Posted tagged ‘space exploration’

Ground control to Major Tom: Come back!

February 2, 2010

Just after I had written a post on the merits of space exploration, President Barack Obama, in his new Budget, has decided to cut back on the US space programme, and in particular has called off the recently renewed plans for manned flights to the Moon. In fact, the United States won’t be putting any manned flights into space for a while under this new framework.

As the responses to my recent post showed, there are those (like me) who find space exploration not just an uplifting adventure but also a source of innovation and discovery with the potential to help and support humanity in all sorts of ways. Some argued that, given the very substantial costs, more direct and proportionate benefits would need to be established. I confess I am amongst those who would argue that, when the space programmes were first developed, there was little certainty about the tangible benefits, but in reality they have been enormous. It is a commitment to humankind’s future, a leap of faith affirming the potential of our destiny.

But just in case you thought I was alone, there is an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper along the same lines by Colin Pillinger, formerly of the European Space Agency. He makes the point that space programmes have an impact on people’s perception of science, and make science careers more attractive even where there is no direct connection.

There will be future space programmes, and if the US and Europe don’t have them, the Chinese, Russians and Indians will. If we don’t fancy a return to economic backwaters, we should all think again.

The final frontier

January 31, 2010

Today – January 31 – is an important date in the history of space exploration. In 1958, Explorer 1 was the first American satellite to be launched into orbit; though of course it was not the first satellite ever, as the Soviets had launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. In 1961, the satellite Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched and, for only a few minutes, carried Ham the Chimpanzee into weightlessness and space; he returned safely and died of natural causes in 1983. On this day in 1966, the Soviets launched the Luna 9 spacecraft, which was the first man-made device to achieve a soft landing on the moon (though unmanned). And staying with the moon, on this day in 1971 Apollo 14 was launched and became the third manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Space exploration was something of a backdrop to my childhood. The launch of Sputnik 1 is one of my earliest memories – or rather, it is the first things I can remember that came in the news rather than in my own experience. Indeed it made such an impression on my very young friends and me at the time that one of our number, a particularly agile and fast kid, was from that day nicknamed Sputnik by us.

Today space exploration has lost some of that early glamour and excitement, maybe in part because it has become routine.But still there are occasionally voices that question its usefulness, and we should not listen to them. We enjoy the products of space travel constantly; we watch television programmes beamed from satellites in space, we use diagnostic and healthcare equipment developed in or discovered through space travel, computer chips used in diagnosis were produced through insights gained from the space programme, we rely on satellites for weather forecasting, and so forth. Even if we did not believe that exploration is part of human nature and is always a good thing, we should encourage the space programme for the many spin-offs it provides.

So whether it is conducted by NASA, or the European Space Agency, or the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Chinese or the Indians, we should welcome humanity’s ability to explore and develop, even out of this world.