Commentary | The Future of Astronaut Activity


The astronaut corps is a unique group of people, handpicked from a wide range of scientific and technical professions, winnowed down through very rigorous selection methods, after which the select few are trained for complex space missions that involve a lot of risk, nail-biting and adrenalin at both the space crew and mission control ends. The human spaceflight crews at NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the European Space Agency and the China National Space Administration are still considered the pinnacle of human and technological achievement and prestige in the world’s leading spacefaring economies and their space agencies.

Many nations today aspire to join and participate in this exclusive club of advanced technology-savvy professionals who exude a unique kind of aura, a mix of skills, talents and yearning for high-wire drama. This select group of humans has seen the wholeness, oneness and richness of Earth from above, liberated from the air and gravity, completely free and floating, even removed from our earthly experience of night and day. They return to Earth as global ambassadors of sorts, with an expanded worldview and a refined sensitivity toward our planet’s fragile biosphere.

Astronaut activity is a demanding endeavor in every aspect, requiring the physical and mental rigor, agility and dexterity of the crew, the interdisciplinary technologies and skillsets involved, seamless, crosscutting organizational planning, the meticulous following of reliability and safety protocols, not to mention the monetary resources to back up and support development and operations that are essential for success. A flight task checklist alone runs into volumes of material, making one wonder how they accomplish all this during a short mission that lasts just a few weeks. Flight crew and mission control, impeccable teamwork and organization at its best, aided by agile technologies — this is what makes astronaut activity possible today.

But this effort has paid off handsomely across several other challenging national and global pursuits for those economies that have chosen to exercise it, applying the lessons learned in human space activity to other complex endeavors here on Earth.

A recent, often-forgotten example occurred in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped deep underground in a Chilean copper mine. The Chilean government sought NASA’s help, among others, to alleviate their misery and find ways to keep their morale up for the 10 weeks it took to extricate and bring them up safely, in a mission that taxed the deep isolation skills of human spaceflight professionals.

However, the past decade has seen some of the most drastic changes and adjustments in the various astronaut corps, including disproportionate budget cuts and rapid attrition in their numbers. And as private space industry and private spaceflight activity ramp up, including space tourism, government-trained astronauts are actively moving into newly created positions in this new arena, to create, supervise and evolve new and more capable systems.

Despite these changes, and during this current period of loosely defined destinations and mission goals, a new generation of NASA astronauts is being trained for deep-space missions. And while these changes are afoot, leapfrogging technologies like robotics and communications are changing the landscape for future astronaut activity.

Fifty years ago, at the dawn of the Space Age, technologies were minted just to make spaceflight possible. But now, mature commercial technologies employed on Earth, from the prosaic to the profound, are finding their way into the astronaut’s tool chest. These range from prospecting and mining to 3-D printing, ground- and altitude-based remote sensing and hyperspectral imaging, combined with adaptive optics and a range of laser-based applications, which include precision analyses of chemicals, separating minerals from ores, purification and welding — and we are fast approaching the development of high-energy death rays for planetary protection and missile defense alike. Nanotechnology materials, precisely crafted by 3-D printers and laser technology to form metamaterials and shapes, may soon provide more efficient thermal and radiation protection for astronauts and may even be used to create nutritious, complex foods from simple chemicals.

High-fidelity simulations are a dependable way to test and ferret out issues and resolve them well in advance of mission deployment. NASA uses neutral buoyancy tanks to simulate astronaut activity in zero gravity. However, partial gravity conditions are hard to simulate on Earth, especially for the substantial periods of time that are needed to test full-up assembly or other construction activities. Virtual reality and gaming applications including massively parallel computer platforms operating on cloud networks, employing visualization headgear like Oculus Rift along with haptic feedback and tactile sensitivity, could be used to seamlessly mesh real subjects in various space and extraterrestrial environments, totally immersing astronauts in virtual mission environments with realistic visualization of partial gravity reaction scenarios. Supercomputers used to simulate nuclear explosions may be used, along with real radiation exposure data being gathered about Mars, to recreate whole body effects of interplanetary expeditions on crew and systems.

Synthetic biology and advances in genetics too may offer innovative ways to combat radiation damage to human tissue, which is a crucial concern, and techniques and processes from the biotechnology industry may find application in space agriculture and closed-cycle ecological life-support systems, both vital technologies for long-duration missions.

Photovoltaics, the nonpolluting technology that converts solar energy into renewable power atop our homes, when coupled with high-density power storage systems, is already making compact and portable devices that are changing the way we live and work, from cellphones to emergency equipment in hospitals and in disaster management to warfighting machines and systems, and space missions are employing them regularly.

Many of these technologies are being evolved and employed routinely for innovation, research and development, not only in the national labs but also in universities and private companies and conglomerates, for profit.

Our romance with robots initially found a commercial home decades ago in the computer industry. Then they became an agent of change in the automobile industry and took over critical operations in heavy industry. Today robots are employed in expert systems for medical diagnostics and in delicate surgical procedures sometimes deemed too risky for the surgeon’s trained hands. Nanotechnology-based products and allied systems are in the pipeline, already offering designer materials that may be suitable for space systems like astronaut suits and gloves, helmets and related critical life-support gear.

Will robots and robotic systems take over all space activity? Are they capable of all human tasks? Can they operate autonomously, without human support?

The answer seems to depend on the task at hand.

Professional explorers, prospectors and geologists alike seem to think robots can never replace humans. The rovers that are roaming the surface of Mars over 200 million kilometers away do many tasks by themselves but are supervised from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn 1.5 billion kilometers away is given instructions and its systems tweaked in the same manner. And much closer to home, the international space station has a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 that is being tested and prepped to help the crew with their chores. It too is supervised from mission control. Detailed engineering studies have shown that complex projects like the last Hubble service and upgrade or previous satellite rescue missions could not have been accomplished by robots alone.

Advances in communication technology will allow wideband, teleoperated supervision of robots for complex assembly of large space structures and systems as well as closely coordinated co-robotic manipulations. For example, crew and robotic assistants working to build infrastructure in tandem in the same physical domain is an expanding area of investigation. This co-robotic approach is already seen as a natural and efficient extension of human capabilities in extreme environments here on Earth, and space activity provides another realm for expanding this application. One of the reasons for astronaut crew to be in the vicinity of action is to circumvent the time lag associated with operating a robot from Earth.

Depending on planetary positions, it takes between 8 and 45 minutes to send a command to the Mars rover and receive a signal back that it has executed the task, and it takes Cassini 2.5 hours to do the same. A lot of unintended things can happen over such long periods, especially when impromptu control is required for tasks that involve construction or other anomalous situations that may arise.

The future of human space activity in general and the niche arena of human space exploration that space agencies focus on today are fast approaching a synergetic and explosive growth period because investors see profit to be made in space activity — building orbiting solar power stations; enhancing communications platforms and maintaining that infrastructure; keeping track of and decommissioning old and failing stations by deorbiting them rather than mothballing them in graveyard orbits where they pose a potential debris hazard; and providing station-keeping fuel and propellants to outbound vehicles and other services including correcting the orbits of spacecraft in deviant or wrong orbits. It is well known among space architects and engineers alike that human supervision on site is essential for large and complex assembly and service operations in space in order to speedily resolve anomalies that may arise during execution.

Humans and robots together are ready to begin knitting space activity in our solar system into the mainstream of humanity’s economic sphere of influence, making astronaut activity a routine part of our lives in which science and technology are integral to our culture, as much as progressive commerce and industry play a part in modern civilization.

Does the future hold peril or promise for our astronaut corps as we expand this enterprise? Peril, for space is the ultimate unforgiving environment, as it reminds us when things go wrong and we lose the brave men and women engaged in that exo-environment. Nature never intended us in our fragile frames, evolved over a few million years, to live and work in space. Cocooned and nurtured on the mild surface of a watery world, blanketed by a thin but soothing atmosphere and shielded from the sun’s wrath by an invisible magnetic field, we evolved in a biosphere like no other we know of. Even today, as we are freshly reminded, entering space, just escaping the clutches of Earth’s gravity, requires complex and precision technologies and systems with extremely narrow tolerance for error.

And more peril too, for the 20th-century image of the government-employed astronaut who appears a daring suited figure, braving the extreme environment, all alone in the vast, silent and treacherous darkness of space. Even today, nearly 50 years since we began spacewalking, extravehicular activity is perhaps the most strenuous astronaut activity. The suits, once inflated, are cumbersome to work in, and the astronaut has to fight the stiffness of the suit and gloves to make normal movement possible. Like the capsule technology that is being superseded, the days of the Pillsbury Doughboy- or Michelin Man-shaped astronaut are numbered.

Hardsuits, or rigid suits molded from aluminum alloys, are being used in deep-sea diving missions today and may be adapted for space, employing tough and radiation-resistant materials like boron carbide to allow astronauts to move between spacecraft and the vacuum outside without the lengthy prebreathing protocol that is needed today to make the suits more flexible for movement. This slow process allows the human body to adjust to the low pressure and altered atmosphere inside the suits without risking the bends, a condition where dissolved nitrogen in the blood may bubble out and cause severe painful problems and or even death. Strategies employing semi-rigid suits are proposed to allow gradual pressure reduction while crew members are being transported to the work site as well. A new generation of suits for extraterrestrial activity on the Moon and Mars will effectively neutralize the threat posed by dust, especially on the Moon, that was quite debilitating to Apollo crew and rovers. Exoskeletal suits that help augment strength, combat fatigue and allow power amplification are being put to the test for soldiers in the battlefield and may also find application for the future astronaut. Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is putting competing robot assistants to the test and offering prizes for winning designs.

And so there is promise for an entirely new vision of humans working alongside sophisticated robotic agents, as supervisors and directors and anomaly resolvers. They will be comfortably nested in cabins within spacecraft in a shirtsleeve environment, teleoperating swarms of robots, building huge solar power satellites and assembling massive spaceships from materials dug up and processed among the asteroids, as we expand outward into the solar system to use resources that lie scattered all over the asteroid belt, to settle our Moon and planets. A far more sophisticated and refined U.S. astronaut corps is in the making, and these 21st-century professionals may yet spring from our newly homegrown commercial and private space enterprise.

Among policymakers, where logically sensible ideas often die a fiery death because of partisanship, space activity is a rare arena where all agree. Above the din and acrimony of political theater, beneath the cloak of it all, both aisles of Congress and even fringe groups among the leadership support a vibrant space program. The space station partnership has built a venerable coalition of international partners and could be extended into a global effort with the blessing of the State Department that could use it as an instrument to enhance the U.S. image, not just among partners but around the world.

Astronauts’ training and mission expertise, combined with their unique aura and refined sensitivity about our biosphere and the rich and complex interweave of humanity in it, make them a new generation of 21st-century global ambassadors, the few who have experienced a global view of things, literally, with a stamp that says “made in America.” They may hold the key to switch the fear-and-greed paradigm that seems to run rampant in the world today with hope, awe and wonder of nature and keep alive humanity’s noblest aspirations, including our place in the universe, the raison d’etre for human spaceflight.


Madhu Thangavelu is conductor of the graduate Space Exploration Architectures Concept Synthesis Studio in the Department of Astronautical Engineering within the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, and he is also a graduate thesis adviser in the School of Architecture at USC.