In the 1960’s and 70’s it seemed that humanity was at last venturing off its home planet to seek new worlds. At that time, Star Trek was seen more as a ‘Tomorrow’s World’ type show rather then pure Sci-Fi. The boldness of those who went into space was the stuff of superheroes. The danger these explorers faced was obvious and was unfortunately demonstrated on a number of occasions but this seemed to add rather then detract from the magnificence of the venture. At that time the Russians and Americans were dependent on slide rules and huge user manuals to workout calculations. A modern day iPhone has more computing power then all of NASA during the Apollo missions. With such modest technology we got to the Moon – what would be next?
In April 1970, the crew of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission swung around the far side of the moon at an altitude of 254 km, putting them 400,171 km away from Earth. It’s the farthest our species has ever been from our home planet. But since 1972, the year the Apollo program ended, humans have stayed to within 450 Km of Earth. The Space station is about 408 Km above the Earth while Space lab was about 435 km.
So fifty years on and in some ways we seem to have gone backwards. Technology has developed beyond our wildest dreams. Our knowledge not just of our Solar System, but our galaxy and our Universe is accelerating rapidly. We have sent spaceships and robots to many of our neighboring planets, we have landed a probe on a comet and we have a space probe that has left our planetary system altogether – Explorer 1. But, there is a sense of adventure in space exploration that is uniquely associated with human travel. The very recently retired ‘Opportunity Rover’, which traveled around Mars for nearly 15 years sending back valuable data, will definitely go down as one of the great engineering feats of our generation but this will never fill minds with wonder and hearts with pride as seeing an Earthling take their first step on the planet’s red soil.
Sending humans into space is very expensive, technologically challenging, and fraught with danger and isn’t often considered to be required for the scientific advancement of a program. Unmanned, robot probes are cheaper and easier to build, often more reliable and without the potential for loss of life. And yet there is an almost illogical driving passion to get humans up there, despite the disadvantages – Why?
I think it is the sheer challenge of it all. In an interview in the New York Times, when the British climber George Mallory was asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” is quoted to have replied – “Because it’s there”. All the preparations, the training, the cost, the danger, summed up in three simple words. Mallory lost his life on The North Face of Everest in 1925 – His body wasn’t found for another 74 years. Like the Astronauts, these mountaineres knew the dangers and the high risk they were taking but were emboldend by such dangers, not put off. Such dangers cannot be balanced against the quest for knowledge, the advancment of science or any other logical argument – Only a deep seated passion to meet a challenge with the dream of succeeding can go any where near to explaining such daring-do actions.
But there are some logical arguments for sending humans into space. Firstly, space travel is extreemly unpredictable and the further we venture, the more unpredictable it gets. AI technology is still a long way away from the human ability to compremise, attempt the apparent impossible, deal with the totally unexpected and learn. If we truly want to expand into space, even the relativly local activity of developing a presence on the Moon, we have to go and do it for ourselves. Secondly, the ultimate goal of spacetravel is colonisation. We may be a long way away from space colonisation but eventually we will need to consider aditional / alternative places to live and the sooner we find our space feet, the better.
Many may feel that human space travel is the reserve of a few specialists and really has no relevance to everyday life, but I’m sure in the past, the first people to see what lay beyond the next hill, or beyond the sea were seen as irrelivant oddities in their day. Humankind’s evolution has been powered by a need to travel further, to explore the unknown and to risk the now for tomorrow. Maybe at the time, the drive seemed illogical and needless but it was this very drive that has progressed us to where we are today. Our evevolution and that deep seated drive continues even today and we will go find out what lays beyond the next planet, the next star system and all the arguments against such endevours will amount to nothing – Keep looking up!