Space travel. The promise of stepping out into the great beyond to the last true frontier, as our ancestors did with the oceans thousands of years ago.

With the advancement of simulation and robotics, including virtual presence technologies, does humanity need to physically visit the stars?

Looking back

The key driver of the Cold War space race that led to us landing on the Moon was not largely curiosity, but a need for America to “beat” the USSR. While the repercussions of that achievement will echo throughout future generations, it’s unlikely to have ever happened if tensions were not as high as they were.

The V2 era in World War Two and the Blackbird spyplane in the Cold War also demonstrated that war or the threat thereof is all that’s necessary to drive technological and scientific progress.

Looking ahead

Our virtual reality technologies continue to advance every month, bringing higher screen resolutions and better tracking. Likewise, our robotics are becoming truly next generation, with the latest iterations able to run, jump, and dynamically navigate difficult terrain – in some cases better than humans.

The merger of these two technologies is obvious, and could lead to a new generation of interstellar exploration. Without the need to transport humans into space, our robotics could be sent further out into the solar system to barren moons and hostile environments, without risk.

Human curiosity

While these technologies certainly will enable us to carry out more detailed exploration, they don’t satisfy the need for human interaction. One only need look at the publicity of the recent Chinese Moon landing to understand that a human landing is a far more impressive achievement.

The most likely path forward for our technologies lies with a joint approach, using both advanced robotics and human explorers.

At this stage though, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a distant solar system without a robotic explorer.

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