Space Exploration Could Herald the Beginning of the Post-Human Era
This is the fourth installment of a five-part WorldPost series on the world beyond 2050. The series is adapted from the Nierenberg Prize Lecture by Lord Martin Rees in La Jolla, Calif. Part one is available here. Part two is here. Part three is here. The final part will be published next week.
With part four of this Beyond 2050 series, I want to digress into my special interest — space. This is where robots surely have a future.
During this century, the whole solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturized probes. These will be far more advanced than the European Space Agency’s Rosetta or NASA’s New Horizons, which transmitted amazing pictures from Pluto more than 10,000 times further away from Earth than the moon. These two instruments were built and launched around 15 years ago. Think how much better we could do today. And later this century, giant robotic fabricators may build vast lightweight structures floating in space — gossamer-thin radio reflectors or solar energy collectors, for instance — using raw materials mined from the moon or asteroids.
Robotic advances will erode the practical case for human spaceflight. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots into deep space, though it will be as risk-seeking adventurers rather than for practical goals.
The most promising developments are spearheaded by private companies. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, who also makes Tesla electric cars, has launched unmanned payloads and docked with the space station — and, in December, achieved a soft recovery of the rocket’s first stage, rendering it reusable. Musk hopes soon to offer orbital flights to paying customers.