Stories

The future of spacewalks is more robots and less humans

NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam on a spacewalk in 2006. Photo: NASA
NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam on a spacewalk in 2006. Photo: NASA

For decades, space agencies have relied on astronauts to take precarious and time-consuming spacewalks, but today, space station operators are increasingly turning to robots to perform tasks in orbit.

Why it matters: Using robots instead of astronauts for routine spacewalks would make spaceflight safer and more efficient, experts say, freeing up humans to only take walks in space during an emergency or for delicate experiments in microgravity.

Driving the news: Astronauts on the International Space Station are in the midst of a marathon 10 spacewalks focusing on station upkeep and repairs to a science instrument.

  • Ground controllers were able to use robotics to help set up some activities ahead of the spacewalks, making them easier for astronauts to perform.
  • But even with that robotic help, these spacewalks have taken dozens of hours of planning and training and represent one of the most dangerous activities astronauts can perform in space.

Details: The Dextre robotic tool — which comes equipped with 2 arms and 4 tool holders — on the outside of the ISS was used to loosen bolts before astronauts stepped out on their first walk in the series this month.

  • In the future, robotic tools could also take the place of astronauts in constructing stations while in orbit and inspecting components of those stations once built, aerospace engineer Ella Atkins of the University of Michigan and IEEE told Axios via email.
  • Humanoid robots in the vein of NASA's Robonaut might be able to take even more of that responsibility off of the shoulders of astronauts.

What's next: NASA's small Gateway station around the Moon will be designed to minimize the number of spacewalks needed at any given time, making use of advances in robotics.

  • And the Gateway will not be crewed year-round, making it more important that mission managers have robots at their service.
  • "By designing your vehicle to favor the robot, chances are good that anything the robot can do, humans can do as well, whereas vice versa isn't always true," NASA's lead for robotics flight controllers Laura Lucier told Axios.

Yes, but: It's unlikely robots will fully take over all spacewalking operations, and there are other ways to reduce the number of spacewalks needed aboard orbiting outposts.

  • Humans will be needed for excursions on the Moon or other bodies that are far less efficient with robots alone, such as collecting or examining rocks.
  • Axiom Space — a company that plans to build a commercial space station — is putting many of its critical systems inside its station and will make use of robotics outside, reducing the need for frequent spacewalks, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini told Axios.
  • It's also possible that spacewalking will be a draw for people hoping to visit privately built space stations, Suffredini said, though it's not yet clear what kind of market those stations will have.