Is the Future of Space Exploration a Flock of Robots or a Trillion People?

Space software mavens debate the road ahead for space exploration

2 min read
From left: David C. Brock, Dan Lickly, Charles Simonyi, Matthew Shindell
The panelists of If Software, Then Space, from left: David C. Brock, Dan Lickly, Charles Simonyi, Matthew Shindell
Photo: Douglas Fairbairn Photography/CHM

Is space exploration best done by man? Or machine? Space historian Matthew Shindell and software pioneer and space tourist Charles Simonyi debated the possibilities during a panel on computing and space held last week at the Computer History Museum.

Shindell, curator at the National Air and Space Museum, started with a little historical perspective. “When we talk about history of space exploration, imagining how humans might live and work in space, we go back to early 50s.”

Nobody at that time, he explained, could imagine computers having much use in space, given that the leading computer of the time, the Univac, took up a whole room. So even future communications satellites and observatories were assumed to be manned, with an astronaut connecting phone calls via a switchboard or an astronomer making observations of the stars from a space-based platform.

“Humans were thought to be necessary for every activity in space,” Shindell said.

The vision changed as fast—or faster—than the technology. “By 1968,” Shindell said, “when the movie 2001… “imagines an artificially intelligent computer able to operate an entire spacecraft.”

Shindell, however, still thinks that, in space exploration, humans have a certain edge. “Robots are fantastic,” he said, “but only cover short distances compared to a human in the field. A human on Mars could cover a lot of what rovers have done in a matter of a week.”

Simonyi, now a Microsoft technical fellow, begged to differ.

“I don’t see that,” he said. “Here [on earth], if I want to go far, I take a car. And humans are so expensive, you have to bring them back. You have to feed them. Terrible idea for science.”

Shindell pointed out that the actual value of the speed of humans is arguable, though indeed they can make real-time decisions about what rocks to pick up or features to explore.

The two turned to consider the boom in private space efforts, and the claim by Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos that there will someday be trillions of people living in space.

“He’s not kidding,” Simonyi said, but indicated such a future exceeded the limits of his imagination.

That’s not saying it won’t happen, he reflected. “I remember Alan Kay talking about the Dynabook, I thought no way, a flat display, color… I thought it was impossible, but now it is an everyday thing.”

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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