Manned spaceflight must not be stopped by the Columbia tragedy. It is good for science, business, culture and international politicsby Ian Crawford / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Thirty years ago, on 14th December 1972, the last two human beings to visit the moon, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, left the lunar surface at the conclusion of the highly successful Apollo 17 mission. Thus ended one of the greatest episodes in technological and organisational achievement in human history, and one which has left an enduring scientific legacy in our understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system. However, without the motor of superpower rivalry, and eclipsed by economic concerns and pressing social and environmental problems, the dream of a human future in space has been allowed to fade. Now, with the tragic loss of the Columbia, many people are wondering whether it was ever worth the cost. Given the evident risks, do we really need people in space?
As with all complex questions, there are several layers of possible answers to this. Let us start with the International Space Station (ISS)-which is completely dependent on the shuttle programme. Although Russian launch vehicles are capable of servicing the ISS in the short term, its continued construction relies on the heavy lift capabilities of the shuttle. However, the European and Japanese experimental modules, together with most of the solar power arrays, are still waiting on the ground. If the momentum behind this project is not to be lost, it is crucial that the remaining shuttles are cleared to fly again as soon as possible, and that urgent consideration is now given to the development of a safer, more reliable and cheaper successor. Maintaining this momentum is important not only because of the range of life and physical science experiments scheduled to be performed on the ISS but because of the role it is likely to play in the future exploration of the solar system.
The ISS is helping to develop much of the scientific, technical and organisational expertise that will be required if and when a decision is made to once again send astronauts beyond earth’s orbit-in particular to Mars. Travelling to Mars will only be possible once we have learned much more about the physiological and psychological effects of living in space for long periods of time, and the necessary research can only be performed on the ISS. With 15 contributing countries (sadly excluding Britain), the ISS is by far the most ambitious international collaborative space project yet attempted.
There is a school of thought, widely…