Recently NASA has been in the news with the successful launch and recovery of the Orion space craft. This was a four hour two orbit test of the new capsule that is intended to support future manned missions beyond the Earth. In addition, there has been a huge growth of the space industry in the last decade including commercial ventures such as Space X and Blue Origin, as well as proposals to mine the asteroids. There is always a tremendous interest in sending people to space, and in fact it seems to be an imperative for the human race to escape potential future disaster scenarios on the Earth by seeking solace among the stars.
Over the years we have sent countless orbiters and landers to survey the planets, including Voyager 1, launched in 1977, which is now the most distance man made object, having travelled almost 20 billion kilometers into interstellar space.
Many people would like to see humans set foot on Mars. But is it likely? The challenges to long distance manned space missions are huge; with cost, technology, and the frailty of the human organism being the primary issues. NASA wants to put a man on Mars by the end of the next decade. But in the mean time we will continue to send machines.
We live in a time when robotics and artificial intelligence are flourishing. We see technologies like speech recognition and computer vision, self driving cars, walking robots, socially reactive toys, and semi-autonomous drones being developed at an accelerating rate as manufacturing capabilities, miniaturization, computer power, battery storage, and theoretical advancements in AI are continuously improving. One day we will wake up to find that we have created a self-aware machine.
I believe that robotics technology will outpace our will to drive manned space exploration. There’s a good possibility that a conscious robot will set foot on Mars before a human sets foot on Mars.
Maybe that is how it should be. We should view these robots as our children not as our rivals. We are creating a new race of beings. Unlike our frail bodies, the new thinking machines can be hardened against radiation, sleep for the millennia it takes to cross interstellar distances, and set up camp on inhospitable outcrops. Our best bet is to create machines in our image and send them out as a diaspora in our stead.
We should be trying to design space probes that are self-replicating and self-sustaining, using the materials available wherever they go.
Surely the ingenuity of man can eventually create a machine seed that can copy itself on distance worlds, taking our accumulated knowledge along for the ride. This I think should be our serious goal. We may set foot on Mars in human form, but we need to create a more robust progeny if we want to colonize the galaxy.