Man has come a long way since Yuri Gagarin first went into space 50 years ago. But as space travel becomes a preserve of the wealthy and the Moon return project is slashed, is the heydey of space exploration over?
It’s 1957 Russia. Laika the dog is preparing for lift-off, sat in a padded cabin sealed off from the radio transmitters, telemetry system and programming unit that will transport her to the ends of the Earth.
The world is watching, astonished and aghast – the 18kg Russian spacecraft is far superior to anything the US is considering.
Building on the success of Sputnik 1, launched just one month before, Russian engineers are preparing the first ever spacecraft to carry a living animal into orbit.
In the years that followed, the Soviet Union and USA would become locked in a battle for supremacy in outer space exploration, against the backdrop of an increasingly cold war.
The Space Race unleashed a proliferation of experiments, from artificial satellites to excursions to the Moon. But while the 1950s and 60s boasted space exploration in abundance, manned voyages in the years that followed were to deplete.
The space agenda began to prioritise analysis and photography from orbit over man exploring the Moon in earnest - Venera 13 analysed Venusian soil from 1982, while the surface of Mars was brought into focus by Phobus 2 in 1989.
Undoubtedly, planetary science has seen a tremendous growth in new knowledge. We have discovered Europa’s ocean could support life, and that liquid methane rain falls on Saturn’s moon, Titan, creating rivers and lakes not unlike those on Earth.
But aren’t the days of astronauts setting foot on the Moon to explore its peaks and crevasses, not as a tourist in exchange for millions of dollars, but for the sake of science, over?
Recent developments might suggest as much. In 2010 Barack Obama announced the end of the Constellation mission back to the Moon, and encouraged NASA to shift its focus in exchange for a $6 billion funding increase.
Meanwhile business tycoon Richard Branson built on his £14 million deal to allow his company, Virgin, to take passengers into space. Yesterday Virgin Galactic announced it is looking for pilot-astronauts for both the carrier vehicle and the craft that will fly into space.
Chris Bergin, Managing Editor of NASASpaceflight.com, a website which publishes space exploration news, acknowledged moon missions are declining.
“While Moon missions may no longer be the main focus of the future plans, staged manned exploration goals of potentially visiting a Near Earth Object (NEO) - such an asteroid - working off the long duration space flight lessons of six month tours on the International Space Station, will lay the path for an eventual manned mission to Mars,” he said.
“Robotic exploration of the outer solar system has always been part of the space program's focus, and will continue to be so - from a robotic standpoint - not least because manned exploration of those destinations won't occur in our lifetimes.
“Manned exploration of Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) is technically achievable, but highly costly. While robotic missions are less costly, the balance is to build a viable roadmap for manned BEO missions, given manned missions still cultivate far more inspiration and public interest over robotic missions, and by some margin.”
Bergin also spoke about space tourism: “Space tourism will become part of - as opposed to a dominating element - of the future of space travel, at least from a public interest standpoint, and probably not from a launch frequency standpoint,” he said.
“The big missions will still remain with NASA, and commercial space, such those seen with SpaceX's plans, who continue to impress with their evolving fleet of vehicles, led by billionaire founder Elon Musk.”
Turning specifically to Richard Branson’s venture, Bergin said: “Virgin Galactic are certainly leading the charge for space tourism, which had previously only been open to a handful of selected multi-millionaires paying to ride on the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station for around a week.
“However, you will still need to be extremely rich to afford to ride on Virgin's SpaceShip2, and notably, you are only going to be riding to suborbit, for a matter of minutes. To put into context, you are only going as "high" as where the Solid Rocket Boosters separate during the first two minutes of a Shuttle launch. It will still be amazing, but there's certainly some confusion in the public domain that these flights will be like a Shuttle mission.
“Some people who follow the space program have noted that Virgin's PR machine has been working overtime on selling their flights, noting they are 'safer than the Space Shuttle', whilst completely ignoring the Shuttle's amazing 30 year career in their legacy of flight logo on the side of the vehicle. Let's be clear, in space flight terms, we're comparing a new Mini popping to the supermarket, with an 18 wheeler juggernaut carrying a delivery across Europe.
“However, we are witnessing the start of what will eventually be numerous companies offering tickets to ride into space, notably the plans seen for Bigelow Aerospace, who continue to plan a 'Space Hotel' via their innovative inflatable module design. It may turn into an exciting future for private passengers, with costs eventually reducing so that non-millionaires will be able to book a flight into space. That can only a good thing. Sir Richard Branson is being rightly praised for opening up these possibilities.”
Fifty years ago the world was full of aspirations that a new age of space exploration was upon them. And according to the Space Odyssey series, trips to the moon should by now be as customary as popping to the supermarket. Instead, space exploration looks set to become the preserve of the mega-rich, while funding for voyages which shape the world as we know it are slashed. To infinity and…back to Earth again?