As of 2005, there were 108 astronauts waiting for flights to the space station and beyond. Of these, there were over 50 that had not taken their first flight. Imagine being one of those 50-some highly trained and anxious crew members waiting for a ride of a lifetime, a flight into space.
Add to the anxiety the knowledge that the space shuttle is about to be retired, Ares I is all but cancelled, Congress is fighting with the President about a new space exploration architecture, the Russians are about to raise the price for a Soyuz ride and a U.S. commercial crew carrier is years away. If you are an astronaut-in-waiting, this is all certainly depressing. Can it get any worse for America’s best and brightest?
Just last week NASA announced a new crew member for the International Space Station. However, this time it is not human. This September, space shuttle Discovery will deliver a humanoid, Robonaut 2 (“R2” for short), to the ISS. This will be the first humanoid robot to work in space.
Although the objective of placing a humanoid on the station is to perform routine maintenance tasks while allowing other crew members to do more important work, one cannot help but wonder if this is an omen for waiting astronauts.
NASA engineers are saying, “Here’s a robot that can see the objects it’s going after, feel the environment, and adjust to it as needed. That’s pretty human. It opens up endless possibilities!”
Questions among the astronaut corps surely are being asked, such as: How many years before I get a ride? Or: Will there ever be a ride?
From a cost point of view, robots have got to be less expensive than sending humans on long duration space missions. It seems entirely possible that the first humans on Mars may, in fact, be humanoids.