SLS is a dead end
The Space Launch System (SLS) is much like Apollo. Large, disposable rockets that will cost around $10 billion or more a launch. Like Apollo, it might be good for brief stays on another body -- plant a flag, leave some footprints and go home. But opening a new frontier? Building infra-structure for settlement requires a long, sustained effort. Transportation via $10 billion throw-away vehicles isn't sustainable.
The need for better robots
Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation mandates mass fractions that make reuse extremely difficult, if not impossible. So long as delta V budgets include the 9 km/s trip from earth's surface to LEO, we're probably stuck with disposable rocket ships. Extra-terrestrial propellant sources might break delta V budgets into smaller chunks. With smaller delta V budgets, mass fractions are large enough that economical, reusable vehicles are doable. As astronaut Don Pettit notes, extra-terrestrial propellant could free us from the the tyranny of the rocket equation.
There are two possible sources of extra-terrestrial propellant: the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and the lunar cold traps. To mine these would take working in extreme temperatures, vacuum and radiation. Given how massive and expensive human habs are, we would want to minimize the human presence, at least in the initial stages.
These considerations make able robots very desirable. And DARPA has been doing a lot to advance robotics.
What's DARPA done?
One of the more able telerobots being used today is the daVinci surgical robot. I talk about the da Vinci robot here. DARPA's project to develop robotic battlefield surgery led to the first da Vinci system.
Workers operating lunar telerobots from earth's surface would suffer a 3-second light lag latency. A 3 second reaction time is a big disadvantage in a mining work environment. Some things that might mitigate a slow reaction time are collision avoidance and balance. And DARPA has helped with both of these.
Big Dog is a robot with a sense of balance. If you haven't seen this machine, please watch this amazing video. Who funds Big Dog? You guessed it -- DARPA.
Collision avoidance has been achieved by Google Driverless Cars. The Google Driverless Car project is being led by Sebastian Thrun. According to the Wikipedia article "Thrun's team at Stanford created the robotic vehicle Stanley which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge and its US$2 million prize from the United States Department of Defense.
The team developing the system consisted of 15 engineers working for
Google, including Chris Urmson, Mike Montemerlo, and Anthony Levandowski
who had worked on the DARPA Grand and Urban Challenges"
DARPA is also working on orbital robots that might salvage and and maintain our satellites. See this video and this video.
Spinoffs from NASA
NASA defenders point to space program spinoffs that have boosted our economy. For example, compact, lightweight electronics was needed for NASA's spacecraft. People like Neil DeGrass Tyson credit NASA with jump starting Moore's Law. Says Tyson: "The urge to miniaturize electronics did not exist before the space program. I mean our grandparents had radios that was furniture in the living room. Nobody at the time was saying, 'Gee, I want to carry that in my pocket.' Which is a non-thought."
Tyson is wrong. NASA was founded in 1958. Bell Laboratories developed the transistor in 1947. The first transistor radios hit the market in 1954. The miniaturization of electronics was well underway before our space program started. NASA and the U. S. Air Force's Minute Man Missile program were early customers of the first integrated circuits made by Texas Instruments. I would credit the Air Force and NASA with accelerating a trend that was already in motion.
NASA continues to push the envelope for miniaturization, bandwidth and robotic ability with its robotic exploration program. But SLS and the manned space flight program is another matter. Until we are able to build a permanent home on other bodies, manned spaceflight is a publicity stunt with little benefit. And to build on other worlds and use their resources, we need better robots.
Potential benefits from Robotics
Breaking our boundaries
Humanity has been enjoying almost exponential economic growth for centuries. But given that our planet is a finite body of resources, that growth must hit a ceiling. As easy to reach resources are used up, we will turn to harder to reach resources. There are South African mines so deep it that the lower tunnels are almost too hot for human workers. There are resources on the sea floor that can only be reached with remotely operated vehicles. Robots will become increasingly common mining equipmnet.
With improved robots, it would be possible to do work at extremely dangerous places like the Fukushima nuclear power plant after it was hit by a tsunami.
And it with more able robots, exploitation of space resources might become possible. Our solar system's resources and energy are hundreds of thousands times greater that what's available on earth's surface. Maybe millions. With space resources, mankind could enjoy exponential growth for millenia to come.
Restoring power and dignity to the disabled
On December 24, 2012, my daughter and son-in-law were in a car accident. My son-in-law's C4 and C5 vertebrae where broken and he was paralyzed. He has some control over his arms, but no communication with his hands and no control of his lower body.
A notion related to tele-robots is exo-suits. In the movie Avatar, the mercenaries would jump into motion capture suits within an exo suit and a mercenary's body movements would be mimiced by a large, powerful puppet.
Then there's the possibility of exo-suits directly controlled by the human brain. This may sound like science fiction but Nobel Prize winning nueroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has already demonstrated this is possible. His laboratory monkeys have controlled robotic arms via electrodes implanted in their cortex.
It seems to me a robot controlled by direct nueral communication might be even more able than one operated by motion capture. If a robot's sensory data pipeline could be linked to the nervous system, the telepresence might be fully immersive.
My son-in-law used to work 60 to 70 hours a week. He was proud to be a productive, tax-paying citizen that more than carried his own weight. It galls him to receive disability social security checks. He finds it extremely frustrating that he must rely on those closest to him for even the simplest tasks like blowing his nose.
I daydream my son-in-law will enjoy new found powers beyond what he enjoyed before December 24, 2012. Maybe operating a remote robotic body on the sea floor or even on the surface of the moon. I think it's inevitable that advances in neurology and robotics will eventually empower people like Beto. But I want to see it happen while he is still alive. More than anything, I want to see him enjoy happiness and the dignity of self sufficiency before he passes from this earth.
Not only would restoring self sufficiency to the disabled have economic benefits, it would relieve a lot of terrible human suffering.
To sum up...
Just as the space program of the 60's accelerated Moore's law by funding the development of integrated circuits, I believe a 21st century space program could accelerate an even more profound revolution by funding the development of robotics. Neil DeGrasse Tyson notes our space program gets about .4% of our budget or less than half a penny on the dollar. Tyson calls for a penny for NASA. If our space program's central thrust were a bold robotics development program, it'd be worth a lot more than a penny. I would call for a dime or even a quarter.