The explosive growth of computer technology is opening up new vistas for using robots and other autonomous machines in space exploration. As an inevitable consequence, these advances are also rekindling a debate as old as the space program itself: What is the proper role of man and machine in the conquest of outer space? Given the fact that astronauts cost $30,000 to $40, 000 per hour to keep in space, their jobs may well prove an irresistable target for automation.
It was in this context that an assorted group of 20 academics from around the country assembled here at Stanford University this summer to give the issue a fresh look. Their deliberations were sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the American Society of Engineering Education. The title of their just-completed study is ''Autonomy and the Human Element In Space.'' It will be issued this fall.
Recently, members of this group presented a summary of their efforts. Their basic conclusion was perhaps best illustrated in a T-shirt they designed that showed a man and a robot walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.
In order to successfully establish a permanent presence in outer space, man and his increasingly independent machines must form a productive partnership, the group concluded.
It is a case of giving unto astronauts what humans do best and getting computers to do as much of what is left as possible. As the study coordinator Jo Anne Freeman, an industrial engineering professor from California Polytechnic University, summarized:
''Jobs should be automated if they involve safety or health risks to humans, large-scale computation, detection of rare events, or continuous monitoring. But they should be left to people if they involve tasks that humans enjoy, coming up with new and different solutions to problems, or invention and creativity.''
A United States space station is taking form on the drawing boards at NASA. As agency spokesman John Hodge puts it, ''A space station is the next logical step for NASA.'' As currently envisioned, such a station is far from the imaginings of science fiction films like ''2001: A Space Odyssey.'' Constrained by the capabilities of the shuttle, it will consist of an assembly of large ''tin cans'' connected together in a configuration reminiscent of a child's jack. It will hold a crew of eight at most. Despite its modest design, such a station would cost $7.5 billion to $9 billion to construct, according to preliminary estimates.
Exactly how people will work in this environment is still unclear. But the study group had a number of ideas.
Cliff Kurtzman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) described the pluses and minuses of space-suited astronauts and the state of the art in remotely controlled machines, also called telepresence.
Astronauts, he explains, are hampered by the thickness and stiffness of their suits, lack of specially designed tools for weightless conditions, and the several-day turnaround in reconditioning spacesuits. Still, ''people manage to adapt remarkably well,'' he says.
Remote operated machines, self-propelled boxes sporting television cameras and mechanical arms, are capable of doing the same level of tasks that astronauts have performed on space walks. They can be built to withstand hazardous conditions and with greater than human strength. They can also be operated around the clock.
These ''teleoperators'' do have their limitations, however. If controlled from the ground, there is a one-half to two-second time delay in the radio link. This means a noticeable delays between an operator's movement and observation of the movement's effect. This substantially reduces such a machine's effectiveness , Mr. Kurtzman reports.
(At MIT they will soon begin tests with such a machine designed to assemble beams in outer space. They will do this underwater to simulate weightless conditions.)
One solution to the delay problem is to operate the machines from inside the space station. An alternative is to build more autonomy into the teleoperators: Instead of controlling every motion, the operator would give commands such as, ''Unscrew the bolts on the hatch,'' and the robot would proceed to do so on its own.
''If the research and development started now, we could have a working unit by 1990 or 1992,'' Kurtzman claims.
Beyond increasing a space crew's productivity, the tools of the information revolution hold the promise of making living in a space station less stressful, argues James Wise, an urban planner from the University of Washington.
''Let's face it. If you take a diverse group of people, put them in a confined environment, isolate them from their friends and family, . . . and hang them in the air without a step ladder, you're not doing them a big favor,'' he explains.
Through careful environmental design and modern telecommunication most of the negative aspects of space-station living can be minimized, if not avoided altogether, Professor Wise maintains. A sense of individuality can be reinforced by allowing crewmen to choose the color and design of their own clothing. Contact with family and friends can be maintained by giving the astronauts televideo contact with family and friends: An orbiting dad could continue to help his daughter with her homework, for instance. Or a space-station crew member might celebrate a wedding anniversary by shopping for and purchasing a gift for her husband by computer.
With current computer technology, a space station could be designed to form something analogous to a living organism, visualizes Norman Marsolan, a chemical engineer from Lousiana Tech. The station would have a microcomputer nervous system that would monitor routine functions. As long as things remained normal, the computer network would monitor and control the station's various systems, much like breathing is controlled unconsciously. Only when something untoward happens would the crew be alerted, and asked to take charge.
By keeping major decisionmaking firmly in the hands of the crew, while allowing the computers to handle much of the drudgery, a space station crew should prove substantially more productive. And such an arrangement would have the fringe benefit of assuring that the likes of the fictional computer Hal, which goes beserk in the book and film ''2001: A Space Odyessy,'' will remain in the realm of fiction.