On September 28th, Elon Musk proved he wasn’t a dreamer and blasted the world’s first commercial rocket — Falcon 1 — into Earth orbit. SpaceX have put their previous launch failures behind them, rightfully filing them under “learning curve.”
The team at NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission control have started to switch off instrumentation on the robotic lander after five months of astounding science (even after surviving the “7-minutes of terror” on May 25th, finding proof of water, overcoming technical issues and multiplying our understanding of the chemistry on an alien planet). Plus the armada of satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Oh yes, and those crazy rovers that just keep on rollin’.
The New Horizons Pluto mission has just passed its 1000th day on the epic journey to Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt. The Cassini probe is still doing its mission orbiting Saturn (since 1997). Oh, and the European Venus Express doing its quiet cruise around Earth’s evil twin planet.
The International Space Station is still going strong, proving on every day that passes that humans can live in space (no matter how difficult it is, we can do it, months at a time — but we need to work harder at zero-G plumbing!). Other nations are pushing into space too; China carried out its first spacewalk in September, India blasted its first lunar mission into space last week and the Japanese lunar orbiter just broke the bad news that there ain’t no ice in them thar craters…
…lest not forget the robust Russian Soyuz space vehicle, having just reached its 100th flight!
And that’s just the teeny, tiny, short list I can think up off the top of my head. These are the things that are going on in space, spreading the presence of mankind throughout the Solar System, doing things that we could barely imagine only a decade ago.
But then we have the icing on the cake, the next generation of space launch technology. The Constellation Program. Reminiscent of the awe-inspiring rockets that carried Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969, the beast that is Ares I, or the MONSTER that is Ares V, plus the most advanced manned space vehicle that will ferry astronauts to-and-from the surface and into space, Orion.
Constellation will be NASA’s and (dare I say it?) the world’s most audacious venture into the Solar System; not only providing the routine service of transportation to the space station, but facilitating us to travel back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. (All going well, NASA will be joined by private enterprise, and with some help from initiatives such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, more companies like SpaceX will be able to bridge the gap between risk and reward.)
This isn’t science fiction, this is happening now. There will be challenges, there will be accidents, there will (most definitely) be overruns and budget problems, but we are doing this for the long-term survival of a species, our species. In the short term, we can expect to boost our understanding of the Universe in which we inhabit, we’ll see huge business opportunities, new technologies will flourish. In the next few years, our planet will undergo a momentous development and the change is happening right now.
And now for the downer
You’ll have to forgive my excited tempo, I don’t know what came over me. I simply sat back in my chair and tried to think hard about space exploration and I was flooded with images of rockets igniting, high altitude aircraft, robots digging into alien soil and satellites majestically carrying out advanced science whilst maintaining their precise orbits around gas giants and asteroids.
It took me back to when I had to do a presentation in class about a strange thing called “space tourism” in 1996 (when I was 16). Being a hopeless sci-fi geek, my talk (on an overhead projector! Wow, it’s been a long time since I saw one of those) was greeted with the usual jibes from my schoolmates, but I was totally immersed in talking about the possibility of space hotels and sub-orbital joyrides. Only now, 12 years on, am I beginning to see the fuzzy projected charts of cost/time and images of badly drawn space station diagrams become a reality.
So I get frustrated at the constant barrage of “bad press” about our endeavours in space, it reminds me of the jibes I received in the class of ’96. Today’s article from the Orlando Sentinel, although correct in its reporting, issued a very downhearted view on the progress of Constellation. I won’t replicate the Universe Today article I wrote in response, but I’m frustrated by the pessimistic tone many critics use when describing the biggest space endeavour we have ever attempted (but then again, that’s what a critic does, I suppose).
I think it’s about time we take stock about where the human race is going. Space exploration represents the next phase in human evolution, it’s about time we treat it as such. Budget overspending and project overruns happen, let’s look at the bigger picture.