What is it about sending people into space?

By sending living beings like ourselves into space we can come closer to the shear thrill and danger of travelling to a far-away place

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To boldly go where no man has gone before. It is the most famously sexist split infinitive in the English language and yet it sums up neatly why we still need to have a human programme of space exploration.

Of course, the only “manned” space missions we currently have are focussed on sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a floating palace of technological wizardry weighing 3,600 tonnes and whizzing 28,000km an hour around the Earth at an altitude of more than 400km.

Any astronaut staying up there will see approximately 16 sunsets and sunrises in every 24-hour period. Whatever can be said about this kind of orbital space flight, it is not about boldly going where no-one had gone before – unless you include records for making circular journeys around Earth.

So what is it about sending men and women into space? Why do we need to do it? As Jeremy Paxman so succinctly put it when interviewing Major Tim Peake last week; what’s the point?

Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has explained his own schizophrenic attitude to human space exploration. As a scientist and practical man he is against on the grounds that it is a waste of money – you can get more bang for your bucks by sending probes and intelligent robots into space.

But as a human being, he is in favour. By sending living, breathing sentient beings like ourselves into space we can come closer to the shear thrill and danger of travelling to a far-away place we can only imagine.

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, as well as authors, artists and musicians, is one of the principle justifications for spending the colossal sums of money on what some – including Lord Rees – have called “that huge turkey in the sky”.

But the International Space Station need not be the final destination for astronauts. What is really needed now is a programme of human space exploration that goes beyond simply orbiting the Earth. We need to set our sights on the Moon and Mars, or possibly visiting a nearby asteroid.

Of course it will always be possible to argue that the money is better spent on Earth. It is easy to see why some believe that hospitals and schools, or feeding the hungry, should have a higher priority.

Yet, space can unify as well as inspire, as astronaut Chris Hadfield has demonstrated. A truly unified world will be a better and safer place, and space exploration could help us to boldly go where humankind has not been before.

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