2010: A space odyssey

Author: By David Randall, Victoria Richards and Andrew Johnson

Yesterday, the International Space Station, now as large as a four-storey
house, yet speeding at 17,239 mph, took on board the crew of the shuttle
Endeavour. It girdles the Earth 15 times a day at an altitude of 220 miles,
with 12 men, one woman, seven Americans, two Russians, two Canadians, one
Japanese and a Belgian.

The work of this multinational crew, who will conduct five spacewalks, is yet
another small step in our attempts to go beyond the confines of our own
planet. But next month, a far bigger one could be taken. A panel of
specialists will advise President Barack Obama on whether the US should
embark on an ambitious 21st-century space programme that could see Americans
return to the Moon, and eventually venture further to near-earth asteroids
and Mars. It is an issue that rouses not just space enthusiasts but those
who think the world should have other, greener priorities.

The President’s decision could instigate a space race, this time with China,
that might be fiercer than anything seen in its Sixties rivalry with Russia.
The Chinese are not a participating power in the International Space
Station, but Beijing is prepared to go it alone, declaring that it intends
landing on the Moon by 2020. In September last year, with manned spacecraft
Shenzhou 7, China became the third power to walk in space. Russia has also
committed to a major upgrade of its space capability, the first of the
post-Soviet era. Russian engineers have already spent 105 days in isolation
in a mock spacecraft to test the stresses travellers may face on the
172-million mile journey to Mars.

Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 veteran, and the second man to set foot on the
Moon, told Fox News yesterday that America could aid their international
partners in exploring the Moon and so free up its own spaceflight resources
to develop systems for “even more ambitious goals”. Once there is
an international base on the Moon and in-space refuelling technology, he
said, the US should concentrate on sending astronauts into deep space to
visit the asteroid Apophis when it passes near the earth in 2021. After
that, there is the possibility of a temporarily-manned base on the Mars moon
Phobos. “By that time, we’d be ready to put people in a gradual
permanence on Mars by 2031,” Mr Aldrin said.

But it seems that China is getting there, too ? Yinghuo 1, the country’s first
Mars probe, will go into orbit around Mars in 2010 after a 10-month,
236-million mile journey to study “environmental changes”. Here
are also the lunar ambitions of India and Japan, plus the rivalry among
firms for primitive commercial space flights. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin
Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace are vying with each other to make the first
suborbital flights. Sir Richard himself has said that Virgin Galactic
spaceships will be completed by December 2009 and are “on track to be
carbon neutral”, with paying passengers by 2011.

Yet tomorrow, on the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s small but historic step,
the question will be asked: are large-scale ventures into space justified
when there are problems ? possibly terminal ones ? with Planet Earth? Is an
enthusiasm for manned exploration compatible with tackling the environment,
poverty, and diseases such as cancer and Aids? Or is it only when we reach
out beyond our own world that we can maybe make the blue planet a truly
green one? After all, in 2016, the US energy firm Solaren plans to send a
kilometre-wide panel into orbit to beam back energy.

James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory, said: “I strongly support
space travel. The whole notion of Gaia came out of space travel. It seems to
me any environmentalist who opposes space travel has no imagination
whatever. That gorgeous, inspirational image of the globe that we are now so
familiar with came out of space travel. That image has perhaps been of the
greatest value to the environmental movement. It gave me a great impetus.

“There are the unmanned spacecraft, which are relatively inexpensive,
that I certainly think should continue. The more we know about Mars, for
example, the better we can understand our own planet. The second sort, the
more personally adventurous sort of travel, offers great inspiration to
humans. And, were it not for space travel we’d have no mobile phones, no
internet, no weather forecasts of the sort we have now and so on. There’s a
lot of puritanical silliness about it.”

Dr Steve Howard, chief executive of the Climate Group said: “I don’t
think space travel is an ‘either/or’ and I think we sometimes we feel that
we will have to stop other things if we go to the Moon or Mars. But man has
always been an explorer though obviously at a time of global recession we
have to budget and plan carefully and it needs to be a collaborative venture.”

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the OU, said: “Every
space mission has spin-offs which are unforeseeable. The Wellcome Trust
funded Beagle 2 on the understanding the team of highly talented people
would look at ways the technology could be used for medicine. We have
developed an instrument that can diagnose TB in a day. Our instrument, which
is going to be tested in Malawi, could save hundreds of thousands, if not
millions of lives.”

A waste of money or a good investment?

The Obama administration puts the cost of Project Constellation ? the plan
to put people back on the Moon ? at $187bn (£114bn).

That sum could, instead:

*Wipe out North Africa’s foreign debt of £70bn ? and still have £34bn left
over.

*Cover the costs of swine flu absenteeism for 10 weeks. Experts put the toll
of this at £1.5bn a day.

*Pay for the Olympic construction costs of £9bn 12 times over.

But Professor Stephen Hawking says: “We need to renew our commitment
to human spaceflight. Robotic missions are cheaper, but if one is
considering the future of humanity, we have to visit other worlds ourselves.”

Space Dates

2009

Sir Richard Branson has said that his Virgin Galactic spaceships will be
completed and ready for testing by December and are “on track to be
carbon neutral”

2010

The Yinghuo-1, China’s first Mars probe, will be launched in 2010 by a
Russian rocket and will later go into orbit around the planet to study
climate change

2011

The £100bn International Space Station is due for completion. It is
currently being assembled in low Earth orbit

2020

America hopes to touch down on the lunar surface again ? 50 years after the
first Moon landing. But it is in competition with China, which has vowed to
do the same

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