From the moment that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 the aim of the space race was to be the first to go where no man had gone before. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on 12th April 1961 and over the next couple of decades astronauts and cosmonauts battled to break records and frontiers. Yet since Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon on 22nd July 1969 man’s conquest of space has slowed. By the late 1970s both the USA and USSR had given up on travelling to the Moon, let alone Mars, and were focused on creating a permanent presences in the near-Earth space stations Mir (USSR) and Skylab (USA), both of which have now been replaced by the International Space Station. The end of the Cold War led to massive budget cuts and NASA was forced to adopt a ‘Quicker, Faster, Cheaper’ approach which focused its efforts on robotic exploration. After China’s success in sending Yang Liwei into space in October 2003 and a second Space Shuttle disaster in February 2003, US President George W. Bush echoed President Kennedy in pledging NASA to manned exploration and an eventual trip to Mars. Yet some commentators claim that man is an unnecessary (and costly) distraction from scientific exploration and that we would be better off staying on Earth. They add that since Dennis Tito became the first ‘space tourist’ in 2002 and the privately built $20m SpaceShipOne won the X Prize in 2004, the future lies with privately run space tourism with state funding limited to unmanned scientific missions.
“The curiosity of humans leads us to do many things. It is probably the reason for outer space research. The evidence that has been gathered supporting interesting information has just fuelled this curiosity. Curiosity is the root to all sciences. Archaeology, biology, chemistry, physics and many other braches of science were only done because of curiosity. Without curiosity, the human race might still be in the Stone Age. Isaac Newton was curious about the falling apple and why it fell. Big curiosity has made us do big things. Space exploration might lead to a good thing too!”
Rather than probing Mars for life, we should be looking to the 95% of the world’s oceans that have yet to be explored and where we are constantly finding new forms of life and new scientific discoveries. For example, bacteria have been found which survive not by using sunlight as an energy source, but volcanic vents on the ocean floor – a discovery which made scientists looking for life on Mars totally change their approach. And with individuals constantly in the news for attempts to traverse the globe in rowing boats, hot air balloons and tied to gliders, there are clearly enough ‘boundaries’ on this planet to keep even our keenest explorers happy.
The need to make equipment ‘fail-safe’ because of its role in keeping humans alive in space means that the level of funding and testing is necessarily higher than for non-manned missions. This has resulted in advances that have included the Teflon found on non-stick frying pans, new ways of testing aerodynamics which have improved planes, huge improvements in computing power and software, etc.
NASA spends over a third of its budget simply keeping the ISS manned and the Space Shuttle working. The vast majority of its spending on scientific research comes through ground based research, telescopes and unmanned missions. China has made no claims that there is a scientific benefit to its manned mission and nor has Russia in recent years.
There are few experiments so important that they can justify the huge cost needed to allow them to be carried out by humans in zero gravity. NASA made a lot of noise about growing zero-gravity protein crystals as a potential cure for cancer when it was trying to justify building the ISS but has since dropped the claims as experiments have shown the claims were overstated.
The argument that humans need to be in space in order to find out the effects of being in space should be treated with caution; it is essentially a circular argument as with no manned missions, there would be no need to find out the impact of space on humans.
While the private market may be able to cater for the rich few who want to see sub-orbital space (and some 11,000 have signed up to fly there with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactica from 2007), ultimately the boundaries of science involve keeping humans in space for long periods (the current record is 439 days), travelling further, discovering what the rest of our solar system holds and, eventually, trying to live on the moon or Mars. It is only through state subsidies that such exploration is financially possible.
“Space exploration is not a waste of money. In fact, USA spends only 1% of the budget on space exploration. If it was not spent, instead of a poor person getting a dollar, he would get a dollar and 3 cents. Does this make that much of a difference?”
“many of the critics of the space programme on social grounds are “limousine liberals”. They point the finger at the US government for wasting their tax money in space instead of helping the poor, but they are not feeling guilty for their own consumerist life style and for their own scale of priorities.
For instance, this year, total pet-related sales in the United States are projected to be $31 billion – the double, almost to the cent, of the $15.47 billion NASA budget. An estimated $5 billion worth of holiday season gifts were offered – not to the poor – but to the roving family pets – six times more than NASA spent on its own roving Martian explorers, Spirit and Opportunity, who cost the American taxpayer $820 million both. Instead of providing a launch pad for the immorally expensive shuttles, Florida can do better and clothe the underprivileged – a genuine alligator pet collar cost only $400 a piece.”
Even with a budget of $16.5bn for 2006, NASA expects it will take more than a decade to return to the moon and has no date for Mars. The cost of really pushing the boundaries of human exploration is too high even for the big-spending Bush administration, so surely we need to examine the scientific and technological returns of the space programme as it really is rather than how it appears in Star Trek.
Dennis Kucinich, responding to president Bush’s 2004 space initiatives, said: “I also want to explore planet Earth and planet D.C.”
What better way to colonise space than to leave it to the private market to develop the space tourism market to include space hotels and moon bases? The success of the $10m X Prize at attracting interest and private investment in private space programmes has shown that there is no need for the state to be involved in space travel on the non-science side. Given suitable international safety standards (as were agreed on air travel in the inter-war period) it would transfer the investment and risk away from the taxpayer as well as producing the sort of space travel that would really inspire the human race – the sort that tens of thousands of people would actually get a chance to take part in.
Even if NASA is unwilling to fund a particular project does not mean it cannot take place – the Beagle 2 project to search for life on Mars was organised by British scientist Professor Colin Pillinger and raised a significant amount of its ?50m cost from private sources and sponsorship. The Beagle 2 never responded from the surface of the Red Planet but the principle of scientific communities being able to raise sufficient capital for small unmanned missions has been proven.
The potential damage done by an asteroid or comet that collides with the Earth could range from the impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the complete destruction of all life on the planet. A manned mission might be necessary to destroy or divert such an object before it reaches our planet. There is also the potential for other terrible damage to be done to the Earth (whether through climate change, warfare or overcrowding), which could mean that as a race we would have no choice but to leave the planet. In that situation, high levels of knowledge about human space travel and the ability to colonise Mars or other planets would be essential.
In any case unmanned missions (missiles, satellite mounted lasers etc.) would probably be as effective as any manned attempt to divert an asteroid despite what films like Armageddon and Deep Impact might suggest.
As for the potential for us to mess up the Earth sufficiently to require us to leave the planet, perhaps we should work harder at looking after this planet rather than looking for another one to damage.