back to article Sod robots, send people into space: report

People must be at the heart of the UK's space exploration efforts, according to a report published today. The report's authors contradict the UK's long-held policy that robots are where it is at, both scientifically and financially, when it comes to touring the solar system. They argue that it is time for a new vision. "We …


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  1. Daniel Snowden

    Doesn't inspire everyone

    I'm not particularly excited at the idea of the UK carrying out its own manned missions. (at best, it'll be another bus to the ISS. At worst, it'll be a glory mission of no scientific value, like Chinas launches) Nor am I excited at NASAs proposed manned mission to Mars.

    New Horizons - the first probe to survey Pluto and it's satellites (along with the Kuiper belt) I am excited about.

    Manned missions get the public interested in space but it always wanes in the end. Those who are truly interested in space follow the unmanned (and much more interesting) robotic missions. Especially ones that go to the places humans can't reach.

    But then again I would have been the kind of person who would have been more excited about Voyager then Apollo. (Both before my time, but even to this day I'm amazed by the insight the probes provided in to the outer solar system)

  2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Am I missing something?

    I hate to stick my neck out in such distinguished company, but I just don't understand the fixation with making your payload ten times larger. It seems trivially obvious to me that a robot-plus-remote-control system can do anything that a human being can do in any situation where the communications latency isn't a problem, with the bonus that the robot is expendable.

    It follows that actually landing *anywhere* in the solar system has to be the height of daftness, since you can do everything by remote control from low orbit and save yourself the fuel required to come back.

    As far as the moon is concerned, with only a few seconds round trip time, I find it difficult to imagine any activity which couldn't be performed *from Earth* by remote control. It may require people to work marginally more slowly, but we aren't expecting to find any moving objects out there, so where's the problem?

    And as far as "engaging the public" is concerned, didn't the Voyager missions engage just about anyone with a brain?

  3. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    At last...

    ...It dawned upon them.

    Robots are almost totally ineffective in space. The Martian rovers are there for years now and all that they've accomplished are some pretty pictures and a couple of inconclusive test results. A manned expedition would have accomplished much more in a much shorter time.

    The cost? Maybe manned space travel is still more expensive in direct comparison but perhaps not if you take into consideration the much higher payoff.

    Also, I laugh all the time when the rovers get stuck because their feet tangle in the landing module wires or sand, or when their solar batteries stop working because of the dust or when a switch needs to be thrown to cold-reboot the bloody thing... Just send the maintenace guy and he'll fix it in 2 minutes!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Virgin Galactic...

    ...can stick a couple of folks up there for a fraction of that though?

  5. Chris Fryer

    Re: Am I missing something?

    "didn't the Voyager missions engage just about anyone with a brain?"

    It was better than Deep Space Nine, I suppose.

  6. James Pickett


    "send two astronauts into space at a cost of roughly £50m-£70m"

    And the cost of bringing them back..?

  7. Chris Thomas

    Not this twaddle again

    How disappointing to see this old chestnut rearing its ugly head again. Manned space flight may be inspiring, but it is both expensive and dangerous. To me, at least, it is clear that manned spaceflight does not produce good science whilst unmanned missions have provided a wealth of new information.

    With a crisis in science funding in the UK, having anything to do with manned missions will result in funds which could be used to address relevant and important issues being transferred to expensive PR and engineering. The only valid argument for adopting this policy would be if one was "optimistic" enough to believe that it would generate additional resources for science - some chance!

  8. Allan Rutland

    How Much?!

    "The group argues that, by 2015, the UK could send two astronauts into space at a cost of roughly £50m-£70m"

    Ok, am I the only one missing that our gov wants to spend £50m-£70m on sending two astronauts into space by 2015, when we could for £100k each give them to Branson to fire up into orbit on the cheap? I know the gov loves to find new and intriguing ways to spend out hard earned tax cash...but some on, this doesn't work out. For that much cash surely it would be more worthwhile buying a SS2 and mother ship off Branson and using it for "gov" purposes.

    The gov really needs to get the whole buying off the shelf is cheaper than starting from scratch thing down. They waste way to much this way.

  9. Jason Togneri

    'Men' in space...

    (Or women for that matter) would accomplish a great deal with that on-the-spot enthusiasm and intuition that real people bring to any venture, and yes, it would be great PR while it lasted.

    However, apart from the extra mass of the people, there is food, water, tools, plumbing, air, air recycling, waste recycling, more accident likelihood (due to a more complex system having more things that could go wrong) right down to simple things like travel velocity, rough landings, radiation exposure, and yes, return journey fuel. Need I go on?

    I personally would love to see people in space on a more permanent basis, and I do indeed believe that manned exploration and settlement is the only way forward (and that's quite aside from tackling the Fermi Paradox...) - hopefully we'll make it one day, but I'd rather the reason was survival of the race or exploration for the sake of science, rather than some attention-grabbing, politically-fuelled, fund-gathering stunt.

  10. Graham Bartlett


    "It seems trivially obvious to me that a robot-plus-remote-control system can do anything that a human being can do in any situation where the communications latency isn't a problem"

    You sure? I quote from NASA's website: "Opportunity set a new driving record on March 20th, completing 220 metres in a single day's drive". That's 10m per hour. Is that really *your* top speed? ;-) If the payload had been humans (and any required survival gear), all the information gathered so far could have been done in the first week.

    Not to mention the communications latency issue. Anywhere outside Earth's orbit is too far for real-time control of a robot, meaning that you need to carefully precalculate how you want the robot to move, and you can't move more than a small increment because you can't see what's around the next rock.

    I'd also note the extra reliability from human involvement. The first moonshot, the automated systems were screwed and Armstrong had to do some substantial piloting himself to rescue it. All those Mars missions where things crashed and burned through various engineering screw-ups - every one of those would have been a success with human involvement.

    I'm not denying that unmanned probes are a part of the equation, learning about places elsewhere in the solar system. But if we never go there, what purpose are they serving?

    As for how involved humans *could* be, a study not long back found a majority of science and engineering grads would be prepared to do a suicide shot to Mars with no fuel for a return trip, in the full knowledge that they'd be stuck there and dead within 6 months.

  11. MishyMoshy

    Boyle's Law

    Forget all that wimpy send-one-man-here-or-there stuff. What we need is (to quote Frankie Boyle on Mock The Week) a giant sex gun so the earth can make love to the moon.

    On a less unhelpful note I find it kinda strange how peeps can get soooo passionately uptight about NOT doing something... As the report seems to suggest: have both.

  12. Andy

    Fat Chance

    Much as I hate to put the damper on all this -- and beleive me, I'm in favour of it all -- where is the money going to come from for all this?

    I think this is pretty much wishful thinking.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not this again

    Whoop-de-doo, it's the Trekkie fanbois at it again.

    Name *one* thing space exploration has achieved then if you're so fscking clever.

    The whole thing is so completely pointless, any government flushing taxpayers' money down the bog on this will lose any last shred of authority it might have had. There will not be mere civil disobedience, there will be rioting in the streets.

    Abandon the whole thing, and send the SF kiddies back to their parents' basements where they belong.

  14. Guy

    Can I go?

    What would really pique the interest of the common person is manned space flight we can all have a go at.

    I'm not talking Virgin Galactics 'Almost but not quite in orbit' I mean get me into space! Better yet take me to the moon for a weekend away!

    Heck if they could do that I'd stop complaining about my lack of a flying car, jetpack, or laser cannon.

    P.S. Not really, I'd still want my flying car, I was joking about that bit.

  15. FurryCreature

    Reality TV

    Well said MishyMoshy. Given that 75 million is about the price of one pint per taxpayer and will last till 2015, I reckon its pretty good value.

    If the price comes down much further, it will become feasible to fund the whole thing as reality TV. Might beat big brother, particularly if something goes wrong... You could vote on which poor bugger does the space walk to empty the latrines or whatever it is they do up there.

  16. Scott Silver badge

    About time!

    It has been known for years that "exploring" means someone going somewhere and seeing something. Sending probes and robots somewhere and watching a television signal is investigation, possibly even scientific investigation.

    A little bit of the moon has been explored. More has been investigated. Absolutely none of Mars has been explored. The UK has done no space exploration. It is about time we started!

    The price quoted could be passed by stopping our help with an illegal war ONE DAY early.

  17. david mccormick

    50-70mill rubbish

    Give a fraction of that to Top-gear. They'll buy some butties and tea for some odd looking folk in derby and build a rocket and give us laugh. Just don't let hammond into the cockpit.

  18. JimC

    @Branson send into Orbit...

    Folks, Rutan's achievements with Spaceship one (b****** all to do with the bearded self publicist) are very admirable and a significant achievement, but neither that nor Spaceship Two, the commercial version, will get someone into orbit. All they are managing is a quick hop just out of the atmosphere and back again. About where NASA got to in 1961 I'm afraid.

  19. Mike Richards Silver badge

    What is it with governments wanting to inspire people?

    According to politicians, the Millennium Dome would whip Britain into a 21st Century frenzy something like Friday night in ancient Babylon.

    The same people told us the Queen's Golden Jubilee would result in such levels of inspiration we'd all have to lie down afterwards.

    Come the 2012 publicly-funded East End drugfest we're expecting to be awash in a tsunami of soft-focus inspiration.

    Now they're saying the country needs an inspirational manned space programme.

    I don't think I can take any more publicly funded inspiration. It's just depressing me.

    But, I could be a whole lot more inspired if the government just gave me thousands of Pounds of inspiration in cash form.

  20. Misha Gale

    Homo Sapiens vs. Robo Sapiens

    I'm not going to get into whether humans or robots are better to send into space for scientific or exploration missions, but surely if we are serious about establishing off-world colonies, we are going to have to actually send people into space eventually?

    Ok, maybe putting actual people on Mars won't accomplish anything Spirit & Opportunity couldn't, but it will teach us a lot about how to safely send folks to another planet,and, more importantly, bring them back again.

  21. Morely Dotes

    @ Anonymous Luddite

    "Name *one* thing space exploration has achieved then if you're so fscking clever."

    Just one? Which one shall I choose?

    Charge Coupled Device (CCD) chips for digital imaging breast biopsies.

    I guess I'll choose that one. Now crawl back into your cave and see if you can make a fire by banging two rocks together, you presimian lump!

  22. John Stag

    Name one thing...

    "Name *one* thing space exploration has achieved then if you're so fscking clever."

    Easy: Non-stick frying pans.

    I was going to post a link to the full list in Encyclopedia Britannica...

    But then I noticed that EB has been reduced to this: "enter credit card number to activate your free trial ... your card will not be charged during the trial period and you can cancel at any time..."

    How the mighty have fallen, eh?

  23. John Stag

    I was so upset I forgot the list....

    A quick Google search will bring up lists of things which are by-products of space exploration:


  24. Chris Goodchild Silver badge

    Not governments. Scientists!

    The authors of the report according to the article were scientists at Oxford not the UK gov. Members of the government and the civil service don't even know what space is, most of them would regard space as a handy spot on their desk to put a cup of tea.

    As far as manned missions go, I am all for anything that gets people in general and the British in particular interested in ANY science, it would make a nice change to hear the average brit discussing a scientific event rather than the latest development on Big Brother or their favourite soap and perhaps it would help to stimulate interest in the sciences amongst school kids and subsequently produce a few more scientists.

    Also as others before me have said, an actual human being on the spot is worth any number of robots separated from their operators by millions of miles and huge time lags in comms.

  25. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Homo Sapiens vs. Robo Sapiens

    Well said Misha.

    Everyone else seems to forget (or ignore) the fact that it is essential that humans find a way to live places other than this mudball if there is to be any hope at all of long-term survival.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The opponents of manned space travel.

    They'd prefer to send a robot to the Costa Brava and watch it on their PC as it lay on the beach sunning itself, instead of going themselves, would they?

    No, I didn't think so.

  27. Ronan Tumelty


    I'm not too enthused by the idea of a project suggested by a group that could be confused with the word "sewage" during charades.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    People will die.

    It will make for good television.

  29. Charles Eglington

    Where's Dan Dare

    Anyone remember what his sidekick's name was - Digby or something??

  30. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Re: Am I missing something?

    "You sure? I quote from NASA's website: "Opportunity set a new driving record on March 20th, completing 220 metres in a single day's drive". That's 10m per hour. Is that really *your* top speed? ;-) If the payload had been humans (and any required survival gear), all the information gathered so far could have been done in the first week."

    What's the rush? You'll need to put your human in a tin can for several years just to get there and back. For Mars, you will either need to limit the duration of the mission unreasonably (perhaps to that "first week" you mention) or you will need to send a near-complete ecosystem. I'd like to see you squeeze even the human into the craft that delivered Opportunity, let alone the ecosystem. Robots are just orders of magnitude more cost-effective.

    And if you still aren't convinced, please at least consider the other option I alluded to of putting the humans in Mars orbit and only sending the robots down to the surface. There's a good reason why Apollo 8 went all the way to the Moon only to fly around it and come back. Actually landing was a whole extra set of problems which (as already noted) almost went badly wrong.

    And on *that* subject, neither Armstrong's piloting nor Apollo 13's lucky escape should be interpreted as "Well we need more human's then.". These guys were *lucky*. Various others, starting with Apollo 1, weren't. It's an unnecessary risk.

  31. amanfromMars Silver badge

    "there are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge"

    "Where's Dan Dare" .... Busy Bonding, with a cunning Plan to blitz Media with AI Shock and Awe.

    QuITe whether it will be OHMSAIS or not, you can be assured is reflected in their Intelligence of the Total Information Awareness Space.

  32. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge

    Sir Humphrey couldn't have put it better himself:

    'The report recommends the UK should establish a detailed plan to enable a decision to be made on whether the UK becomes involved in human space flight'

    Doesn't that essentially translate as 'we should think about it'. What a fantastic bit of blather!

  33. Tawakalna

    please, won't somebody think of the turtles?

    All El Reg readers should know by now that space missions are all faked by governments, because the earth, as is well known, is surrounded by a crystalline sphere carried on the backs of two turtles. Any object penetrating the sphere will shatter it, evacuate our atmosphere into space, and upset the turtles.

    bah, space humbug.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Candidates for space

    1. Paris Hilton

    2. Paris Hilton's pet rat

    3. Lindsey Lohan

    4. Anyone seen in the company of 1-3

    5. Amy Housewine

  35. Mike

    Ignore the spin, get the facts, no humans in space thanks.

    1. Manned space travel inspires people?

    Without a doubt, but those people would perhaps otherwise be inspired by jet fighters, deep sea exploration etc. or even just plain robot "manned" craft, all the people who would otherwise be inspired wouldn't suddenly give up on life and spend their time watching Trisha and having pizza delivered.

    2. People in space would be "better" than machines

    Anyone who had seen the high definition, uncut, unedited version of the moon landings from the original tapes rather than the ropy TV broadcast would realise how long it takes a human to do anything at all, just exiting the craft and going down three steps took about 15 minutes. If an unmanned craft gets broke, learn from it and send another one, you can have lots of unmanned craft or go far further for the price of unmanned. (note, the analogy with deep sea exploration and "rovers" is blindingly obvious here)

    3. Name one thing....

    Yes, NASA did invent a lot of useful stuff, but remember it's the people who worked for NASA who did this, not the magic of space travel (let alone manned space travel), most of these things (you could argue all of them), would have been invented sooner or later, besides imagine if cancer or disease research had the same funding what suffering in the world could have been avoided?

    And besides, how beneficial are these so-called benefits really? non-stick pans wear out whereas a stainless steel one could last forever (but be a little harder to clean and need a bit of skill to use), stainless pans are far more ecologically friendly. Baby foods developed from NASA technology means that people buy expensive, calorie intense, processed foods in wasteful packaging instead of additive free meat and veg cooked and blended by their parents.

    4. Homo Sapiens vs. Robo Sapiens

    No, that's just plain stupid, let's not think about living on another moon or planet because ours is getting screwed, lets put the technical and financial resources into keeping ours alive, besides, it's not the imaginary world of Bladerunner, can you possibly imagine the resources required to put even 0.0001% of our population onto another celestial body? (that's forgetting the weakened gene pool, eugenics argument, social elitism etc)

    I'm not against (unmanned) space travel per-se, the global communications systems that we have in place are wonderful, and perhaps the helium-3 research means we could mine the moon for cleaner energy for earth, but lets get our priorities right, see through the political spin, who's life world be worse off without PTFE? who's could be better if we focused the research elsewhere? (the answers are nobody, everybody's)

  36. Chris Goodchild Silver badge


    Amongst other problems on this planet there is the fact that there are no more `inspiring ´frontiers. In the nineteenth century most of the world was a mystery to most people, now it is all visible on Google world, the TV,newspapers( though their view of the world is generally suspect), in short the kind of challenges that existed for our forebears have all been conquered. Most of the exploration left to us on Earth is at the bottom of the sea or in terms of research to solve one problem or another.The notion of `going where no man has gone before´whilst easy to take the piss out of is what fueled a huge amount of discoverys that in their turn led to advances for the whole human race. For example, a great many of the herbal remedies used by the American Indians are now part of everyday medicines and of great value to every body. If Columbus/Eric the Red et al hadn't had the drive to go out there, then some one else would have. Going to see what is over the next hill is what makes humanity progressive and forward looking. Think about why extreme sports have evolved? to fill a need in man's psyche, there are no challenges left that involve going there so people have found other outlets for their drive. at our current level of technology space is the logical next step. What ever the cost!

  37. Mike

    Re: Inspiration?

    Chris is exactly right, space is unexplored by "Man", we can map the entire worlds surface (doen't mean we've explored it 'tho, but that's another argument) but the article poses the question robots or man should go into space, apart from the political posturing (1st man in space/1st man on the moon = we are much better than you, na na na na na) there's very little reason to go into space, OK, we might discover something cool to use (helium-3 etc), but would we find that without going into space in person?

    The resources that we chomp through, in technical and cash would be better spent on earth, looking after earth, and if we have, I mean really have to go into space, send robots, we can send many more, far further for the same money.

    As for crossing the "frontier" "whatever the cost" ,once we have an outpost on the moon, next will be europa and so on, it's never ending and the cost is in human life, the ones that could be saved with funding technical advances for problems that we know about, by funding researchers that are crying out to save lives, there's an indirect cost in lives not saved, and don't forget the direct costs, the impacts of burning that much fuel*, all the poisons created in the manufacture of the equipment.

    If we had cash to spare and there was no significant impact to the environment then yes, we should explore space "in person" (I would certainly love to), but this is not the case, look how much crap we've left on Evererst (figuratively and actually) just climbing a mountain "because it's there", Chris Goodchild, I agree with the poetry in what you say, and perhaps this is why it will happen, but we're not just sending out a few brave people on a big boat, we're ignoring the crisis of our planet in favour of political one-upmanship.

    *anyone who says haha!, you're wrong, they burn oxygen and hydrogen, only producing water, no nasty emissions, is themselves wrong, how did we get the oxygen and hydrogen? simple, we used energy from elsewhere to split water, and that energy came from a power station, do the maths and you might be shocked on the actual damage to the environment.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Forgot something!

    Everybody forgot one aspect though, ok it could look funky to send guys up there but how the hell will you do that? I do not reckon UK having any shuttle build so far of any kind to do such things even sending its own satellite. So sending humans at 50-70 Millions each, you'll have to spend ten times more in developping the craft itself to be sure it's safe too

  39. na101010

    OK, fine...

    Space vs. undersea vs. medical vs. whatever funding aside....

    So it's expensive and risky. Let privately funded groups do it. Give them huge tax credits or access to government sites/data/something. It'd still be cheaper than big Gov doing it alone. Not to mention the SPEED of development would be (first bad pun....) light-years ahead of a government project.

    AND, so people die here and there. I seem to recall that people called "explorers" in the history books died quite a bit, or at least someone in the party did. Apollo 1 anyone? And to think that NASA kept at it. Nowadays such a disaster leads to years of inquisition and pink slips. How many humans have died in the development of modern aircraft? So just get over it, and let them put their lives on the line if they want to. To use the airline's model of statistics, more people have died in car accidents on the Earth in the last couple of days than have died in all the years of human payload rocketry, right? I'm sorry if that angle offends, but let's face it, like a previous poster said, there's a difference between investigation and exploration.

    The only way we're going to get over all the years of "it's too expensive" "it's too dangerous!" "I might muss my hair!" is to have someone just go. My bet is private industry beating big Gov. to the punch. Followed by a neck in neck second by Russia and China. 5+ years later the US will at that point be ready to send their third automated lander to the moon (having been successful with 1.0 and 2.0, they dare not risk a human being on 3.0.) After all, they changed the paint scheme and the landing gear surfaces....

    Oh, and to make a rant even longer..... Why in the H.E. double hockey sticks is NASA taking so friggin' long to get back to the moon? You've already gone before! So modernize a little here and there and just go already. 2012? 2020? WTF? Refine as you go. Just move the big erector set in the sky to orbit around the moon, or build another one. Stage supplies at ISS and the moon-ISS. We humans have THAT tech down already right? So stop wasting billions on robots to "test" the technology and just frickin' go! Business already knows this: Quantity leads to lower costs. Get the rest of the space-faring (bad pun two...) countries in on it, and spread the cost. The Russians have heavy lifters and long term cosmonaut experience. The US has the lunar experience. Rutan and co. have already proven sub-orbital flight can be "cheap", so help refine it. Etc. Etc.

    Take the risk and just go. There are plenty of people out there, that are NOT rocket scientists but are mentally stable enough, that would sign up to go up regardless of risk. Going to orbit is old hat. I mean, no disrespect to the *nauts and all.

    I can't believe I'm going to post this drivel... Too wordy, to disorganized, and not enough beer. Sorry. *faceplants into keyboard*

  40. Brendan Weir

    Our choices

    1) Spend a bit of cash and move some of humanity's eggs out of the one basket before the planet goes fubar.

    2) Save a bit of cash and develop smart robots to go off and do the fun stuff while we watch our backs in case they turn on us.

    All those in favour of option 2 are Lizard Army agents...

  41. Colin Dines


    Branson's mob will NOT be putting anyone into orbit any time soon - just a quick sub-orbital hop to 100 km or so. You need to go at least twice that far to get into orbit.

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