Design Engineering

Editorial Viewpoint: AI in Space

Mike McLeod   


Nearly a half century since the last time anyone walked on the lunar surface, NASA finally reversed its “been there, done that” attitude toward the moon.

As the summer ended, millions across North America looked skyward to witness the first total solar eclipse in a century and contemplate the turning of the celestial spheres or, at the very least, the Moon. Such rare events inevitably cause the most astronomically disinterested to harken back to the romance and bravery of the Apollo mission astronauts.

Even NASA has taken notice of the Moon again. Nearly a half century since the last time anyone walked on the lunar surface (Apollo 17’s Moon landing in 1972) NASA has finally reversed its “been there, done that” attitude toward Earth’s sole permanent natural satellite.

Earlier this year, the U.S. space agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, dropped a bombshell on the space industry. In a memo to NASA’s employees, he floating the idea of sending astronauts to the Moon aboard the space agency’s heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft as early as 2018.

Whether Lightfoot’s challenge is acted upon or not, his suggestion marks an about-face for space exploration in recent memory. For the last 20 years, beginning with the Sojourner rover in 1997, space agencies around the world have focused exclusively on robotic, rather than human, explorers beyond Earth’s orbit.


The reason is primarily due to the costs involved, both in terms of budgetary limits and human lives potentially lost. According to NASA estimates, a manned mission to Mars would cost approximately $100 billion over 30 or 40 years, but that estimate seems low considering the International Space Station cost that much in the final analysis. And no matter how convincing Matt Damon’s acting in “The Martian,” successfully sending a human crew to Mars and back will require surmounting monumental technical challenges with little to no room for error.

As a result, space rovers will need to become significantly more capable to safely pave the way for an eventual colonization of the Moon and, thereby a manned mission to Mars. As this issue’s cover story relates, Canada is playing a crucial role in that effort.

However, beyond improving durability and mobility, space rovers will have to become more self-sufficient and self-directed. The lag inherent in sending commands from Earth to Mars (approximately 15 minutes) means not much actual travel happens. The Apollo 17 astronauts, for example, roamed over 22 miles of the lunar surface in three days. By contrast, the Mars Opportunity rover took eight years to survey that much area of Mars.

And that’s just distance covered. Plans for a manned Mars mission would require autonomous payloads like the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to land on Mars and then extract and process fuel from the atmosphere for years in preparation for taking a crew back into orbit.

In addition, other machinery would need to drill for water and potentially construct shelters to make sure astronauts don’t expire shortly after arrival. In short, rovers will have to become significantly more human. Provided one ascribes to the most common solutions to the Fermi Paradox (Given the many potential habitable planets, why haven’t we found evidence of life?), it seems likely the first intelligent life to inhabit a planet beyond Earth will be artificial.

Mike McLeod - Editor (laws of robotics)


– Mike McLeod, Editor

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