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Why human space exploration will be the wave of the future

October 24, 2017

Michael Summers

Though the use of long-lasting robotic spacecraft has created a scientific return greater than can be gained by human space exploration, a George Mason University professor said human missions will be essential in the searches for extraterrestrial life and for resources for human colonization.

“Humans can respond to complex situations and use intuition to evaluate observations much better than machines,” said Michael Summers, a planetary scientist and co-investigator in the New Horizons mission to Pluto. “Humans can also guide spacecraft exploration faster and in much more complex environments than machines can.”

The debate about humans’ place in space heated up recently after Vice President Mike Pence, during the first meeting of the resurrected National Space Council, said the United States, with help from private industry, should commit to returning humans to the moon as a foundation for a voyage to Mars.

And while Pence’s announcement also included a national security element to combat advances made by Russia and China in the ability to communicate in war zones and guide precision munitions, the potential for human exploration is enormous, Summers said.

“A case in point is the truly vast resources contained in asteroids,” he said. “In just one medium-sized asteroid, there is enough water and carbon to sustain a medium-sized city. In that same asteroid, there are more rare Earth elements, such as those used in computer chip manufacturing, than have been mined on Earth in all of human history. And there are millions of asteroids. It has been said that whoever ends up controlling the mining of asteroids will be the first trillionaires.”

Humans will also be invaluable in the search for life, or the evidence of past life, on Mars, which Summers said, if found, would be one of history’s greatest scientific discoveries.

“There is a real need for humans to evaluate the many complex signatures of chemicals and minerals over the surface and under the surface of that planet,” he said.

The United States hasn’t flown a human to space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011; U.S. astronauts have been hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russia’s Soyuz rockets. But as Summers pointed out, NASA and private industry are developing the highly flexible Space Launch System, which will accommodate missions to Earth orbit, the moon and asteroids and, eventually, Mars.

“Whatever happens in the political arena, human exploration and eventual development of space is probably inevitable,” Summers said. “All of us need to be involved in public discussions about the future of space exploration, because it will impact the future of everyone on Earth.”

Mike Summers can be reached at 703-993-3971 or msummers@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.