Not Now, Voyager

Last week I found myself a bit perplexed by the frenzy of twitter angst surrounding the last ever launch of the Space Shuttle. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. I’ve often felt like there must be something wrong with me for not getting agitated over such things. After Altantis returns to Earth in a couple of weeks’ time she will be taken out of service and, for the foreseeable future, America will no longer have the ability to put humans into orbit. This does mark the end of an era, of course, but is it really something to get all upset about?

I find myself agreeing with the Guardian editorial, which I’ve taken the liberty of copying here:

Fewer than 600 people have been admitted an exclusive club: space travel. Now, with the last flight of the space shuttle under way, the membership list is harder to join than ever. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, half a century ago, and when astronauts landed on the moon eight years later, it would have been inconceivable to think of a time when manned space flight began to slip from the present to the past. But America, at least for the moment, no longer has the capacity to send people into space. In terms of national pride, this may be a failure. In terms of scientific advancement, it may not matter that much at all. Deep space exploration – using robot probes – is a very different and more useful thing than the expensive and unreliable effort to send human beings into low earth orbit, no further from Cape Canaveral than New York. The shuttle has been an icon of its age, but its human passengers – however brave and skilled – have made their flights as much to show the world what America could do as for any particular and necessary purpose. Even the International Space Station, extraordinary though it is, could operate without a human presence, its experiments automated. The only good argument for sending people into space is the simple daring of it – the need, as Star Trek used to claim, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Visit Mars, by all means – but there is little to be gained by sending astronauts to orbit this planet, not all that far above our heads.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Space Shuttle is how matter-of-fact it has become. It’s rather like Concorde, which was an engineering marvel that people would drop everything and gawp at when it  first appeared, but which soon became a part of everyday life. Technology is inevitably like that – what seemed remarkable twenty years ago is now pretty commonplace.

I had similar feelings a couple of  years ago, when Planck and Herschel were launched. Of course I was extremely nervous then , because many of my colleagues had invested so much time and effort in these missions. However, watching the behaviour of the mission control staff at ESA during the launch it struck me how routine it all was for them. It’s a great achievement, I think, to take something so complex and turn it into an everyday operation.

Incidentally, it always strikes me as curious that people use the phrase “rocket science” to define something incredibly difficult. In fact rocket science is extremely simple: the energy source is one of the simplest chemical reactions possible, and the path of the rocket is a straightforward consequence of Newton’s laws of motion. It’s turning this simple science into working technology where the difficulties lie, and it’s a powerful testament to the brilliance of the engineers working in the space programme that workable solutions have been found and implemented in working systems.

So now the era of the Shuttle has passed, what next? Should America (and Europe, for that matter) be aiming to send people to Mars? Should manned spaceflight resume at all?

Different people will answer these questions in different ways. Speaking purely from a scientific point of view I would say that manned space exploration just isn’t cost effective. But going to Mars isn’t really about science; going to the Moon wasn’t either. It’s partly an issue of national pride – note how loss of the Shuttle programme has effectively ended America’s dominance in space, and how keenly that has been felt by many US commentators.

Others argue that manned space flight inspires people to become scientists, and should be done for that reason. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, and I’m sure there will be many who disagree with me, but it wasn’t the Apollo missions that inspired me to become a scientist. When I was a kid I found the footage of people jumping around on the Moon rather boring, to be honest. What inspired me was the excellent science education I received at School. And just think how many physics teachers you could train for the cost of, e.g. the ESA Aurora program

Another argument is “because it’s there” or, as Walt Whitman put it,

THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

As a species we have an urge to set challenges for ourselves, whether by asking difficult questions, by designing and building difficult devices, or by attempting difficult journeys – sometimes all three! This is our nature and we shouldn’t shy away from it. But we should also recognize that “going there” is just one of the ways in which we can explore the cosmos. Modern telescopes can see almost to the visible edge of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider can probe scales much smaller than the nucleus of an atom. I worry sometimes that the political lobbying for manned space flight often seems to be arguing that it should be funded by taking money from other, more fundamental, scientific investigations. Astronomers and particle physcisists are explorers too, and they also inspire. Don’t they?

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13 Responses to “Not Now, Voyager”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I understand the mood that makes this event news. I made a point of seeing Concorde close-up overhead in its last month near Heathrow, and 3 years ago I drove to Liverpool to see QE2 on her farewell cruise round Britain. In 1984 I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to cross the Atlantic on her, denying myself other things to make the crossing one-way (I flew back) and putting myself down to share one of the cheapest cabins. I am very glad I did it and I don’t mind admitting I wept as she slid out of sight down the Mersey. The Shuttle farewell makes sense to me.

    • telescoper Says:

      Interesting. I felt a slight curiosity, but nothing more. Things come, things go, and new things replace them. Sometimes – although by no means always – the new things are better than the old.

      “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.”

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Well I persuaded my parents to write me a sick note on the afternoon QE2 was launched (which was a games afternoon) so I could see it live on their TV. As for my voyage, I ducked out of the last-night party so that I could be both well slept and on deck to see Manhattan come over the horizon.

      One thing I remember noticing was that QE2 was rolling like the Isle of Wight ferry, yet she was hundreds of times larger. The North Atlantic is not to be trifled with. I also became aware of how utterly grim war at sea must have been. In the army you generally get some notice of impending action; flying is intrinsically high-adrenaline; but at sea a torpedo could come out of nowhere. The convoymen’s nerves must have been shot by the end of a voyage.

      • telescoper Says:

        One of my teachers at school was Mr Luke, who taught Latin and Greek. During the war he served on the Arctic convoys to Murmansk. As a schoolboy I read a lot about naval history, and one day he noticed a book I had with me and mentioned that he had first-hand experience of the war at sea. When I asked him about it, his eyes misted over and he declined to answer. It’s only years later that I realised that was because it was all too painful for him. We are fortunate that we don’t understand such things – because we never had to endure them.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    The end of the space shuttle programme is an event of great significance and regret. Some time, several years from now, the Hubble Space Telescope will suffer a critical failure that will leave it unable to function. We shall lose the HST. There will be no more shuttle missions to repair and upgrade the Space Telescope. The end of the productive life of the HST will be tremendous loss to science.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree that Hubble has achieved marevellous things, but nobody ever thought it would last forever. All good things come to an end.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Of course everyone knew that the HST would not last forever. However, the space shuttle was essential in repairing the telescope following the manufacturing flaw by the subcontractor responsible for the main mirror.

        I would argue that the HST has accomplished far more because it has operated for so long and has been upgraded with modern instrumentation. Had the telescope functioned for only a few years, we might expect only a modest number of research projects would have been completed, most of which would have been based on expectations of scientific outcomes before launch. Only a relatively small number of high-profile scientists would have got observing time.

        In reality, the extended life meant that research fields advanced incrementally. Completed HST projects informed new applications for observing time. Large numbers of scientists were able to get time on the HST (including myself) based on the quality of their ideas, not on their high-profiles or an inside knowledge that helped applications at the right time.

        This has all happened directly because of the space shuttle.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Couldn’t they send someone up on a Taurus to service it?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        The Taurus rocket as it now exists carries only a modest payload. It also has a rather mediocre success record to date. Something much larger and more reliable would have to be available to lift humans into orbit.

        The shuttle was sufficiently large and flexible that it could hold the space telescope securely within its payload bay for the refurbishment work. It is difficult to see any new spacecraft being developed within the next several years that could do this. Indeed I can’t imagine any spacecraft being available to do this within the next 10 years, maybe within the next 20 years.

    • How would the cost of building and launching a completely new (and, presumably, better) telescope compare to the cost of a repair mission?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Now that is something I have wondered myself. The cost of the refurbishment missions was so large that a new telescope could probably have been launched at a similar cost, provided that development costs could have been kept low.

      • Exactly. However, development costs would be essentially zero if one launched an exact copy of the telescope (which might not be a good idea, if technology has advanced in the meantime). Surely the cost of buying and assembling and testing the components is small compared to the actual development costs, which were already paid when the original was built.

      • Albert Zijlstra Says:

        Interesting question. If each shuttle repair mission cost 1 billion, it is a close call. Hubble’s strength is its versatility – it is designed to do many different observations and act as a real observatory in space. One-off missions are much more specialised. Its weakness is probably the very low orbit, which was precisely so it could be serviced by the shuttle. Over time, it has been worth it.

        But you wouldn’t want to launch an HST copy. Ground-based telescopes have become much more powerful and in fact have higher resolution than HST (and are rather cheaper). The main things that still require space are wavelengths that are badly affected by the atmosphere (infrared, X-ray, ..) and stability of observing conditions over wide fields of views. Neither of these is a particular strength of HST.

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