Manned or Unmanned: Argument for more investments in unmanned space missions

Eli Hini
Eli Hini
Jul 3, 2017 · 4 min read

In this new space era and race with the privatization of space travel an important question that dominates the debate of space missions is whether unmanned or manned missions should be pursued. The advantages and disadvantages of each type of mission is well known and documented. In this blog post, I review an article that discusses an argument against manned missions and I provide my reasons for supporting its stance. The article is by Jason C. Chavis and it is titled “Disadvantages to Manned Missions to Space” (Chavis, 2015)

First and foremost, the safety of any human that is embarking on a space mission is of primary concern according to Chavis (2015). For manned missions to be successful, humans must make it to their destination safely and in good health. They must endure and be protected from the external hazards of space. Achieving safety in space comes at very high costs (Chang, 2014; Chavis, 2015; McKie, 2015). This costs include the efforts and resources required for the design, development and ongoing mainteance of spacesuits, spacecrafts and overall life-support systems.

In addition to safety, there is the issue of good health both physical and mental. Astronauts undergo years of training to anticipate and deal with various health issues to be encountered in space. Muscle atrophy, bone density reduction, radiation injuries and sicknesses, vision disorders to mention just a few. Irrespective of the amount of training received, some if not all space crew will experience many of the health issues that affect the human body in space to varying degrees depending on the length of the mission they are on.

There are monetary and time cost to manned space missions. Each mission must be trained for. The trainings include mission specific actives as well as health and safety preparations. The duration and destination of the mission also adds to time, monetary and health cost. The longer it takes for a spacecraft to get to its destination, for example a journey to mars, the higher the safety and health risk (Gary, 2013; Fong, 2015). There must exist adequate life support provisions to sustain a crew for the duration of their mission. Thus, the longer the mission the more life support provisions are needed; none of which is insignificant in monetary cost and health risk. Upon returning to Earth, each crew member needs to be monitored and treated to ensure successful re-acclimation to Earth’s gravity and environment. These pre-mission, in mission and post-mission costs are not negligible.

The article cites safety concerns, health risks, mission time frame, and overall mission costs as arguments against manned space missions. I agree with this point of view. I am in favour of unarmed space missions for the reasons cited by the author. Launching an unmanned space probe, or rover to mars costs less, bears little to no safety and health risk to humans and can be achieved in an accelerated timeframe. A downed rover or space probe is less problematic to mission control than a lost or malfunctioning spacecraft with depleting life support system. The Mars rovers continued collecting valuable information long after their intended missions were over. A human stranded on a foreign planet will have to contend with loneliness and any mental health problem, physical health issues and preparations of end of life. This is an ethical issue that each agency and crew must prepare for and deal with whereas, unmanned systems can be left deserted or floating somewhere in space without the fragility of life to worry about.

Unmanned vehicles cannot replace the ingenuity of a human explorer. A human can make complex decisions about the environments they explore without needing input from mission control on Earth. Unmanned robots can be teleoperated by humans where near human manipulation is required. However, the communication delay between a remote unmanned system and an Earth based command and control station is usually cited as a disadvantage. I will argue that given the cost reduction of unmanned space missions compared to manned missions, high speed communication relays should be given strong consideration for the development of robust unmanned missions.

Unmanned systems on Earth are used in replacing dull, dirty and dangerous work. Space missions is certainly dirty and very dangerous albeit it exciting. I am of the opinion that unmanned missions are needed before any manned missions. I stand for manned missions only when it is proven to be safe, cost effective and absolutely necessary.

References:

Chang, K., (2014). Beings not made for space. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/science/bodies-not-made-for-space.html

Chavis, J.S., (2015). Disadvantages to manned missions to space. Retrieved from http://www.brighthub.com/science/space/articles/72499.aspx

Fong, K., (2014). The strange, deadly effects mars would have on your body. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2014/02/happens-body-mars/

Gray R., (2013). Dangers of a manned mission to Mars. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/10200818/Dangers-of-a-manned-mission-to-Mars.html

McKie, R., (2014). Astronauts lift our spirits. But can we afford to send humans into space?Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/07/can-we-afford-to-send-humans-into-space

NASA. How the rover can communicate through Mars-orbiting spacecraft. Retrieved from https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/mission/communicationwithearth/communication/

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