Space, the final frontier

This week, we have seen Space X, an Elon Musk company, take four space travellers to the International Space Station. In time past, it would have been NASA itself which would have developed and launched the rockets, but now it has decided that it’s better to ask private enterprise to do the development work and take the risk.  They say it works out cheaper for NASA than the old approach to space travel. Obviously at the beginning it was only governments who were capable of taking on the immense cost and risk of doing something with no obvious financial benefit.

The main benefit, after all, was in the time of the Cold War to demonstrate that the USA was at least the equal of the USSR and could, ultimately, fly the American flag on the moon. Even after 60 years of space travel and the great experience that has gained, it still costs a great deal of money to send people to circle the earth in space for months on end, or to send them to the moon (and bring them back). In an attempt to justify the immense cost of the space effort, NASA often points to the spin-offs from the advances in science which were required to enable man to be put on the moon and, later, for information to be sent back by robots from Mars. 

For some reason the scientific advance cited always used to be the development of Teflon.  I am not sure, however, that the need to use less fat when cooking and greater ease of washing up the saucepans afterwards is justification for the billions of dollars spent by NASA.  Going into space has to have a more obvious justification than that. And it does in certain ways.

Clearly, we would all be lost in the absence of GPS, a system which relies on the satellites launched by various governments.  We’d have to dig our maps out again and keep a diary of where we’d been rather than relying on our Google timeline. So, more of a toy really, but one which, at least in its present form, saves us from getting completely lost. Mind you it did take me down some very narrow lanes the other day. 

There are though more serious uses for it – our transport systems both on land, on the sea and in the air, all now depend upon its accuracy to optimise the routes they take and so limit carbon emissions.  Air traffic control systems are being completely revised in order to take advantage of the greater accuracy with which the position of aircraft can be pinpointed. Large scale farming depends upon it to guide the robotic farm machinery - which makes food production more efficient. And our military have access to an even more accurate version so that they know precisely where they are when on manoeuvres. At least, I suppose that should count as a benefit. 

It is absolutely fascinating to see the results of the missions to the outer reaches of the solar system. Personally, I’m delighted to live in a time when we can ‘see’ the rest of our solar system even if it’s rather difficult to justify the cost as against spending it on the poor.  But satisfying our curiosity has always been a driving force in our development and would be seen by most as a benefit in itself. Doing research just to find out how things work has been our way of making real progress over the centuries. And space exploration has been a major triumph of technology (and mathematics). 

Much of the claimed benefit from space technology, though, relates to research.  In space, it’s possible to do research at zero gravity.  This means for example that crystals of complex chemicals which are difficult to grow on earth can grow to much greater sizes in space. In turn, allows their structure to be studied in more detail by X ray diffraction and, potentially, cures found for intractable diseases. 

And then there is the surveillance from satellites which takes place from earth’s orbit. It can help the military and intelligence services but, more importantly, has been and will be invaluable in informing the debate on global warming.  And the space observatories are now able to look further and further away in the universe and look over ever increasing ranges of electro magnetic wave-lengths. All of this is designed to test our theories of matter to within a nanometre (or less) of their lives and so provide us with more insights into how the atomic world works and so probably provide us with benefits which we cannot at the moment foresee. So then there are existing advantages and, we may reasonably assume, advantages yet to come because of our journey into space.

But what next? One idea is to send people with more money than sense to the edge of the atmosphere to look out through the portholes at the universe and down at the earth for a few minutes whilst feeling sick.  Another is to send people with even more money to the space station itself for a few weeks.

Apart from these, though, there are two main aims. One is to go back to the moon and the other is to go to Mars. In fact the main reason for going to the moon is to establish a base there to enable Mars to be the next stop. A lot of work is going on to see how to quarry from the moon’s rock the metals needed to create the vessels required for the journey.  A British company Metalysis has just been given a major contract by the European Space Agency to apply its existing earth-based technology to an extraterrestrial environment. Extraction of the pure metals from their oxides - presumably powered by the sun - at the same time necessarily releases the oxygen making up the rest of the molecule. So then it now seems that even the oxygen needed to live on the moon and to hitch a lift to Mars can be extracted from moon rock.

But why do all this?  Why send actual people to Mars when we could send R2D2?  Even before arriving, at least some sort of living space would have to exist, and so robots would have had to form an advance party. But I suppose that there’s the excitement of the adventure.  In times past, if we wanted to find something out about a far-off land, then we had to go there. Often, of course, when the adventurers arrived, it was only to find that people already lived there and had done so for thousands of years. And then much blood was spilled in trying to colonise the land in the name of their king and, at the same time, plunder it for its riches.

I’m not sure that the same formula is likely to work for Mars. Assuming there are no Martians to vanquish, even if you found something there which had earthly value, I doubt that the cost of transporting it back would make much economic sense. And think of the quarantine period.

And we also know that during the journey to Mars, the travellers’ muscles and bones would suffer very considerably due to the lack of gravity. It would be like being bed-bound for 6 months, only far worse. And then there’s the cosmic radiation which, on such a long journey, would be likely to cause a range of diseases – mainly cancer. Not dissimilar, in one sense I suppose, to the scurvy which killed many seamen in previous eras.  Nonetheless, there are numerous volunteers. 

And here we come back to Elon Musk. He tells us that he intends to go to Mars. I’m not entirely sure what his wife, the chanteuse Grimes, and their daughter, X AE A-XII Musk - X is the first name, the other letters apparently form the middle name - think about his possible departure or what it says about their relationship. After all getting to Mars is one thing, getting back is rather more difficult. The outward journey would almost certainly be a one-way ticket. But then, I suspect that they may already be aware that the likelihood of his being transported to Mars soon or indeed at any time in his lifetime is extremely remote. In that sense, to volunteer is probably quite safe – you get the kudos without the danger.  Me, though I think I’ll wait until I can be teleported there and back before volunteering.

17 November 2020

Paul Buckingham

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