IoS Special Report

2010: A new space odyssey beckons

The world is on the verge of new manned exploration of the solar system – and, this time, environmentalists are backing it

This weekend, 40 years after man first landed on the Moon, more human beings than ever before are orbiting on a single spacecraft. In 1969, three men squeezed into Apollo 11's command module, a craft little bigger than a Mini.

Yesterday, the International Space Station, now as large as a four-storey house, yet speeding at 17,239mph, took on board the crew of the shuttle Endeavour: 12 men, one woman – seven Americans, two Russians, two Canadians, one Japanese and a Belgian. During a two-man space-walk, the crew added a four-ton porch – an outdoor shelf for experiments – to the station.

It is yet another small step in space exploration. But next month, a far bigger one could be taken. A panel of specialists will advise President Barack Obama on whether the US should embark on an ambitious 21st-century space programme that could see Americans return to the Moon, and eventually venture further to near-Earth asteroids and Mars. It is an issue that rouses not just space enthusiasts but those who think the world should have other, greener priorities.

The President's decision could instigate a space race, this time with China, that might be fiercer than anything seen in the Sixties rivalry with Russia. The Chinese are not participating in the International Space Station, but Beijing is prepared to go it alone, declaring that it intends landing on the Moon by 2020. In September, with its manned spacecraft Shenzhou 7, China became the third power to walk in space. Russia has also committed to a major upgrade of its space capability, the first of the post-Soviet era. Russian engineers have spent 105 days isolated in a mock spacecraft to test the stresses travellers may face on the 172-million-mile journey to Mars.

Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 veteran, and the second man to set foot on the Moon, told Fox News yesterday that America could aid its international partners in exploring the Moon and so free up its own spaceflight resources to develop systems for "even more ambitious goals". Once there is an international base on the Moon and in-space refuelling technology, he said, the US should concentrate on sending astronauts into deep space to visit the asteroid Apophis when it passes near Earth in 2021. After that, there is the possibility of a temporarily manned base on the Mars moon Phobos. "By that time, we'd be ready to put people in a gradual permanence on Mars by 2031," Mr Aldrin added.

Next year, China's first Mars probe will go into orbit around the planet after a 10-month, 236 million mile journey. There are also the lunar ambitions of India and Japan, plus the rivalry among companies for primitive commercial space flights.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are vying with each other to make the first suborbital flights. Sir Richard has said that Virgin Galactic spaceships will be completed by December 2009 and are "on track to be carbon neutral", with paying passengers by 2011.

Yet tomorrow, on the anniversary of Neil Armstrong's small but historic step, the question will be asked: are large-scale ventures into space justified when there are problems – possibly terminal ones – with Planet Earth? Is an enthusiasm for manned exploration compatible with tackling the environment, poverty, and diseases such as cancer and Aids? Or is it only when we reach out beyond our own world that we can maybe make the blue planet a truly green one? After all, in 2016, the US energy firm Solaren plans to send a kilometre-wide panel into orbit to beam back energy.

James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory, said: "I strongly support space travel. The whole notion of Gaia came out of space travel. It seems to me any environmentalist who opposes space travel has no imagination whatever. That gorgeous, inspirational image of the globe that we are now so familiar with came out of space travel. That image has perhaps been of the greatest value to the environmental movement. It gave me a great impetus.

"There are the unmanned spacecraft, which are relatively inexpensive, that I certainly think should continue. The more we know about Mars, for example, the better we can understand our own planet. The second sort, the more personally adventurous sort of travel, offers great inspiration to humans. And, were it not for space travel we'd have no mobile phones, no internet, no weather forecasts of the sort we have now and so on. There's a lot of puritanical silliness about it."

Dr Steve Howard, the chief executive of the Climate Group, said: "I don't think space travel is an 'either/or'. Sometimes we feel that we will have to stop other things if we go to the Moon or Mars, but man has always been an explorer. At a time of global recession we have to budget and plan carefully and it needs to be a collaborative venture."

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, said: "Every space mission has spin-offs which are unforeseeable. The Wellcome Trust funded Beagle 2 on the understanding that the team of highly talented people would look at ways the technology could be used for medicine. We have developed an instrument that can diagnose TB in a day. Our instrument, which is going to be tested in Malawi, could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives."

But John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, is sceptical. He said: "Our argument is that Earth hasn't been properly explored and understood yet. I'm not against space exploration, but it mustn't be a trophy- collecting exercise for countries."

A waste of money or a good investment?

The Obama administration puts the cost of Project Constellation – the plan to put people back on the Moon – at $187bn (£114bn).

That sum could, instead:

*Wipe out North Africa's foreign debt of £70bn – and still have £44bn left over.

*Cover the costs of swine flu absenteeism for 10 weeks. Experts put the toll of this at £1.5bn a day.

*Pay for the Olympic 2012 construction costs of £9bn 12 times over.

But Professor Stephen Hawking says: "We need to renew our commitment to human spaceflight. Robotic missions are cheaper, but if one is considering the future of humanity, we have to visit other worlds ourselves."

Space Dates

2009 Sir Richard Branson has said that his Virgin Galactic spaceships will be completed and ready for testing by December and are "on track to be carbon neutral"

2010 The Yinghuo-1, China's first Mars probe, will be launched by a Russian rocket and will later go into orbit around the planet to study climate change

2011 The £100bn International Space Station is due for completion. It is currently being assembled in low Earth orbit

2020 America hopes to land on the Moon again – 50 years after Apollo 11. But it is in competition with China, which has vowed to do the same

What do you think?

Please let us know your views at independent.co.uk or sundayletters@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests