The Necessary Collaboration between Robots and Humans in Space Exploration

Dylan Taylor
11 min readApr 14, 2024

The Necessary Collaboration between Robots and Humans in Space Explorationby Dylan TaylorNew York NY (SPX) Mar 18, 2024

As automation and robots reshape the way many industries operate, there is an apprehension that human skill sets and collaboration will become obsolete in certain areas. The space sector is an industry that has utilized robots for decades. However, a question often looms even among some experts in the sector: Are humans needed to explore space? And are robots a better alternative to reach deep space destinations?

The resounding answer is: No. While robots are necessary and useful tools for deep space exploration, humans will always be essential to spacefaring. We need to think past the polarity debate of crewed vs. uncrewed programs to recognize that they serve different but complementary purposes, strengthening each other on our exploration of the cosmos.

Even a cursory look at how we have explored new frontiers on Earth will show that humans did so hand-in-hand with machines and other tools. We first ventured into the oceans by swimming. Then we developed ways to bring air with us, followed by ways to move about the water inside of machines. Soon we sent machines to the ocean’s greatest depths followed by humans — inside of machines — to the same depths. Now, modern oceanography is a rich tapestry of humans and robotics — with both supplementing the other synergistically as we continue to explore our oceans. The same is true for how space exploration has unfolded.

As such it is no surprise that robots such as Curiosity and Perseverance advance space exploration on Mars by setting the foundation for the future of long-duration missions — by humans. Meanwhile The Pioneers, Voyagers, and New Horizons mission have headed out to the stars — and humans will one day follow.

While robots can work better in many harsh environments — and are “expendable” (humans are preferably not) they are limited in what they can do based on their computers and programming (by humans) or instructions sent to them (also by humans) from Earth. Well-known Mars mission scientist Dr. Stephen Squyres who openly admits his affection for Mars rovers has said that he could do the field geology that a rover does in a month in an afternoon. We use our robotic emissaries to their fullest extent and then follow in the path that our tools have created for us.

The Necessity of Robots and Human Space Exploration
Sending astronauts into space comes with risks. Humans, like most living things, are fragile and vulnerable. Given that life evolved on Earth, terrestrial life forms tend to have a low tolerance for the often harsh space environment. Sending humans into space also means launching consumable resources such water, food, and oxygen. This requires supplies that robots do not consume — and adds expense.

Landing humans on the Moon or Mars requires robotics due to these significant psychological and technological challenges. The support of AI is essential for deep space missions and to reach sustainable space exploration.

In the future, robots and humans will collaborate on the Moon’s surface or Mars for scientific research, extracting and analyzing space resources for possible uses and creating sites for human habitation and work.

Currently, NASA uses Canadarm2, a long robotic arm on the International Space Station (ISS), performs maintenance; transport supplies and astronauts; and can catch and berth visiting spacecraft. Another Canadian robot on the ISS named “Dextre” has 2 arms with a variety of joints attached to a human-like torso. Dextre is used to accomplish tasks that require a wide range of fine adjustments and observations. Canadarm2 and Dextre are tools inspired by human physiology. They operate in the harsh environment of space under the control of humans inside the ISS. Together they form a team that allows us to extend our capabilities in space.

There are many additional ways that robots and humans can collaborate in space. We can operate robots more or less in real time on the lunar surface from Earth due to the closeness of the Moon and the short time it takes radio transmissions to travel back and forth. This is not possible deeper in space or on the surface of other worlds due to the great distances and time lags for signals to travel.

As is the case on Earth oceans where a mothership with humans control robots and human operated submersibles below, we will probably adopt a similar approach to studying other worlds as we begin to visit them — in person. We’ll send robots with some built in capabilities in advance. And when they reach their limits and human abilities are needed, we’ll send humans — again, just as we have explored our world.

To be certain the great distances involved in space exploration will present a great challenge to sending anything out there — robotic or human. Advances in artificial Intelligence will allow us to put more of ourselves into these robots we send — perhaps exceeding our own capabilities in many ways. But not all of them. Again humans explore best when they work in combination with their tools. The better the tools the more impressive the emergent properties of exploration will result. But we are always a part of the equation.

Innovations in Human-Robot Interactions
Until recently, most research on Human-Robot Interactions (HRI) in space exploration centered mainly on space robotics’s engineering and information processing (cognitive) aspects. Space robots were often envisioned with advanced cognitive systems like CARACaS that could model, build, continuously plan/re-plan, self-diagnose, and assess novel situations. Ideally, these space robots would assist human crew members with various cognitive and physical tasks but did not directly support social and affective communications with their human team. In recent years, sociable space robots have begun to emerge with the ability to recognize and show social cues — the sort of things that humans do.

For instance, the Astronaut Assistant Robot allows astronauts to use hand gestures to communicate with its interface. It is the first autonomous floating, sphere-shaped interactive companion robot in space, named the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON). Designed by NASA and IBM, it can show human-like facial expressions on its screen and, similar to Amazon’s Alexa, responds to voice questions or directions without a computer or tablet screen when assisting astronauts in their everyday work.

Aboard space missions, crew members engage in various group activities ranging from critical team cooperation and urgent problem-solving to recreational activities. Crew social dynamics may vary as social roles of the members adapt to different situations. The engagement of “Social robots”’ with a crew may be programmed to some extent in advance based on the team’s social dynamics such that the programming can adapt to actual experiences that occur during a mission.

Designing a diverse set of robot social roles customized to different group contexts could help to support the mental health of astronauts. We’ve already seen examples of how AI systems on Earth — when properly utilized — can remarkably mimic and respond to the quirks of various human behaviors. The trick is to enable robotic systems that reduce human stress while improving human safety and efficiency in space. Robotic helpers can also be tools.

Living in space and on other worlds will expose humans to gravitational forces ranging from the microgravity of spaceflight to the fractional gravity on the Moon and Mars. Humans adapt to these changes but having robotic assistants who can augment that adaptation would clearly have value. Using embedded AI in systems that comprise spacesuits and piloted rovers could help alert crew members to counterintuitive factors or hazards that humans do not have a native intuition to anticipate. We now have cars that can drive autonomously (somewhat) and often react faster and more efficiently than humans can. No doubt having that capability as we explore space will be vitally important — especially if crew members are incapacitated.

Robotic systems can also be developed to monitor a crew member’s health and responses. Much like the smartwatches and fitness monitors of today, robotic devices can be used in space to track human health, adaptation, and performance. When applied to exercise devices they can augment the ability of the crew to maintain physical fitness, get the right nutrition, and be alerted to things that the crew may not notice about themselves.

Robotic systems can also be used — with privacy abilities — to monitor crew sleep quality, fatigue, and other parameters that indicate stress levels. As we go deeper into space robotics systems can be called upon to provide health intervention. Today there are many surgical procedures that are best done robotically. Even if there is a doctor on a mission, when the crew is millions of miles from home, the nearest expert may be a robot.

As noted before, humans have always used tools to explore — whether it was shoes on their feet, clothing for cold climates, fire, weapons, backpacks to carry food and water — they all served to augment a human’s abilities. Robots are tools. Humans first visited the South Pole on wooden sleds. There were no robots on the first trips but there were tools. After the first overland trips to the South Pole, humans did not go back again overland for half a century. And when we did it was with much more sophisticated tools. And we went to stay. Now humans live at the South Pole permanently and robotic telescopes scan the universe. It can be said that our robots are indeed emissaries — tools created by the human mind — that go where humans have yet to go. But humans have a propensity for always going to these places eventually — in person. Space will be no different.

Dylan Taylor is a global business leader, philanthropist, and active pioneer in the space exploration industry. He is the chairman and CEO of Voyager Space, a multi-national space exploration company striving to shape the next generation of space infrastructure.

Originally published at https://www.spacedaily.com.

About Dylan Taylor

Dylan Taylor at Davos 2024

Dylan Taylor is a global business leader, commercial astronaut, thought leader and philanthropist. Currently, Dylan serves as Chairman & CEO of Voyager Space, a multi-national space exploration firm focused on building the next generation of space infrastructure for NASA and other global space agencies.

Dylan has been recognized by Harvard University, SpaceNews, the BBC, the Financial Times, Pitchbook,CNBC, CNN and others as having played a seminal role in the growth of the private space industry. As an early-stage investor in more than 50 emerging space ventures, including Axiom, Kepler, York, Astrobotic, LeoLabs, Relativity, and Planet, Dylan is widely considered the most active private space investor in the world.

Dylan’s technical background, global business experience and unbridled passion for space make him a unique figure within his industry. As a thought leader and futurist, he has written many popular pieces on the future of the space industry for Forbes, FastCompany, Newsweek, SpaceNews, The Space Review, and Space.com. As a speaker, Dylan has keynoted many of the major space conferences around the world and has appeared regularly on Bloomberg, Fox Business, and CNBC.

Dylan has extensive global business experience as both a board director and CEO in several industries, including advanced electronics, finance and real estate. He previously served as a Director for UMB Bank, a Fortune 500 company based in Kansas City and as a mutual fund director for the Jackson Funds where he oversaw assets of $8B across 130 distinct funds. He has also served in the roles of CEO, President and Board Director for multinational companies like Prudential PLC, Honeywell, Colliers and Jones Lang LaSalle. Dylan was recognized as a Fortune 1000 CEO with P&L responsibility in excess of $3B and operations encompassing 15,000 employees in over 60 countries. In addition, Dylan has participated in 4 IPOs over the course of his career.

Dylan is a leading advocate of space manufacturing and the utilization of in-space resources to further space exploration and settlement. In 2017, he became the first private citizen to manufacture an item in space when the gravity meter he co-designed and commissioned was 3D printed on the International Space Station. The historic item is now housed in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Dylan is an explorer of note. On December 11th, 2021 Dylan became just the 606th human to go to space as part of the crew of Blue Origin’s NewShepard Mission 19. Accordingly, Dylan earned his commercial astronaut wings with the FAA and his universal astronaut wings from the Association of Space Explorers.

He is also one of only a handful of humans to have descended to the deepest part of the world’s oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench as part of the Limiting Factor Expedition in July of 2022. In that mission, Dylan descended with pilot Victor Vescovo to a depth in excess of 10,800 meters (35,500 feet) into an area of the Mariana Trench that had never been visited by humans. Dylan is the youngest human to have been to the deepest part of the world’s oceans and crossed the Karman line into Space. Dylan has been a member of the Explorers Club since 2014.

Dylan maintains an extensive philanthropic impact on the space industry. In 2017, Dylan founded the nonprofit and social movement, Space for Humanity, which seeks to democratize space exploration and develop solutions to global issues through the scope of human awareness to help solve the world’s most intractable problems. Space for Humanity has successfully sent two citizen astronauts to space via Blue Origin including both the first Mexican-born woman (Katya Echazareta), and first African-born woman (Sara Sabry). Building upon his passion and support for the space industry, Dylan serves as a strategic advisor for both the Archmission and the Human Spaceflight Program and is a co-founding patron of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which promotes the growth of commercial space activity. Additionally, he is also a leading benefactor to the Brooke Owens Fellowship, Patti Grace Smith Fellowship and Mission: Astro Access.

Dylan is the founder and Chairman of Multiverse Media, an integrated global media company focused on science and technology, with an emphasis on space. Multiverse is the parent company of the popular space philosophy website 2211.world as well as the Ad Astra Dinners, a Jeffersonian-style dinner series featuring some of the world’s leading influencers discussing the future of humanity in space. Another subsidiary of Multiverse Media, Multiverse Publishing, publishes books by leading authors including Frank White, Isaac Asimov and Gerard K. O’Neill. Multiverse is also the executive producer of the documentary film, The High Frontier and the forthcoming film, Fortitude.

For his influence as a global leader and his commitment to creating a positive impact on the world, Dylan has been honored with numerous personal and professional accolades in recent years. The World Economic Forum recognized Dylan as a Young Global Leader in 2011 and a full member of the World Economic Forum in 2014. That same year he was named a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. In 2020, Dylan was recognized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation with their top honor for business and finance, following in the footsteps of 2019’s inaugural winner, the late Paul Allen
and subsequent winners Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Dylan Taylor earned an MBA in Finance and Strategy from the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago and holds a BS in Engineering from the honors college at the University of Arizona, where he graduated Tau Beta Pi and in 2018 was named Alumnus of the year. He is also a graduate of the Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century program at Harvard University.

Dylan and his family reside in Denver, Colorado where he is active locally with Colorado Concern and theColorado Spaceport. In his spare time, Dylan enjoys hiking, competing in triathlons and spending time outdoors. As a weekend warrior athlete, Dylan has more than 25 top ten finishes and 25 age group wins to his credit, and he regularly interviews world class athletes whom have shown extraordinary resilience as the host of the Legendary Podcast. He is married to legal expert, consultant and author Gabrielle V. Taylor with whom he has two teenage daughters.

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Dylan Taylor

Dylan Taylor is a global business leader and philanthropist. He is an active pioneer in the space exploration industry