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?