Space exploration is the investigation of the cosmos beyond the upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere using telescopes, satellites, space probes, spacecraft, and associated launch vehicles.
The desire to explore space is nearly primal for Homo sapiens. Early humans quickly spread out of Africa to every region on the planet, then came to speculate that the stars and planets were yet other material places worthy of exploration. The idea to travel to these other worlds was inevitable.
However for thousands of years, humans commonly drew fundamental distinctions between the Earth and non-Earth environments. In the formulation of Aristotle taught that the laws of nature that applied on Earth did not necessarily apply beyond the Earth, thus severely restricting the very possibilities for human space exploration.
During the great age of European exploration of the Earth, astronomers such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and his contemporary, Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), began the modern observational exploration of the heavens, in fact of space, using new techniques and instruments of science. A result of this exploration of space was the scientific revolution itself. Science was now seen as applicable to understanding the entire world, to both heaven and Earth. Civilization was transformed.
It now seems natural that Kepler's "Somnium," about a journey to the Moon, includes a realistic description of the lunar surface and how a traveler might physically survive such a trip. But this pioneering story began a long tradition of science fiction literature examining ethical and political issues of space exploration and scientific enterprise.
Planning and experiments to develop the science and technology of physical space exploration began with Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) in Russia and Robert Goddard (1882–1945) in the United States. Both of these inventors considered the long-term implications of their work for humanity. Application of their technology to weapons of war soon became evident. Although Goddard helped the U.S. military with rocket-assisted take off of conventional aircraft, it was the Germans who made extensive use of Goddard's published rocket development during World War II.
As the war ended, the space race began in earnest between the Soviet Union and the United States. Efforts were made by both countries to enlist German scientists, who had worked on the Nazi rocket program. Many Americans were shocked when, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik I. Some Americans viewed the Soviet triumph as an indication of U.S. weakness in science and technology, and considered it a political imperative to match and surpass Soviet accomplishments. Many voiced concern about the threat presented by the combination of nuclear weapons with ballistic missiles.
At the same time, some saw a great potential for peaceful exploration and development of the space environment. Ethical issues were debated about both the commercial and military aspects of this new human enterprise. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created by Congress in 1958, at the height of the Cold War. It is remarkable that the NASA charter specifically states that the agency is restricted from military activity. (Nonetheless NASA would not always adhere to the charter. For instance, design of the space shuttle was driven significantly by military requirements at a time when Congressional support for NASA was waning.)
Despite international competition, there was early agreement that space and celestial bodies were open to peaceful use by all nations, and that principles of international law would be followed in this new realm. Parallels with, and precedents set by, maritime law guided the formulation of space law and regulation. On December 13, 1963, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. Further work by the United Nations resulted in the Outer Space Treaty, first signed by sixty-three nations in 1967, and adopted by most countries in the early twenty-first century.
Although much progress has been made in space law, there are challenging near-term issues. For example, the orbital location and radio frequency allocation of communication satellites is a type of territorial issue. At bottom, these resources are limited. Humans have the ancient challenge, in new guise, of how to share these resources peacefully and wisely. The information content of direct-broadcast satellite transmissions is also a complex issue involving national sovereignty on the one hand, and freedom of expression on the other. Observation or spy satellites bring issues of privacy versus freedom of inquiry and information. The United States, Russia, and others have entered into more than 100 treaties and agreements regarding issues of orbit and frequency allocation, as well as launching, tracking, monitoring, and recovery of satellites and space vehicles.
The first human to orbit the earth, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, returned safely from space in April of 1961. The U.S. astronaut John Glenn followed with a similar mission the next year. These flights, and the many that followed, helped to transform human perspective of the earth and its place in the universe, just as the unmanned missions were doing. Only eight years after Gagarin's flight Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.
Following the first earth orbit missions, both nations continued without a reported loss of human life until 1967 when three astronauts were lost during a ground test of Apollo 1 and a cosmonaut was lost during return from a Soyuz space mission. Nonetheless, manned space exploration has had a remarkably good safety record. Any space mission must balance goal, schedule, and budget, as well as recognizing risk and the unknown. In achieving this balance in space missions, it is important to keep in mind Richard Feynman's remarks about the loss of the space shuttle Challenger: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled" (Feynman 1986, F5).
Over the last several decades launch failures have been on the order of 1 percent. The space shuttle record, with a total of 112 successful flights and the loss of shuttle Challenger, reflects this value. Columbia, on the other hand, was the first loss of an American crew on reentry. In both cases the loss appears to be due to schedule and mission demands taking priority over safety.
The loss of human life in space flight development has been relatively low compared to the pioneering days of aviation. This may in part be due to risk-benefit and budget considerations. Experimental airplanes were relatively inexpensive to create and pilots were willing to take considerable risks. It was cost effective to risk pilot and plane to develop the new technology. This is not the case with spaceflight development and exploration. The loss of one mission costs billions of dollars and results in untold costs in schedule slippage and decreased political support. It is remarkable though that during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spaceflights, there was no loss of human life. The Russian space effort has also been relatively free from loss of human life. The most well known soviet accident, Soyuz 11 in 1971, resulted in the death of three crew members as they returned to earth. Overall the loss of life in the U.S. and Russian programs has been similar, if one includes the unannounced Soviet losses of perhaps twelve.
The live coverage loss of Challenger and Columbia reminded the world that spaceflight is not yet routine. Exploration at the frontier must always remain riskier than day-to-day experience. There is, however, reasonable expectation that near-earth spaceflight will become safer in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen how the advent of commercial spaceflight will change the equation, but the long term effect should be for improved safety.
Although certainly chartered upon a wider canvas, the challenges in space development are, in the first instance, those related to the ongoing challenges faced by the nation states. These issues are mostly of increased degree, rather than entirely new for humans. The ethics of space exploration from this perspective are addressed in such documents as the ESA-UNESCO report, The Ethics of Space Policy (Pompidou 2000).
Beyond these issues are those prompted by questions about the impact on human civilization of asteroid and comet orbit modification, space elevators-to-orbit development, or planetary, space, and asteroid colonization. Such endeavors could have impact on civilization beyond that of normal human activity.
Also of importance are issues such as interplanetary contamination, the terraforming of planets, and contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. These issues center on questions about the effect of the universe on human beings, and their effect on it.
An elementary case of this sort is the detection of primitive extraterrestrial life in the form of microbes or microfossils. Because the nature of such life is not known, one can only make informed speculation about what the effects might be on civilization and on life on Earth. Or, indeed, what effect humankind might have on such life.
Space exploration may result in the detection of extraterrestrial life or even other civilizations. A scientific Copernican-Darwinian worldview suggests the likelihood of finding evidence of this sort. In any case, it appears likely that people will continue to look for such evidence.
Several outcomes of the detection of life elsewhere in the universe have been suggested: a mostly harmless event, with gain in the knowledge that other life exists in the universe; a major change in life itself or civilization; the loss of civilization; the change or loss of dominant species; loss or change of all higher order species; loss of the planetary biosystem; or some unpredicted transformation of life and civilization. These changes are not necessarily in only one direction.
Several decades prior to the physical exploration of space the British ethicist and philosopher Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) and the crystallographer J. D. Bernal (1901–1971), wrote about some of these wider issues of space exploration. Their pioneering efforts influenced later thinkers from the futurist and novelist Arthur C. Clarke (b. 1917) to the British-American physicist Freeman Dyson (b. 1923).
Responding to Ethical Issues
Humans have attempted to develop some approaches for dealing with the new ethical issues presented by space exploration. Prevention of potential contamination to the Earth's biosphere was practiced during the first lunar expeditions. Astronauts, spacecraft, lunar samples, and equipment were isolated upon their return to Earth from the Moon. The Lunar Receiving Laboratory is in operation to this day, protecting lunar rocks and soil, even though there is now no risk to life on this planet. Space probes are decontaminated prior to leaving the Earth in most cases. Considerable care of this sort was taken with spacecraft, such as Viking (1975) and Sojourner (1996) that would land on the Martian surface. The trajectory of Galileo (1989) was purposely changed, at the end of its mission, in order to send the spacecraft to fiery destruction in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter to insure no contamination of the Jovian moons with terrestrial microorganisms.
In 1991 the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence was drafted by the International Academy of Astronautics (Billingham 1994). The Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law approved the declaration. This document is an effort to outline a responsible and orderly set of activities for scientists and others to follow after the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. An obvious objective of this protocol is to protect life and civilization on Earth.
One can optimistically view the development of portions of the agreements regarding space exploration as the emergence of a principle of non-interference with extraterrestrial life. In a sense humankind seems to be developing a sort of prime directive rule of space exploration, which was once only addressed in science fiction. The prime directive restricts human beings from interfering with any extraterrestrial life that is less developed than they are.
Carl Sagan (1934–1996) and others have argued that the sort of extraterrestrial life that is likely to be detected will either be of an elementary sort, or a civilization well beyond our imagination. If this turns out to be the case, then the proper conduct, in either of these situations, will not be the sort fancied in the popular space operas of interstellar diplomacy and conflict. Humans would be either the fortunate caretakers of a wholly new primitive life system or the subjects of scientific interest, perhaps protected or transformed beyond recognition.
The American biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), pointed out that the revolution of Copernicus and Galileo was about real-estate, but that the Darwinian revolution was about essence and thus had much the greater impact. This situation is reflected in questions about the present and future exploration of space. Presently human explorers are experiencing the Galilean, or real estate, phase of the space enterprise. But soon the essence, or Darwinian, phase may commence. Beginning in the mid-1990s, many planets, orbiting other stars, were found by astronomers. Space-born experiments directed at trying to detect some telltale signs of life on planets of other solar systems are planned for the first half of the twenty-first century. Even in the Earth's home-system there is hope for detecting life: The oceans that may exist below the ice surface of the Jovian satellite Europa are currently of prime interest to astrobiologists.
The nation states of Earth have created many agreements for the peaceful exploration of space. Space law is now an active field. Humankind has made a start in constructive and peaceful conduct during the early stages of space exploration.
Space exploration is not a one-way enterprise. The "pale blue dot" vision of earth in space, the close-up images of the many worlds of this solar system, returned samples from space, and the countless Hubble space telescope vistas, are transforming the human mind. This transformation is playing a key part in the evolution of the ethics of space exploration—an evolution that may now be at a stage where there is a need to develop a preliminary "prime directive," in order to define conduct with other life in the galaxy. The need may be closer than imagined.
SEE ALSO Apollo Program;Galilei, Galileo;National Aeronautics and Space Administration;Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents;Space Telescopes.
Bernal, J. D. (1969 ). The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Billingham, John, et al., eds. (1994). Social Implications of the Detection of Extraterrestrial Civilization. Mountain View, CA: SETI Press.
Chaikin, Andrew. (1994). A Man on the Moon. New York: Penguin Books.
Crowe, Michael J. (1986). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dyson, Freeman. (1979). Disturbing the Universe. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Feynman, Richard P. (1986). Appendix F, Personal Observations On The Reliability Of The Shuttle. Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, vol. 2, p. F5. U.S. Government Printing Office.
McDougall, Walter A. (1985). ...the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books
Pompidou, Alain, Co-ordinator. (2000). The Ethics of Space Policy. New York: UNESCO.
Shklovskii, Iosif S., and Sagan, Carl. (1966). Intelligent Life in the Universe. San Francisco: Holden-Day, Inc.
Stapledon, Olaf. (1968). "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker": Two Science Fiction Novels. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
The sociocultural status of space exploration has been contested for many years and remains uncertain. Although astronomy and related sciences have benefited greatly from the world’s space programs, space exploration was motivated not by scientific curiosity but by the romanticism of a social movement and by competition between prestige-conscious nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, astronomy possessed a rough picture of the solar system, including the knowledge that objects like the Moon and Mars were worlds somewhat comparable to the earth, but realistic means for space travel had not yet been imagined. Then, autonomous intellectuals independently developed the correct theories for multistage liquid-fuel rockets.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) was an impoverished schoolteacher in Russia who devoted many years of socially isolated work to developing fruitful ideas about spaceflight. American Robert H. Goddard (1882–1945) independently developed many of the same ideas, and possessing greater resources was actually able to build a working liquid-fuel rocket in 1926. Romanian-German Hermann Oberth (1894–1989) learned of the work of his colleagues just as he was about to publish his treatise, The Rocket into Planetary Space, in 1923. On the basis of the work of these pioneers, spaceflight societies were founded in Germany (1927), the United States (1930), Russia (1931), and Great Britain (1933). The German, U.S., and Russian groups independently duplicated Goddard’s working liquid-fuel rocket, although Goddard refused to cooperate with the others in the vain hope that he could develop unaided the technology to send an unmanned rocket to the moon. United only by publications and occasional visits, these groups formed an international social movement dedicated to space travel for transcendent motives that were neither economic nor political.
As the financial troubles of the Great Depression deepened, the space-travel movement struggled to survive. Especially in Germany, and later in the United States and Russia, the movement entered into a marriage of convenience with the military. The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I (1914–1918) had limited German artillery and aircraft but did not mention rockets. Members of the movement, notably Oberth’s young protégé Wernher von Braun (1912–1977), presented liquid-fuel rockets to the German army as effective weapons, although development of conventional solid-fuel rockets would have been a better choice for military purposes. Near the end of World War II (1939–1945), von Braun’s team completed development of the 300-mile-range V-2 rocket, demonstrating the potential of liquid-fuel technology for spaceflight. Starting with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, the Soviet Union and the United States competed for international prestige through aggressive space programs, until the landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module on the moon in 1969.
On the basis of a huge library of technical and scholarly publications, the facts of the history of space exploration to date are clear, but the social-scientific interpretation is hotly debated. The view around 1960 was that international propaganda competition was the main driver, as has been summarized by Vernon van Dyke (1964). Amitai Etzioni (1965) argued that the American space program was a useless extravagance through which the military-industrial complex looted the national treasury. Then, John Logsdon (1970) argued that President John F. Kennedy’s (1917–1963) decision to go to the moon was a means for reviving the political spirit of his New Frontier program after defeats in 1961 with the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and in a meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). William Bainbridge (1976) took the argument one step further, suggesting that in Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as in the United States, leaders of the transcendental spaceflight movement had cleverly manipulated beleaguered political leaders to invest in space as a symbolic solution to their inferiority in competition with other leaders. Michael Neufeld (1996) has argued against this thesis in the case of Germany, asserting that technically competent military engineers possessed a correct estimation of the military potential of the technology. Walter McDougall (1985) argued against this view in the case of the Soviet Union, stating that Marxist ideology naturally supported visionary technological projects. Most recently, Logsdon (2006) has argued that the American space program has been trapped in a vicious circle, as members of the movement convince political leaders to undertake technically demanding projects, but the public is not willing to invest enough to make them successful.
Public opinion has long been generally favorable toward the space program but has never been a driving force in motivating development of the technology. In October 1947, a Gallup poll asked 1,500 Americans, “How long do you think it will be before man will be able to fly to the moon?” Only 21 percent guessed a particular year, 38 percent said “never,” and the remainder had nothing to say on the topic. Throughout the Apollo program, a majority tended to feel the project was not worth the cost. Americans’ enthusiasm for the actual moon landing faded fast after 1969, possibly accelerated by a general loss of confidence in science and technology that prevailed until the mid-1970s. Since then, majorities have tended to feel that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was doing a good job, but they give space exploration a low priority for funding. The responses of 1,400 Americans to the General Social Survey in 2004 were typical. Only 14.3 percent wanted funding increased, 43.4 percent wanted it kept at current levels, 36.8 percent wanted funding reduced, and the remaining 5.5 percent had no opinion.
Around 1970 there was considerable discussion of the potential terrestrial benefits of space, especially the second-order consequences from technology transfer, often called spin-offs. These were popularly conceptualized as distinct inventions made in the space program that found valuable uses in society. Many people count Tang powdered fruit drink, Teflon coatings on frying pans, and Velcro fasteners among these, but all existed before the space program. Real spin-offs actually are rare, but their stories fit popular misconceptions about how technological progress occurs, so they are legends that gain strength in the retelling. Far more important are the intended applications of space technology, the most prominent of which are communications satellites, navigation satellites (Global Positioning System), meteorology satellites, and military reconnaissance satellites. Difficult to measure, but probably of equal value, is the general stimulus to scientific and technological development achieved by the space program through increasing the technical expertise in the population, widely disseminating abstract technical ideas that may contribute to innovations far from their original sources, and inspiring young people to study science.
When Bainbridge (1991) asked two thousand students at Harvard University in 1986 to identify the possible goals for the space program, they came up with a list of 125 goals that could be clustered into groups that served different values. Some goals were technical and economic, including the benefits of satellites listed above, spin-offs, possible manufacturing in the vacuum and weightlessness of space, new knowledge for sciences like physics and astronomy, and preservation of the earth’s environment. A different set of goals stressed emotional and idealistic values, such as spiritual fulfillment, personal inspiration, artistic and aesthetic transcendence, satisfaction of curiosity, and the building of world harmony. A small group of items concerned national pride, defense, and military capabilities in space. Finally, a number of far-out but reasonably popular goals envisioned colonization of the solar system and the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
The early decades of the twenty-first century appear to be a transition period, in which predictions would be especially hazardous. China has launched men into orbit, thereby demonstrating the quality of its technology, especially to the propaganda disadvantage of Japan, which has pursued a half-hearted and largely unsuccessful space program. Both Russia and the European Union have well-established space launch capabilities but lack ambitious goals. After failing twice to develop a successor to the space shuttle in the National Aerospace Plane and the X-33, and running more than fifteen years overdue in completing the space station, the U.S. space program clearly required fundamental redirection. The initial phase of reorganization, announced in 2004, severely cut back scientific research and technological development in favor of very long-term plans for adventurous but poorly motivated human voyages to the Moon and Mars.
As any science fiction fan would be happy to explain to any social scientist willing to listen, the long-term social implications of space exploration could possibly be profound. Despite daunting technical and economic hurdles, the colonization of Mars and of several large satellites in the solar system could lead to a time when more humans lived off the Earth than on it. Some think we will transform ourselves radically to become better adapted to those alien environments and better prepared for interstellar travel. If so, space travel could bring about a new adaptive radiation event comparable to that which produced the human species five million years ago in East Africa, what the science fiction writer Alfred Bester (1913–1987) called “arrival of the fittest” in his novel, The Stars My Destination (1956). If the social scientist scoffed at such ideas, the science fiction fan might comment there must have been chimpanzees five million years ago who scoffed as well.
SEE ALSO Bay of Pigs; Industry; Mars; Science Fiction; World War II
Bainbridge, William Sims. 1976. The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study. New York: Wiley.
Bainbridge, William Sims. 1991. Goals in Space: American Values and the Future of Technology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Bauer, Raymond. 1969. Second-Order Consequences: A Methodological Essay on the Impact of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Etzioni, Amitai. 1964. The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Ginzberg, Eli, James W. Kuhn, Jerome Schnee, and Boris Yavitz, eds. 1976. Economic Impact of Large Public Programs: The NASA Experience. Salt Lake City, UT: Olympus.
Launius, Roger D. 2003. Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight. Space Policy 19: 163–175.
Logsdon, John M. 1970. The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Logsdon, John M. 2006. “A Failure of National Leadership”: Why No Replacement for the Space Shuttle. In Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, 269–300. Washington, DC: NASA.
McDougall, Walter A. 1985. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books.
Neufeld, Michael, 1996. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ordway, Frederick I., III., Carsbie C. Adams, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. 1971. Dividends from Space. New York: Crowell.
Roy, Stephanie A., Elaine C. Gresham, and Carissa Bryce Christensen. 2000. The Complex Fabric of Public Opinion on Space. Acta Astronautica 47: 665–675.
Van Dyke, Vernon. 1964. Pride and Power: The Rationale of the Space Program. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
William Sims Bainbridge
On July 20, 1969, the people of Earth looked up and saw the Moon in a way they had never seen it before. It was the same Moon that humans had been observing in the sky since the dawn of their existence, but on that July evening, for the first time in history, two members of their own species walked on its surface. At that time it seemed that Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" would mark the beginning of a bold new era in the exploration of other worlds by humans.
In 1969, some people believed that human scientific colonies would be established on the lunar surface by the 1980s, and that a manned mission to Mars would surely be completed before the turn of the twenty-first century. By the end of 1972, a dozen humans would explore the surface of the Moon. However, 28 years later, as revelers around the world greeted the new millenium, the number of lunar visitors remained at twelve, and a manned mission to Mars seemed farther away than it did in the summer of 1969. How is it that the United States could arguably produce the greatest engineering feat in human history in less than a decade and then fail to follow through with what seemed to be the next logical steps? The answers are complex, but have mostly to do with the tremendous costs of human missions and the American public's willingness to pay for them.
The Space Race Fuels Space Exploration
The Apollo program, which sent humans to the Moon, was hugely expensive. At its peak in 1965, 0.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States was spent on the program. In 2000, the budget for all of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was about0.25 percent of GDP, with little public support for increased spending on space programs. The huge budgets for the Apollo program were made palatable to Americans in the 1960s because of ongoing competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States had been humiliated by the early successes of the Soviet Union's space program, including the launch of Sputnik.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957, and the early failures of American rockets put the United States well behind its greatest rival in what is now commonly known as the "space race." In 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to ride a spacecraft into orbit around the Earth, the leaders of the United States felt the need to respond in a very dramatic way. In less than a year, then-President John F. Kennedy set a national goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.
The American public, feeling increasingly anxious about perceived Soviet superiority in science and engineering, gave their support to gigantic spending increases for NASA to fund the race to the Moon. Neil Armstrong's first footprint in the lunar dust on July 20, 1969, achieved the first half of Kennedy's goal. Four days later, splashdown in the Pacific Ocean of the Apollo 11 capsule carrying Armstrong, fellow Moon-walker Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and command pilot Michael Collins completed the achievement.
Americans were jubilant over this success but growing increasingly weary of spending such huge sums of money on the space program when there were pressing needs at home. By 1972, with the United States mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam, the public's willingness to fund any more forays, whether to the Moon or southeast Asia, had been exhausted. On December 14, 1972, astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped onto the ladder of the lunar module Challenger, leaving the twentieth century's final human footprint on the lunar surface.
Robotic Exploration of Space
Some scientists contend that the same amount of scientific data could have been obtained from the Moon by robotic missions costing a tenth as much as the Apollo missions. As the twenty-first century dawns, the enormous expense and complexity of human space flight to other worlds has scientists relying almost solely on robotic space missions to explore the solar system and beyond. Many scientists believe that the robotic exploration of space will lead to more discoveries than human missions since many robotic missions may be launched for the cost of a single human mission. NASA's current estimate of the cost of a single human mission to Mars is about $55 billion, more than the cost of the entire Apollo program. In the early-twenty-first century, human space travel is limited to flights of NASA's fleet of space shuttles, which carry satellites, space telescopes, and other scientific instruments to be placed in Earth's orbit. The shuttles also ferry astronaut-scientists to and from the Earth-orbiting International Space Station.
Numerous robotic missions are either in progress or are being planned for launch through the year 2010. In October of 1997, the Cassini mission to Saturn was launched. Cassini flew by Jupiter in December of 2000 and will reach Saturn in July of 2004. Cassini is the best instrumented spacecraft ever sent to another planet. It carries the European built Huygens probe, which will be launched from Cassini to land on Saturn's giant moon, Titan. The probe carries an entire scientific laboratory, which will make measurements of the atmospheric structure and composition, wind and weather, energy flux, and surface characteristics of Titan. It will transmit its findings to the Cassini orbiter, which will relay them back to Earth. The orbiter will continue its four-year tour of Saturn and its moons, measuring the system's magnetosphere and its interaction with the moons, rings, and the solar wind ; the internal structure and atmosphere of Saturn; the rings; the atmosphere and surface of Titan; and the surface and internal structure of the other moons of Saturn.
In April, 2001, NASA launched the Mars 2001 Odyssey with a scheduled arrival in October of 2001. Odyssey carries instruments to study the mineralogy and structure of the Martian surface, the abundance of hydrogen, and the levels of radiation that may pose a danger to future human explorers of Mars. NASA's Genesis mission launched on August 8, 2001. This spacecraft was sent to study the solar wind, collecting data for two years. This information will help scientists understand more about the composition of the Sun. In July of 2002, Contour is scheduled to launch with the purpose of flying by and taking high-resolution pictures of the nucleus and coma of at least two comets as they make their periodic visits to the inner solar system.
In November of 2002, the Japanese Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science is scheduled to launch the MUSES-C spacecraft, which will bring back surface samples from an asteroid. The European Space Agency will launch Rosetta in January of 2003 for an eight-year journey to rendezvous with the comet 46 P/Wirtanen. Rosetta will spend two years studying the comet's nucleus and environment and will make observations from as close as one kilometer. Six international robotic missions to Mars, one to Mercury, one to Jupiter's moons Europa and Io, and one to the comet P/Tempel 1 are planned for the period between 2003–2004. Scheduled for an early 2007 launch will be the Solar Probe, which will fly through the Sun's corona sending back information about its structure and dynamics. The Solar Probe is the last launch currently scheduled for the decade 2001–2010, although this could change as scientists propose new missions and governments grant funding for these missions.
The Future of Space Exploration
Beyond the first decade of the twenty-first century, plans for the exploration of space remain in the "dream" stage. Scientists at the world's major space facilities, universities, and other scientific laboratories are working to find breakthroughs that will make space travel faster, less expensive, and more hospitable to humans. One technology that is being met with some enthusiasm in the space science community is the "solar sail," which works somewhat like the wind sail on a sailboat except that it gets its propulsion from continuous sunlight. A spacecraft propelled by a solar sail would need no rockets, engines, or fuel, making it significantly lighter than rocket-propelled crafts. It could be steered in space in the same manner as a sailboat is steered in water, by tilting the sail at the correct angle. The sail itself would be a thin aluminized sheet. Powered by continuous sunlight, the solar sailcraft could cruise to the outermost reaches of the solar system and even into interstellar space. Estimates are that this technology will not be fully developed until sometime near the end of 2010.
In January of 2001, scientists at Israel's Ben Gurion University reported that they had shown that the rare nuclear material americium-242m (Am-242m) could sustain a nuclear fission reaction as a thin metallic film less than a thousandth of a millimeter thick. If true, this could enable Am-242m to act as a nuclear fuel propellant for a relatively lightweight spacecraft that could reach Mars in as little as two weeks instead of the six to eight months required for current spacecraft. However, like the solar sail, this method of propulsion is also far from the implementation stage. Producing enough of it to power spacecraft will be difficult and expensive, and no designs for the type of reactor necessary for this type of nuclear fission have even been proposed. Other scientists are looking into the possibility that antimatter could be harnessed and used in jet propulsion, but the research is still in the very early stages. It may be that one or more of these technologies will propel spacecraft around the solar system in the decades ahead, but none of them hold the promise of reaching the holy grail of interstellar travel at near light speed.
Moving at the Speed of Light. The difficulty with interstellar space travel is the almost incomprehensible vastness of space. If, at some future time, scientists and engineers could build a spacecraft that could travel at light speed, it would still require more than four years to reach Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system. Consequently, to achieve the kind of travel among the stars made popular in science fiction works, such as Star Trek or Star Wars, an entirely different level of technology than any we have yet seen is required. The Pioneer 10 and Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in the 1970s have traveled more than 6.5 billion miles and are on their way out of our solar system, but at the speed they are traveling it would take them tens of thousands of years to reach Proxima Centauri.
Incremental increases in speed, while helpful within the solar system, will not enable interstellar travel. That will require a major breakthrough in science and technology. Einstein's relativity theory excludes bodies traveling at or beyond the speed of light. As a result, scientists are looking for ways to circumvent this barrier by distorting the fabric of spacetime itself to create wormholes, which are shortcuts in space-time, or by using warp drives, which are moving segments of space-time. These would require the expenditure of enormous amounts of energy. To study the feasibility of such seemingly far-fetched proposals, NASA, in 1996, established the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program. It may seem to the people of Earth, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that these dreams of creating reality from science fiction are next to impossible—but we should remember that sending humans to the Moon was nothing more than science fiction at the turn of the twentieth century.
see also Light Speed; Space, Growing Old in; Spaceflight, History of; Spaceflight, Mathematics of.
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