October 20, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

On Friday the shuttle Atlantis will lift off on its final voyage, when it returns it will mean the end of NASA’s iconic space shuttle programme.

The shuttle’s retirement also signals the beginning of an uncertain time for human space missions. Funding cuts and plan cancellations mean that there is currently no replacement for NASA’s manned shuttle programme. But critics say that this is a good thing. In fact if human space flight is as expensive and dangerous as they say, should we send more people into the cosmos?

It’s a question hotly debated by politicians and scientists alike. There can even be differences of opinion within the same research department. “Human space exploration is a tricky subject” says Dr Ingo Mueller-Wodarg, researcher at the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group at Imperial College London.  He thinks that manned missions can be “money well spent. The Lunar landing programme created an era of space exploration, it motivated lots of youngsters at the time to go into space science and it created an industry which itself created lots of jobs and revenue.”

But his colleague, Dr Marina Galand, disagrees: “I am not a strong supporter of manned space exploration. It is extremely costly as human lives are involved and the gain of having human beings is very limited from a science point of view” she said.

What is it about human space flight that makes it so controversial? Money and politics as always may play a hand in it. Dr Mueller-Wodarg explained: “While scientists put lots and lots of their time in putting together the details for these missions and the science they want to study, ultimate decisions are taken at a political level, often beyond the influence of those who put the missions together.” He added: “The problem for us at the “unmanned” side of space science is that our science budget is directly affected by any blips in the space shuttle budget… The space shuttle programme was under-funded and ate itself into the science budget.”

But the tables might be turning, it is the unmanned missions that may well be the focus of future space research. None of the upcoming missions described by Dr Galand for example, are manned: “Rosetta is on its way to a comet, its arrival is expected in 2014, with a landing planned – a first on cometary soil. Definitely this will be a main focus in years to come.”

Dr Galand added: “I would also add to this list a return to the second-largest moon in the Solar System, Titan. It is the only moon in the Solar System to hold a dense and permanent atmosphere… It would be great to have dedicated a mission to Titan with an orbiter.” Robots are capable of doing these missions in our place, cutting the risk to human life and the expense. Our days amongst the stars seem numbered.

But Dr Stephen Lowry, a scientist the University of Kent, thinks there may be one more reason why manned missions should be continued.  An expert in asteroid research he said: “In recent years there has been emphasis placed on manned exploration of asteroids… It is critical that our civilization maintains and continues to develop a capability to place a person in space and eventually onto on the surface of an asteroid, if such a need arose”. Asteroids have been striking our planet for billions of years and in some cases causing mass extinctions, because of this “developing the capability of dealing with such a threat is one of the most important tasks mankind needs to address.” said Dr Lowry.

He added: “In the long term I also feel that it will be important to reach out and colonize other planetary bodies, unless we can reduce our need for Earth-based resources.” If this seems farfetched then remember it was only 42 years ago that we took our first steps on the moon.

Maybe then for our own survival manned space missions should not yet be consigned to the scrap heap. But there is one more reason why human space exploration will continue to be important. As Dr Mueller-Wodarg put it: “The overwhelming advantage in my view is the technological challenge that is successfully overcome, which will drive new technology available to us on Earth… and the inspiration that manned space flight gives to people… I think we need such unifying inspirations.”

As the world prepares to wave goodbye to NASA’s last manned shuttle, maybe we should remember that for all the expense and danger, manned space exploration pushes the boundary of our human world, as Dr Mueller-Wodarg said “The case is clear, what could be more amazing than for humans to stand on another planet or on the moon?” What indeed.

Banner image from Rakesh Sharma from Wikipedia.com