The advances in space exploration have come also come at great cost, not just in financial terms, but also in terms of human lives. The disasters that destroyed NASA’s Space Shuttles ‘Challenger’ in 1986 and ‘Columbia’ in 2003 claimed the lives of all of their crew. Fourteen astronauts perished during these accidents, including four female astronauts. But these were two of the more recent and more prominent disasters
Last July was a month of milestones for space exploration. It marked 50 years since ‘Mariner 4’ became the first spacecraft to explore Mars. July 20 meanwhile, marked the most famous of all space exploration moments; it is now 46 years since the first Moon Landing. According to statistics, more than half a billion people watched the first ever moon walk by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Many millions more were glued to their radios, including in Sri Lanka.
Carrying on this great tradition, this July also saw the first few pages of a new chapter in space exploration being written when NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ spacecraft passed by the ‘Dwarf Planet’ Pluto after completing a journey of over 3 billion miles. Launched in 2006, the aptly-named spacecraft took almost a decade to arrive at its destination. It was humankind’s first encounter with Pluto, and its first foray into the great beyond known as the ‘Kuiper Belt’, an unexplored region that starts just beyond the orbit of the Planet Neptune.
A vast treasure trove of images and data on Pluto and its moons are currently being gathered by ‘New Horizons’. The spacecraft would continue to gather information in the coming months as it explores the vast reaches of our solar system even further.
Space has always fascinated humans. The ‘Final Frontier’ is not limited simply to Science Fiction. We have always wondered what else is out there, in the vastness of space. For instance, the question of whether we are truly alone in the universe is one that we are still looking to answer. This July, Russian Billionaire Yuri Milner inaugurated a USD 100 million project to hunt for intelligent alien life.
Helping Milner launch the project was famed Astrophysicist Stephan Hawking. According to media reports, the initial 10 year program will survey the 1,000,000 closest stars to the Earth, scanning the entire galactic plane of the Milky Way. Beyond our galaxy it will listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies at 10 billion different frequencies.
“Somewhere in the universe intelligent life may be watching the lights of ours aware of what they mean,” Hawking is quoted as stating at the launch.
“We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.”
Space exploration is not simply about looking to see if intelligent life is indeed out there. In the long-run, it is also about the continued existence of humankind. Billions of years from now, our Sun will die, and Earth and humans will go along with it. In order for humanity to survive, we must find other habitable planets elsewhere, and learn to live for extended periods of time in space.
The International Space Station (ISS); a joint project by space agencies of several nations, including the US and Russia, is seen as part of these efforts. It is the ninth space station to be inhabited by humans and has been continuously occupied for almost 15 years since its first crew, ‘Expedition 1’, arrived in November of 2000. While crews are rotated, expeditions can run up to six months.
As a prelude to staying even longer in space and establishing a permanent base, further manned missions to the Moon are being planned in order to establish a permanent colony, and a first ever manned mission to Mars is also on the cards within the next few decades.
The advances in space exploration have come also come at great cost, not just in financial terms, but also in terms of human lives. The disasters that destroyed NASA’s Space Shuttles ‘Challenger’ in 1986 and ‘Columbia’ in 2003 claimed the lives of all of their crew. Fourteen astronauts perished during these accidents, including four female astronauts. But these were two of the more recent and more prominent disasters. From the 1960s onwards, many American Astronauts and Russian Cosmonauts were killed either during missions or training exercises.
The first of the ultimately successful Apollo Missions also ended in disaster, as a fire onboard ‘Apollo 1’ during a spacecraft test killed her entire three-person crew. The latest such fatal accident occurred in October, last year, when ‘SpaceShip Two,’ a new generation of privately owned spacecraft designed to be used to promote ‘space tourism,’ broke up during a powered test flight, killing one of its pilots and injuring another.
Billions of dollars have gone to encourage space exploration, and billions more continue to be pumped into various projects. There is no doubt that such spending is prone to criticism. Why spend so much on projects that may ultimately end up being failures? In June, the ‘Falcon 9’ rocket developed by private aerospace manufacturer Space X, exploded soon after launch, destroying precious NASA cargo bound for the International Space Station and costing the American taxpayer USD 110 million. While this has necessitated a review of the whole enterprise, the projects are likely to continue.
Space exploration will always have its detractors. However, when humankind freed itself of the boundaries of our own planet, it opened up infinite possibilities for our own future as a species. If NASA had scrapped manned moon missions after the disaster of Apollo 1, it is unlikely that a Moon Landing would have happened when it did.
Despite their political differences, many countries have understood that they need to work together in this matter. As such, the great ‘Space Race’ that existed during the period of the Cold War, where rival nations were trying to outdo others in space exploration, has now given way to cooperation to further a common dream for humanity.
Space is truly the final frontier, and it is only right that we try to boldly go where no man has gone before. Our survival as a species depends on it.