Friday, July 8, 2011

Atlantis mission heralds end to manned space exploration

In The Right Stuff, his book on the beginnings of the space age, Tom Wolfe asked: “What is it that makes a man willing to sit on top of an enormous Roman candle and wait for someone to light the fuse?”

The answer is the same instinct that motivated men in earlier times to risk their lives crossing the oceans or walking to the poles: a sense of adventure and a desire to find out what was there.

The pioneer astronauts of whom Wolfe wrote must have hoped that by now, we would be making regular trips to the Moon or Mars – and beyond. Yet at around 5.30pm today, when the space shuttle Atlantis takes off (weather permitting) from Cape Canaveral, the era of manned space exploration will essentially draw to a close.

For the next few years, the Russians will keep the International Space Station going – but it is due to be decommissioned in 2020. The Chinese are thinking of a manned mission to the Moon, but have made no specific plans or pledges.

Buccaneering entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson are developing craft to take a few wealthy tourists into space, but only into a low – and brief – orbit.

When Atlantis finally returns to Earth, finishing the 135th mission in a Shuttle programme that started 30 years ago, the hopes of developing an easy and routine mode of space transportation will be at an end.

Space exploration, however, will not be over. If the funding is available – a big if – then robots will boldly go where man no longer dares to venture. On the other hand, spacecraft have already landed on Mars, Jupiter and one of Saturn’s moons; so the list of further destinations is small.

Moreover, interstellar probes such as Voyager – dispatched in 1977 to explore beyond the solar system, yet only now leaving it – remind us that however far we have come in 50 years, there is an unfeasibly long way to go.

View the original article here

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