Friday, September 16, 2005

Space Exploration - the vision changes

In July 1969 as a 14 year old with a growing interest in science and technology, I stayed up all night watching live TV coverage of the first men on the Moon. For someone my age it excitingly culminated all that the 1960's stood for. Everything was radically changing for the better as I saw it. Music, fashion, TV, technology, free thinking. Now we were walking on the Moon less than 10 years since we could even figure out how to put a man into space.

During the celebrations of Apollo 11 I recall Werner Von Braun (the NASA rocket designer) holding a big banner saying "Mars by 1985!" Yes! That's the stuff!, I thought. No stopping us now. I also enjoyed the movie at the time "2001 A Space Oddysey". The book author - Arthur C. Clarke - was my favourite Sci-Fi writer because he incorporated very realistic concepts of the near future. The future looked really exciting to me and I looked forward to being part of it all - and still being moderately young in 2001 as the new century dawned. I followed every manned Moon landing religiously up to the last - Apollo 17 in December 1972. In fact when the movie about the Apollo 13 adventure eventually came out I didn't even see the need to watch it for a long time. I had lived through every detail of Apollo 13 live as it happened in 1970.

Quite a lot changed negatively as the 1970s progressed. Fuel crises, industrial disputes, space budgets cut drastically. No more Moon missions. No plans for men on Mars. The reusable Space Shuttle came about eventually - but even this was not going anywhere interesting - just into orbit.

For a long time I was very deflated - the euphoria of the 1960s was gone, the rate of progress was slowing down as I saw it. It took me a very long time to mature my thinking and accept that space exploration is still ages away from being a sensible, safe and cost effective activity for humans. Space is utterly alien for humans - so huge a challenge to keep us safe and alive there. When you want to go beyond the Moon - the distances and problems multiply massively.

I've recently come to the conclusion that we can and have achieved amazing results with unmanned space probes. It may not be the stuff of Buck Rogers or command the same public excitement as manned space travel - but it does get excellent scientific results - and in it's own way includes quite a bit of adventure. The media largely ignores all this and doesn't convey much to the public. Successes have been helped by great improvements in computers, communications and robotics which allows deep space probes to work very well in hostile environments and make automated decisions on the spot.

The most exciting probes in recent years have to be the two Mars Rovers - Spirit and Opportunity. How many people realise that these two amazing 6-wheel drive solar power vehicles have been reliably driving and exploring around different parts of Mars for more than 20 months now? Every day is a new adventure - and I must say I constantly look forward to the updates and amazing photographs from NASA's website.

The colour landscape photographs have spectacular clarity and there are interesting daily stories by the NASA controllers on challenges and discoveries encountered by the Rovers.

Another really interesting - and rarely reported - probe is the Cassini. This is in orbit around Saturn - some 1,000 times further away than our Moon. Cassini is constantly making incredible discoveries and producing wonderful photographs of Saturn, it's complex rings, and in particular it's widely different range of Moons. The largest Moon Titan in particular is fascinating. Cassini released the European Huygens probe into the atmosphere of Titan and it recorded terrific results and photographs right down to the surface - including some after the soft landing. Cassini continues to study Titan in detail during regular near flybys. It is a very peculiar World with a thick atmosphere, rain, rivers, features like lakes and islands - but with different chemicals at play than here on Earth.

There are many other exciting things going on in space exploration. So the vision of the 1960s is happening - just different than I expected as a youngster. The future always unfolds in more subtle ways than we dream.

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