Over the years that NASA’s had to struggle with grand exploration and science missions and minuscule budgets, they have found a way to satisfy those missions by developing compact, flexible and ingenious robotic probes and satellites. Those robots are, as we speak, studying the surface of Mars, providing (permanent and temporary) data on many of the planets and moons of our solar system, and helping us to understand the Environment outside of Oasis Earth.
Today, many people want to expand on those missions and put humans on other planets and moons. Though it’s a grand enough mission, it’s not time to retire the robots yet. Before we actually send humans back to the Moon, to Mars or any other place in space, we should be giving our robots one more mission: To build the habitats we’ll be living inside of on those planets and moons.
It’s one thing to reach a planet or moon… it’s another to stay there, long-term or indefinitely. We learned a lot during the Apollo missions to the Moon; but in every case, we returned after a few days. There was no time to build a long-term habitat on the Moon, for we had to bring our supplies with us, and all that processing and construction equipment, plus the required life support capacity to allow our astronauts to run them for weeks, months or years, just wasn’t available to us.
Today organizations are studying the possibility of human astronauts arriving at a destination, then building their habitats for long-term occupancy. That’s a lot like asking a group of condo dwellers with varying skills to build their own condos, while living in them. (Or maybe in flimsy tents next to the construction site.) But if those non-builders have a serious problem, they may be stuck there with it… if it’s serious, it may even kill them before they can evacuate, and they may not have adequate facilities to evacuate to. It makes much more sense to have those condos built by specialized professionals and certified safe for occupancy by the condo dwellers before they move in.
Today, we have the capacity to start flying robotic drones to the Moon… drones that could start working semi-autonomously on the task of preparing sites, processing ores, and assembling construction materials flown up from Earth. We have learned enough about robotics to be able to develop drones that can do the work on their own, with little human guidance; a necessary trait, when said guidance is so far away that humans on this planet can’t monitor things instantaneously on other planets, and so cannot control the drones “by wire.”
Some of these drones would resemble many of today’s construction machines, redesigned to function in different gravities, less (or no) atmosphere and differing terrains. Some drones would be tasked with doing the more delicate work that humans usually do, and so would be more refined and exacting in their tasks… they would not look like humanoid robots, as TV and movies might have us believe, but they would be as capable as a human in doing finer work. Some of the drones would be sophisticated 3-D printers, creating more complex products to use in construction, to minimize the amount of sophisticated products that need to be flown up from Earth.
These drones will be able to work without breaks, and won’t need to worry about the limits of human operators, such as exposure to hazardous environments, radiation, varying levels of gravity, access to food, water and other life support elements. If they do break down, other drones can repair them and get them back to work. In this way, they’ll be able to quickly complete a move-in-ready habitat that does provide protection and life support for astronauts, as soon as they arrive.
So, as we prepare for future manned missions off Earth, we should:
- Use our existing and future probes to study everything they can about those planets and moons—not just basic science, but data needed to derive engineering requirements for autonomous construction.
- Design the habitats that will be needed, so engineers can design and build the drones required to build those habitats.
- Send the drones to their destination, doing most of their work autonomously. Humans supervise their build from Earth to make sure they are all performing properly. The drones can test the finished habitats to make sure they are ready… if needed, additional drones can be sent if the existing drones can’t fix any problems that come up.
- When the habitat is certified inhabitable and safe, the humans follow. Some construction drones will be repurposed, or set to the task of building new habitats. Others will remain to maintain the first habitat. If some unforeseen problem arises, making the habitat uninhabitable, at least no humans were lost in the process.
This will ensure the safest possible process of setting up habitation off Earth, and making sure human explorers have turn-key habitats when they arrive.
If we first test this process on the Moon, where we will be much closer to the habitat to monitor and test its veracity, then we can take what we learn and move on to a habitat on Mars. We can use robots to build structures in Earth orbit, or at Earth’s Lagrange points. As we refine our techniques, we can move to other planets and moons, or out to the asteroid belt, or even prepare ships for long-range travel to other stars.
Our robots are the perfect trailblazers to start the process of moving off-Earth and establishing new temporary or permanent homes for humanity: They can work more efficiently, in more hazardous environments, thereby providing added protection and safety for the humans that will follow. If we’re going to pursue an off-Earth agenda, we should be smart about it, and send out the robots first.