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Our destiny is to move beyond Earth
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 15:43:34 GMT
epa04515845 NASA TV framegrab showing the launch of Orion and the Delta IV Heavy at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, 05 December 2014. NASA reported on 04 December 2014 that a hold in the count had been called due to a violation of ground winds. The spacecraft will orbit Earth twice, reaching an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth before landing in the Pacific Ocean. No one will be aboard Orion for this flight test, but the spacecraft is designed to allow us to journey to destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. EPA/NASA TV / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY©EPA

The triumph and tragedy of space flight, manned and unmanned, have been on full view over the past year. The tragedy occurred on the inner fringe of space with the crash of SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson’s space tourism vehicle, at the end of October. The most notable triumph was the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission which first achieved a rendezvous with a comet half a billion kilometres from Earth and then landed a robotic probe on the comet’s surface, in an operation that caught the public imagination the world over.

We can look forward to more drama in 2015, not least from Rosetta which aims to keep pace with Comet 67P as it swoops round the sun, developing a tail of dust and vapour; and hope remains that its Philae probe will come to life as brighter light recharges its solar batteries. The outstanding US contribution to space exploration next year will be the New Horizons mission, which will reach the frozen outermost reaches of the solar system, observing Pluto close up for the first time and no doubt discovering previously unknown astronomical bodies.

Less newsworthy but with direct human interest is the routine ferrying of people to and from the International Space Station, a duty performed entirely by Russian rockets now that the US is in a hiatus between decommissioning the old Shuttle Fleet and the introduction of successor vehicles.

Indeed, space stands out today as a rare example of cordial collaboration between Russia and the west. Two new human symbols of space collaboration are cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and astronaut Scott Kelly, who are due to travel together to the space station in March and then live in orbit for a year — longer than any previous crew.

Space exploration is a worthy activity for our modern industrial civilisation. It is the “manifest destiny” of humanity to move beyond Earth, to use a ringing phrase from the 19th century adopted by space enthusiasts in the 1960s.

Disagreements emerge when we consider what public resources to devote to the endeavour and whether money should be spent sending people into space or reserved for unmanned exploration, which is far cheaper and scientifically more productive.

No one can expect space ever again to consume more than 4 per cent of government spending, as it did in the US during the 1960s race to the moon. However, 0.5 per cent — the current proportion of federal spending devoted to Nasa — is reasonable. If other industrialised countries raised space spending closer to that level (the UK figure is about 0.05 per cent) there would be enough to fund exciting robotic exploration and to send people further out than the moon or space station.

Though the purely scientific dividends from unmanned missions will be greater, dollar for dollar, than for crewed flights, sending people into space is a worthwhile declaration of intent about the future of humanity. There is also something about manned exploration that raises spirits and inspires young people to follow careers in science and engineering, as the Apollo moon landings showed.

If commercial interests wish to contribute through “space tourism” all the better, but governments will have to contribute the big bucks needed. So we wish the US success with the continued development of its Orion spacecraft, after its first test flight this year. With participation from Europe, Orion could be the basis of missions taking people to investigate asteroids and even Mars two or three decades from now. That would be an achievement to match the first lunar landings.



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