The Space Race: are we falling back in love with space travel?

The Pluto fly-by, the Mars Rover, Obama’s backing for NASA and a string of film blockbusters – is space travel back on the agenda?

Josh Sims December 21, 2015

We have the water, but do we have the will? Recent revelations that there is some form of water on Mars – combined with a Hollywood renaissance for space movies such as Gravity and Interstellar – has boosted interest in getting to the Red Planet.

As experts have pointed out, there is nothing in Matt Damon’s recent blockbuster release The Martian that is not already technically feasible – bar the minor issue of propulsion systems, and the more pressing matter of shielding any crew from deep space’s deadly radiation.

These hitches aside, the news that one more resource necessary for survival on Mars is already there is, if not a giant leap, then at least another small step towards actually going. NASA has even put a date on it: there will, it says, be a manned mission to Mars during the 2030s. Probably.

Of course, dates applied to intended monumental achievements are notoriously flexible. And yet history has proven that, when the will is fully engaged, fuelled-up and on the launchpad, such achievements are possible.

Space JFK.jpg JFK was famously a big believer in the virtues of space travel.

In 1962, President John Kennedy made this very public commitment. “We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said ‘because it is there’. Well space is there. And we’re going to climb it. And the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.” Remarkably, within just seven years of giving this speech, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

But do we live in a very different, post-depression, risk-averse world? Are we different people, more narcissistic, more navel-gazing, unable to take on or see the romance in the likes of what Kennedy called “the greatest adventure”?

He conceded that it would require the organisation and measurement of the nation’s best energies and skills. He noted that it would require a rocket, parts of which would be made out of alloys not yet invented.

He agreed with naysayers that it would cost a lot of money – albeit less than the population spent on smoking – but that the money should be found and spent, without being profligate. And, in a remarkable speech which basically outlined the pros and cons of manned space exploration, he also argued the payback in job creation and, in technical progress and in knowledge, would be immense. 

Space Project Mercury 1958.jpg Astronauts from Project Mercury just six months after NASA was founded in October 1958.

So why did NASA – not the only player in the game now, given active space programmes in India, the UAE and, more progressively, China – not long ago shelve its Constellation programme, launched only in 2005 with the intention of returning to the moon no later than 2020?

“What we need now is a Kennedy, a leader, and we don’t have that,” suggests former astronaut Eugene Cernan. Rather, he says, we have people who, as Kennedy put it, “would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait”.

Cernan is an 82-year-old with a commanding presence. A former US Navy captain, Cernan was the second American to walk in space, and was on Apollo X, the mission before Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing in 1969. Cernan’s

footprints are still on the moon today. He would well wish for that kind of leadership, being one of the more outspoken campaigners for the revival of a manned space exploration programme, by which he means one that escapes Earth orbit.

Space NASA astonaut Eugene Cernan.jpg NASA astronaut John Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17, is welcomed back to Earth after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

As the last man to walk on the moon in 1972, and one of only two men to have gone to the moon twice, he’s impassioned by the subject. “To be the ‘latest’ would be better [than last man],” he says. “Even before the Apollo 17 mission I commanded, the media were asking me how it felt to be the last man over the fence, and even then I used to get on my soap box and say that it was the beginning of a new era in space exploration. So far I’ve been proven wrong.”

Yet he remains “optimistic” that we might see a manned mission to the moon again within the next 10 years, that NASA’s timetable for a Mars landing is feasible – if only a change in attitude can be engineered first.

“You can come up with all sorts of reasons as to why manned space exploration has stalled – that there are a lot of problems in the world, economic turmoil and terrorism,” Cernan notes. “But that doesn’t mean we have to terminate exploration of the unknown. We certainly throw a lot of money away, so one of the more beneficial uses [of it] would be to get us back into space. Most people are for that. But we need a JFK figure to make it happen.”

Or maybe a Richard Branson or a Robert Bigelow – owner of Budget Suites of America which is working on the development of a space cruiser – or an Elon Musk, the PayPal entrepreneur and founder of Space X, which three years ago became the world’s first privately held company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station.

Elson Musk Space X founder Elon Musk is a leading figure in modern space travel.

Cernan is less than impressed by the prospect of space tourism. For him it is, frankly, just too close to home to get very excited about, with craft that could achieve the much more advanced feat of speeding at 17,500mph to break Earth’s gravity where space exploration proper begins.

Others have argued that private enterprise could prove an essential stepping stone; while last year’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two crash may have put some off the prospect. Certainly the demand is there: when, 17 years ago, British travel agency Thomas Cook jokily started taking names for prospective space tours, the list had to close after 10,000 people rushed forward. And demand could fund the necessary technical developments that governmental agencies are struggling to find the cash for.

“I’ve grown tired of people regarding [mass] space tourism as unachievable,” says Peter Diamandis. He’s the man who lit the fuse with his X-Prize, an American national contest begun in 1996 and offering a $10m award to the first private company to develop an RLV (re-useable launch vehicle) that’s capable of taking passengers into sub-orbital space.

That prize was won by the US company Scaled Composites, with which Branson has joined forces to launch his new service. “Some people still think of it all as fanciful, but 100 years ago the idea of hopping on a 747 was unimaginable,” Diamandis adds. “There’s only one marketplace to get space travel moving: self-loading carbon payloads. People, in others words. Tourism will drive space travel.” 

Space Eugene Cernan driving on the Moon.jpg Cernan taking a vehicle for a ride on the Moon during his Apollo 17 landing.

Branson agrees. Writing after the accident over the Mojave desert in 2014 that killed pilot Michael Alsbury and injured co-pilot Peter Siebold, he explained, “I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances. In short — was Virgin Galactic and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it? I got a very firm answer to that question immediately when I landed in Mojave. From the designers, the builders, the engineers, the pilots and the whole community who passionately believed — and still believe — that truly opening space and making it accessible and safe is of vital importance to all our futures.”

As well as tourism, profit will also boost the thirst for space travel. Scientist and author David Ashford argues that the urge to explore space is strong and genuine. What is lacking, he suggests, is the economic motivation that modern capitalist thinking appears to require to make just about anything happen. “It was the economic motivation that drove Columbus to look for America,” says Ashford. “Space is a fascinating place, full of fascinating things to do. But then so is the bottom of the sea. You need a reason to go: an economic one.”

Ashford hopes to play a part in making that happen. The author of Space Exploration: All That Matters, Ashford is also founder of Bristol Spaceplanes. The company has a design for what it says is a workable low-orbit spaceplane, one of eight designs currently under development around the world for an alternative to the pricey throwaway rocket model used to date and based on affordable technology proven since the 1960s.

“The return of manned spaceflight will be exciting when it happens but we have to be more grounded and practical to make it happen,” Ashford adds. “I think there’s been something of a boredom with the idea [for some time]. We’ve gone to the moon, been there, done that. It doesn’t help that NASA has hogged the agenda for so long. 

Space Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two crash.jpg The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two crashed during a test flight in October 2014, killing the pilot.

“The fact is that the technology is there, the market is there and when the costs start to come down that will not just make advances in understanding possible – we’d be able to put up huge space telescopes, for example, or slash the cost of environmental science in space, which could help us tackle climate change. It will be big business. Then NASA will be forced to look at the development of an orbital craft and we will have the beginnings of a new space age. You can argue over the timing, but it’s inevitable.”

Inevitable too, perhaps, that a more visionary approach to space exploration – real exploration, boldly going beyond the moon, to Mars, to infinity and beyond – will become an established part of society’s sense of the expected and the natural, rather than being perceived as a waste of money or the pointless pursuit of whackjobs.

Indeed, it is perhaps an indication of that cosmic wanderlust that people with big money are prepared to spend it doing more than simply skimming our planet’s edge. Tom Shelley is president of Space Adventures, the company that has organised all eight space flights by private individuals to date. It’s going further still, planning a mission carrying two passengers around the dark side of the Moon within the next five years for which one person has paid $150m.

“The governmental approach to space exploration, with its emphasis on risk management, has taken the joy out of the idea,” Shelley argues. “The fact is that Apollo can’t be repeated given the nature of politics now. Yet curiosity is one of our most ingrained natures. Yes, you can explore with robots in a way you can’t with humans. We couldn’t have gone to Pluto, as robots did on their fly-by earlier this year. But the fact is that only people can question what they find, test ideas that an environment brings up – that’s the value of manned space exploration.”

Space The Curiosity rover.jpg The Curiosity rover has been patrolling the surface of Mars and collecting samples for more than three years.

Sure, travelling deep into space may in reality not happen for centuries, or never happen at all. For all the ease that Matt Damon movies like to propose, it would take four years to reach the nearest star and that is at the theoretically unsurpassable speed of light; the impact on travellers’ physical and psychological states may make it impossible.

But even manned exploration of our own backyard, the solar system, would prompt potentially profound change and the inspiration it would ignite is surely the ultimate reason to go.

“The potential is enormous,” Ashford says. “When you have thousands, millions of people coming back to Earth having had the same experience as astronauts have had, that’s a possible trigger to a new enlightenment. It would give us all a new perspective.”

And just what is that experience? “Well, there are no words to describe being on the moon,” Cernan smiles. “You have to feel it. If you want to get imaginative about it, it’s like being on God’s front porch, faced with the endlessness of time and space. You can walk the floor of the deepest ocean or stand on the highest mountain, but you’re still on Earth. Travelling into space is to enter the greatest unknown.”