To infinity and beyond

Today's launch of space shuttle Discovery marks man's (and woman's) long-awaited return to the final frontier. Alex James is over the moon
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The Independent Online

The American shuttle astronaut Norm Thagard once said: "Children are interested in three things; ghosts, dinosaurs and space. I'm still interested in space." Me too. I'm interested in all of it; the Solar System, our near neighbours and their moons; comets, meteors, asteroids; cosmic dust and interplanetary gases; distant stars and heavenly bodies; pulsars, quasars, aliens. If it's in space, it's on my reading list. The fascination has never left me.

All over the world, research into all these things continues apace. But most of what we do know is dwarfed by what we don't. Most of us gawp above us at a world so immense and beautiful that we can only wonder at the miracle of everything. There are so many frontiers still to explore; worlds and worlds of volcanoes and canyons and liquid methane oceans and frozen seas that no one's ever seen. But we're on our way, kind of.

The launch of Discovery today, and the resumption of regular flights into space two years after the Columbia disaster is a great thing. I feel a pang of jealousy as the Americans take centre stage. It's a crying shame that Britain doesn't have its own space programme. We have the technology, and we have the brains.

At least the launch of Discovery will reawaken our interest in the cosmos. There's a feeling that things ground to a halt after the Apollo lunar missions and that nothing has really happened since. But it's been very much full-steam ahead. Unmanned space probes have been exploring everything from comets and asteroids to the Sun. Technology has developed to such an extent to make space exploration seem almost commonplace.

There's still so much to discover on our doorstep. Going to other stars is tricky at the moment. They're just so far away. Propulsion techniques that would make inter-stellar travel possible are being developed, but the reality is a long way off.

The worst thing about early 21st-century man is that he is characterised by doubt. The ancient Greeks had no doubts about the all-conquering superiority of man. You can see it in their art. There is no uncertainty. But we all bear a sense of guilt that our very being is somehow, ecologically, a catastrophe. We do need to get in touch with our invincible, beautiful, profoundly good human natures. We can do that by boldly going.

We are perpetually on the brink of new paradigms. Even 10 years ago, no other planets had been positively detected outside of our Solar System, although it seemed likely. Now we know there are other planets, and more or less everywhere we look. Space isn't very far away. We stand right on the shore. Commercial rocket launches are commonplace occurrences, satellites are launched regularly and we all use satellite technology applications. We are gradually edging our way out further and further. Mars is as far away now as Australia was in the 1600s. It would have taken a year to get there back then.

The world has become much safer since the great voyages, but the lure of the unknown hasn't diminished. We love the danger of the unknown; to dice with death is human. Controversy and danger have surrounded space travel from the beginning, but we can't get enough of it.

For me, the more dim, distant and unknown something is, the more attracted I am to it. The more out-of-this-world, the better. Not that I understand it at all. I once interviewed Patrick Moore for The Idler magazine and asked him what shape he thought the universe was. He said that he didn't know, but that he'd asked Einstein that same question, and he didn't know either. I felt somehow relieved, but it's still something I wonder about.

Generally people see space exploration as an end in itself, and that we owe it to ourselves. It's not a waste of money, or even a very long-term investment, it's just a good thing to be doing. I would like to know if we are alone in the universe. Of all the questions, that's the one that fascinates me the most, maybe because either answer is equally daunting. I firmly believe that we're not. I don't know anything though. Where are we? Where are we from? Where are we going? Who are we? Are we alone? The big question is how can we not know these things?

Disaster to Discovery: Nasa's recovery

On 1 February 2003, mission STS-107 ended when spaceship Columbia disintegrated on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. The fault, deemed insignificant on take-off, only became clear when the seven crew members began their descent and experienced problems with the aerodynamics of the ship. The insulating tiles, which protect the shuttle from searing heat during re-entry, were damaged during take-off, leaving the interior exposed to temperatures up to 1,600C. The interior melted in the inferno.

What has happened since? The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that Nasa's poor procedural practices were as much a cause of the disaster as any technical fault, and made 15 "return to flight" recommendations to Nasa. As a result, the external fuel tank has been redesigned, a boom sensor has been built to look at the underside of the wings, and the shuttle's protective covering has been reinforced. The astronauts have also been given a putty knife, in case they have to sure up any cracks in the heat shielding. The Discovery astronauts were flown to Cape Canaveral on Saturday, earlier than expected because of Hurricane Dennis. They have spent this week rehearsing different landings. Nasa is determined to launch Discovery today. There is only a 30 per cent chance of bad weather.

Nicholas Hamilton

The conquest of space

1957 Russia embarks on a four-year programme during which at least 13 dogs are launched into space.

1958 US begins Project Mercury, pioneering manned space flight in the West.

1960 Strelka is sent into orbit as part of the Sputnik programme. She later gave birth to six puppies, one of which was given to Caroline Kennedy by Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev.

1961 Yuri Gagarin makes world's first manned space flight.

1962 US begins Project Gemini, a series of 12 manned US flights.

1963 Russian Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.

1967 Three US astronauts die in a launch-pad fire during tests in Apollo 1.

1969 Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins make the first lunar landing in Apollo 11, with Armstrong taking man's first steps on the moon.

1970 Apollo 13 is aborted after an explosion. The three-man crew are rescued after being stranded in dark and freezing conditions in a crippled spacecraft 205,000 miles from Earth.

1975-6 Two Viking probes orbit Mars, prompting speculation about the possibility of life on the Red Planet.

1975 Apollo and Soyuz crafts dock in space, allowing US and Russian astronauts to work together.

1977 Voyager probes return images to earth of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

1981 The first US shuttle mission is launched, beginning a new era of travel with re-usable spacecraft.

1982 Two Soviet cosmonauts are the first team to inhabit a space station, staying for 211 days.

1983 Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.

1986 US shuttle Challenger explodes on take-off, killing all seven crew. The first component of the Mir space station is launched.

1990 Magellan probe sends back images of Venus.

1999 Eileen Collins becomes the first woman to command a US space mission (above left).

2001 Dennis Tito pays $20m to become the first civilian in space, travelling on a Russian Soyuz craft to the International Space Station.

2003 China becomes the third nation to launch an astronaut into space with its Long March 2F rocket.

2003 Seven crew killed as US shuttle Columbia suffers catastrophic failure on re-entry.

2004 The Beagle space probe, designed by the Open University in Britain to look for signs of life on Mars, disappears as it descends towards the planet.

2004 Richard Branson starts Virgin Galactic, a company that intends to offer "space tourism" to private individuals as soon as its vehicles are built, hopefully by the end of the decade. Prices are expected to be around £110,000 per person.

Louise Jack