I’m old enough to have watched with excitement the grainy television footage of the first Apollo 11 moon landings in 1969. I can never look at the Moon without remembering that heroic feat. It was made just 12 years after the first object, Sputnik-1, was launched into orbit. If this momentum had been maintained, surely there would have been footprints on Mars a decade or two later. This is what many of our generation expected. However, in the 1960s there was a “space race” – a superpower rivalry contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, when NASA absorbed up to 4% of the federal budget American. Once this race was won, there was no motivation to continue this huge expense.
For today’s young people, these exploits – still the “apogee” of manned spaceflight – belong to ancient history. Yet space technology has exploded. We depend daily on satellites for communications, weather forecast monitoring and satellite navigation. Robotic probes to other planets returned images of varied and distinct worlds; several have landed on Mars. And telescopes in space have revolutionized our knowledge of the cosmos.
This month’s successful launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 rocket – on the third attempt – signals the start of a new program to send astronauts to the Moon this decade – and possibly Mars eventually. And there may be parallel developments from China.
Artemis 1 is actually not much different from the Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo astronauts. Like its predecessors, its thruster combines liquid hydrogen and oxygen to create enormous lifting power before dropping into the ocean. Planned launches from the similarly sized Space X “spacecraft” launch vehicle are expected to be much cheaper because the rocket can be salvaged and reused.
Artemis 1 should be followed within two years by a mission that will take astronauts into orbit around the Moon. The third launch, later this decade, will return astronauts to the lunar surface – after a hiatus of more than 50 years.
But it is good that robotic lunar exploration – far more profitable – is being pursued by other nations. And, in particular, that the UAE’s Rashid rover will soon be on the way. The mission, scheduled to launch Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, will be of great interest to all of us, especially since its purpose is to study the geology of the Moon. I’m also told that thousands of high-resolution images will be captured of the surrounding areas, which will not only make observing interesting, but also deepen our understanding of the Moon.
Many, in fact, question the advisability of sending humans. The romanticism of manned spaceflight is not toned down, but there is an important difference between the Apollo era and the mid-2020s; the incredible improvement in our ability to create, launch and guide explorers and robot builders. These are shown in the sequel to rovers on Mars, where Perseverance, Nasa’s latest prospector, can drive itself through rocky terrain with only limited guidance from Earth. In addition, improvements in sensors and AI will allow robotic rovers, within 10 or 20 years, to do geology on the Moon and Mars. Likewise, engineering projects – such as astronomers’ dream of building a large radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, without interference from Earth, or assembling solar energy collectors in space – do not require more human intervention, but could instead take place robotically. The same goes for mining rare minerals. Instead of astronauts needing an enclosed, well-appointed environment to emerge from for construction purposes, robot builders can stay permanently on their jobsite.
Astronauts require much more “maintenance” than robots, simply because their travels and operations require air, water, food, living space, and protection from harmful radiation, especially those of solar storms. In addition, safety and reliability standards must be stricter, and therefore more costly, when human lives are at stake.
Already considerable for any trip to the Moon, the cost differences between human and robotic travel would increase much more for any long stay. A trip to Mars, hundreds of times longer than a trip to the Moon, would not only put astronauts at far greater risk, but would also make emergency aid far less feasible.
Even astronaut enthusiasts admit that nearly two decades could pass before the first crewed trip to Mars. In this era, advances in AI will bridge the current gap between the capabilities of robots and those we possess. Additionally, robots could explore the outer solar system with little additional expense, since multi-year journeys present little more of a challenge for a robot than the six-month trip to Mars.
Scientific compromises clearly favor robots. But some would point to other motives that justify human space travel – at least to the Moon, if not to Mars.
Near the south pole of the Moon, the “peaks of eternal light” on the walls of Shackleton crater, which never fall into shadow when the Moon rotates, provide the best location for a lunar colony that depends on the solar energy. If that happens, let’s hope it happens internationally, through cooperation, not conflict. We wouldn’t want the US, China and Russia to create separate colonies – much better if they could cooperate. The involvement of nations in Europe and the Middle East – led perhaps by the United Arab Emirates – would be benign and a deeply positive symbol of international collaboration.
For many, the compelling case for manned spaceflight is “inspiring”: how can we expect children to lift their eyes to the stars, or their minds to the heavens, without suggesting that they themselves might even travel in space one day?
And some would find even more compelling the argument that “humans are explorers – they always have been, they always will be.” Significant segments of our society remain enthusiastic to support ever greater voyages of exploration, and it is encouraging that the United Arab Emirates is taking on this inspiring challenge.
Posted: November 28, 2022, 05:00
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