Does the low cost of robotic probes now outweigh the inspirational value of seeing human beings voyage across the solar system?

This was the question on everybody’s lips on Friday 15 January, as we invited a star studded panel – along with over 400 eager space fans – to a late opening of the Science Museum’s landmark exhibition, Cosmonauts.

Since 1961, when Yuri Gagarin was launched inside the Soviet Union’s Vostok spacecraft, humanity has sent over 500 individuals from almost 40 countries beyond the Kármán Line, and has maintained a continuous presence in space for over 15 years. But should we keep sending them?

Joining us to test their mettle on the big question were some of the UK’s foremost experts on all things interplanetary: Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, Space and Planetary Scientist Monica Grady, The Sky at Night’s Chris Lintott and, finally, the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman. At the helm for the evening’s discussion was the Science Museum’s Roger Highfield.

Panelists join a straw poll on human vs. robotic spaceflight. Image credit: Science Museum/Jennie Hills.

First up was Martin Rees, who eloquently set the debate on course for a pro-robots stance, but not without caveats. Martin argued that robots are closing the gap in ability with humans, but the cost gap remains wide.

In favour of maverick explorers pushing the boundaries of human exploration, but against governments financing such endeavours, Martin drew clear boundaries between risk-averse, and therefore expensive, government-funded missions, and those carried out in low-cost, high-risk ways by the likes of Elon Musk.

Taking a different view was Monica Grady, who agreed that the ability gap is indeed narrowing, but argued that human’s urge to ‘be nosy’ will always overcome our pragmatic affordability concerns. Fervently in favour of human spaceflight and its unrivalled ability to inspire, Monica looked forward to a time when space missions are a collaborative, global endeavour.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Events. “Human Spaceflight: is it Worth the Money and Risk?” Pictured, the UK's first astronaut Helen Sharman.

Astronaut Helen Sharman talks about the value of human spaceflight. Image credit: Science Museum/Jennie Hills.

Facing an uphill struggle against a growingly pro-human audience, Chris Lintott highlighted some exciting robotic projects that have inevitably been crowded out of funding by expensive crewed missions. By inviting us to imagine submarines exploring the methane seas of Titan or a fleet of Beagle-like spacecraft exploring Mars, Chris painted a vivid picture of what could be achieved if we sacrificed our egos for a purely mechanical spaceflight future.

Finally, we heard from arguably the most qualified panellist, Helen Sharman. Unsurprisingly, Helen fell into the ‘pro’ camp and illustrated her points with carefully selected data. She argued that, when compared like–for-like, human-led missions provide much better value for money. Humans are able to return large amounts of physical specimens to earth, providing literal bags of opportunities for long term study, and we are much more efficient.

Helen highlighted that what a rover can achieve in one Sol on Mars could be matched by a human in less than one minute, making us over 1500 times more efficient. Helen closed by drawing on the powerful instinct of humanity to expand its horizons and reminded us that, quoting Arthur C. Clarke, ‘when an organism ceases to explore, it starts to die’.

To hear the event in full please visit our website.