at high-altitude, and coordinating with other robots on the ground and in space alike.

A Future for NASA Robots

Sure to be the envy of every earth-bound grasshopper, the Jollbot is wiry, robotic contraption that may take a leap for NASA's future exploration of space.

Robots that physically walk on some sort of leg or roll around on a set of wheels can easily be thwarted by unpredictable terrain. The Jollbot takes a different tack by literally forming a ball to roll across obstacles. If things get too tough, or if there are simply better places to explore, the Jollbot can hop its way to a distant new location or hurdle over a small patch of difficult ground before continuing its mission.

Such a robot could provide a far cheaper and far more efficient answer than previous attempts made by NASA at exploring other planets and moons. It also means that NASA could send many more of these robotic explorers than usual opening up the possibility of mapping and traversing entire landscapes in short periods of time, both on our home planet and anywhere in space we can afford to send them.

A much more human like robot is also being developed by NASA and DARPA--the Robonaut. Featuring an upper torso, human styled hands and arms, and even a head straight out of your favorite science fiction movie, the Robonaut has been proposed as the ideal space janitor and maintenance man.

Capable of being mounted in ways we humans might find offensive, the Robonaut could find itself perched on the end of a long, robotic arm for spacewalks intended to repair and maintain equipment such as found on the International Space Station or orbiting satellites. Partnered with humans, a Robonaut could make these spacewalks safer and easier, if not less time-consuming and costly.

Yet, the Robonaut isn't by any means limited to jaunts in space. One lucky Robonaut has been mounted on a Segway HT, the hip, two-wheeled electric scooter that has periodically foiled human riders such as George Bush.

It is certainly possible that NASA could find even more inventive ways to mount a Robonaut, on Earth, in space, and into the distant future. Whatever the case, it is apparent that robots form an effective cast and crew for NASA's future exploration of our planet and our universe.

Additional information and sources for this article include:

Augustine Plans Committee, Review of U.S. Human Space Flight (PDF)

Lee Billings, America's Space Agency Faces Uncertain Future, Seed Magazine

NASA, Space Shuttle FAQ, Robonaut Shows Sensitive Side

Marshall Brain, How the Mars Exploration Rovers Work, HowStuffWorks.com

Staff & Wire Reports, NASA Offers Robot Plane as Firefighter, Space.com

University of Bath, Researcher Designs Robot that Jumps like a Grasshopper

Wikipedia, General Atomics ALTUS, Venus, Space Exploration

Intnl Space Station and Japan's $1B lavatory : was this really necessary ?

At huge cost, Space Shuttle Endeavour has carried a huge state-of-the-art Japanese lavatory and two Japanese astronauts up to the ISS.
Surely a cheaper kind of thunder-box would have done (why not a good old British Portapotty?), when half the world is starving.

You have it wrong. It is actually a Japanese laboratory not lavatory they sent up.
I can see your confusion as they also took up a replacement pump for the lavatory (which is Russian by the way, and certainly not worth $1B), but that has nothing to do with the laboratory or the Japanese astronauts.




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