I think the window on human space exploration might have closed.
I have always been fascinated by space exploration. I find the possibility of a human Mars mission particularly compelling. I have been a member of the Mars Society, read Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must", Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogies, and have closely followed the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions. I am very excited about the prospects of the Mars Curiosity Rover, which is due to launch in November of this year.
I have long expected that I would see people step foot on the red planet during my lifetime. As I am in my mid-thirties, I never considered that this was unlikely.
However, while following the exploits Spirit and Opportunity, this question came to me:
Have robots permanently become the most attractive option for space exploration?
I think the answer to this question comes down to this:
Humans are more mentally and physical flexible than robots. This is their advantage in space exploration. However, human space-exploration has a high cost and is very dangerous. Robots are currently less mentally and physically flexible than humans, but the cost of robotic space exploration is much lower, and their is no associated risk to humans.
Due to the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence over recent years, and the certainty of advances to come, I think we may have reached a point where robotic space missions will forever remain to be more attractive compared to human missions.
I feel that the only exception to this situation might be due to a great need for humans to "experience it personally"; but unless the costs of space exploration can be surmounted by a small group of individuals that share this desire, I think this factor will not counter the obvious benefits of using robots.
I hope I am wrong, but my gut tells me that I am right. Of course, there may be a point in the future where human space-exploration becomes much less expensive and risky. However, I am currently reconsidering my own chances of witnessing it.