Space in the st Century

SOMETIMES as a child, I engaged in the rather pointless activity of wishing I had been born later! This was in the 1950s, when the exploration of the moon and the solar system was yet to begin, and I was impatient to know whether there were little green men on Mars, and what the ringed majesty of Saturn would look like above the horizon of its moon Titan. In this, my imagination was nourished by many evocative pictures by space artists, such as the iconic image in Figure 10.1 by Chesley Bonestell. We now know that Titan has a thick, murky atmosphere, so that such a vista is sadly unlikely to be echoed in reality. I have to admit that there is still something of this childish outlook in me now, and I am still impatient to know how the fundamentals of the universe work, and what it would be like to be able to actually see the sights of the solar system for myself, such as the rings of Saturn or the volcanoes of Jupiter's moon Io.

No one knows what the future holds, but it is possible to imagine a time when physicists will have come up with a theory of everything to explain how the universe works, and when the engineers will have solved the problem of interplanetary, interstellar, and maybe even intergalactic travel. My feeling is that there really is no reason to believe we cannot go faster than the speed of light—a speed limit imposed upon us by Einstein's physics. Why should Einstein's theories be the last word in physics, in the same way that Newton's theories seemed unchallengeable at the turn of the 20th century?

Although I can get rather excited about these future prospects, at the end of the day I just have to calm down and accept my allotted position in space and time. From where I am at the moment, it seems unlikely that I will see a fundamental breakthrough in physics that will allow us to understand everything about the universe we inhabit, and how it all works. Coming a little closer to home, if I am lucky I might get to see the first human set foot on the planet Mars. It is interesting to think that, whoever they are, they are almost certainly alive today as I write. And coming a little closer still, I am fairly optimistic that I will see people on the Moon again within the next

G. Swinerd, How Spacecraft Fly: Spaceflight Without Formulae, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76572-3_10, © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2008

Figure 10.1: Saturn as seen from Titan, depicted by Chesley Bonestell. (Image courtesy of Bonestell Space Art.)

decade or two. I suppose my impatience stems from the fact that progress does seem so painfully slow; after all, in cosmic terms the Moon is just on our doorstep!

This is not, however, to undermine the achievement of the Apollo program. Some people would say that the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Apollo astronauts stood on the Moon, was the golden age of astronautics. A team of bold young men—and maybe not so young as far as the astronauts themselves were concerned—made John Kennedy's vision of 1961 happen. Figure 10.2 shows the lunar lander of Apollo 12 on the plain at Oceanus Procellarum. At the time of the Apollo program, I was a teenager and completely enthralled by the whole business! In fact, Apollo is probably one of the reasons why I have spent my career working, teaching, and researching in the area of space. Apollo was inspirational! At the time, with my young idealistic view of the world, I believed that the Americans went to the Moon with the best of intentions—to further our knowledge of this little corner of the universe. But with the benefit of hindsight, and imbued perhaps with a dollop of cynicism that comes with age, I now can appreciate that the main reason for doing it was for capitalism to demonstrate its superiority over Communism. Twelve years before the first moon landing, the launch of the first satellite by the Soviet Union, Sputnik 1, had severely dented American pride, and Apollo was a way of redressing the balance. Despite this, however, Apollo was an outstanding achievement from a space engineering point of view—to say nothing of the courage of the men who actually stood on the surface of the moon. And nothing like it has been seen since. If you had told me in 1972, when Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt took off from the Moon as the final act of the Apollo program, that no one would have returned in 35 years, I would not have believed you! This really does emphasize the one-shot nature of the way it was done as primarily a political act.

If Apollo was the golden age, then unfortunately most of the young people today have missed it. Although many good things have happened in spaceflight since, as we have discussed in this book, nevertheless you could argue that there is currently nothing to inspire young people to get involved in space engineering. Clearly the emphasis in the interim has shifted from space exploration to space applications. This move to use space for communications, navigation, and Earth observation has revolutionized the business and leisure worlds, but it is perhaps not quite so inspirational as, say, opening the solar system to manned space exploration. There is a great need to do something that will inspire young people to get involved. It really is only the young that can dream the big dreams, and make them happen!

In this chapter (which is again longer than average) and the next, I will attempt to discuss some of the developments we may see in the future.

Figure 10.2: The lunar module of Apollo 12 landed in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms) in November 1969. This was the second moon landing of six. When will we see the like of this again? (Image courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA].)

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