Sunday, April 5, 2009

It's time for another giant leap into space, say Hawkings

The 40th anniversary of the Moon landings reminds us how space travel can inspire humanity

Lucy and Stephen Hawking

The black-and-white images flickered on the screen. “I was watching from the sofa in my pyjamas with my parents,” says the British-born Nasa astronaut Nick Patrick. “I didn't understand the historical significance of the Apollo 11 landing - I was only 5 - but it made a huge impression on me. I started making lunar module instrument panels out of cardboard. I covered them in drawings of dials and switches, and mounted them to the top of an old travel trunk. I made a lot of landings as a five-year-old.”

It is 40 years ago this summer since the young Patrick watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on to the Moon. On July20, 1969, the Eagle lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquillity and Armstrong radioed back the message: “The Eagle has landed.” He stepped - with his left foot - out of the Eagle and on to the Moon, becoming the first human being to walk on our orbiting satellite. Armstrong made his historic comment: “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Behind him came the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who looked around at the empty landscape and commented: “Magnificent desolation.” Filmed by a camera mounted to the base of the lunar module, their journey was watched live by about 600 million viewers, a fifth of the Earth's population at that time.

The sight of two astronauts walking on the Moon had a huge impact on those who watched, but especially, it seems, on child viewers. “I have wanted to be an astronaut ever since Apollo 11,” says Patrick, one of the young dreamers who has actually made it into space, travelling as a mission specialist on Nasa's STS-116, Discovery in 2006. Patrick has had an exciting career. “I have been part of the team that has helped to design the cockpit for the Orion capsule - the replacement for the space shuttle. I've been a capcom (capsule communicator) in mission control for two recent shuttle flights, and I've lived underwater on two separate ten-day training missions aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Aquarius habitat.”

It's not just the astronauts. Visit any of the space programmes and ask why workers there chose a career in the space industry and the Apollo landings are invariably mentioned. “We are the children of Apollo,” says Anu Ojha, director of education and space communication at the National Space Centre at Leicester. “We grew up wanting to become scientists, engineers and astronauts, so we could look for the next big thing. It inspired a generation towards science.”

But here lies a space paradox. Apollo encouraged a whole generation of kids to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to pursue space and science-related careers. Yet since Eugene Cernan set his boot into the lunar dust on the Apollo 17 mission, mankind hasn't been back to the Moon, let alone beyond. And in schools and universities, science studies have fallen to an unprecedented low.

“After the last Moon landing in 1972, with no future plans for further manned space flight beyond Earth's orbit, public interest in space and willingness to fund further exploration declined,” my father, Stephen Hawking, commented in his speech at Nasa's 50th birthday celebrations in Washington last year. “This went along with a loss of confidence in science

in the West because, although it had brought great benefits, it had not solved the social problems that increasingly occupied public attention.”

However, there is now hope that this will change. For the first time in decades, plans to take human beings back to the Moon are gaining reality. With the new lunar missions comes the chance of a shot at Mars. Will Constellation, Nasa's new manned mission to “the Moon, Mars and beyond”, inspire a new generation of children?

“A new manned space programme would increase the public standing of science,” my father says. “The low esteem in which science and scientists are held is having serious consequences. We live in a society that is increasingly governed by science and technology, yet fewer young people want to go into science. But space has the power to ignite children's imaginations and engage their curiosity. There is no doubt that we have never needed to do this more urgently.”

It certainly seems surprising that despite the runaway technological advances across the rest of society, manned space flight still harks back to the Seventies for its glory days. Almost as extraordinary as the Apollo spacecraft reaching the Moon is the fact that their success didn't lead to further interplanetary space travel. In 1972, after Apollo17, the Nixon Administration cancelled the remaining lunar missions and changed the focus from exploration to orbit. Waning popular support, lack of political will and the near disaster that was Apollo 13 contributed to this dramatic shift in the US space programme. Instead of venturing into the unknown, the space programme went round in circles - literally - as both the Americans and their Russian counterparts worked to develop permanent manned space laboratories such as the Salyut series, the first Soviet orbiting space station, and Skylab, its US counterpart.

Neither the Salyut stations nor Skylab lasted long as outposts of Earth. But the lessons learnt in their construction contributed to the Russian-built Mir, a space station the size of six school buses strapped together. Mir was the precursor of the International Space Station (ISS), a growing conglomerate of space architecture that has orbited the Earth once every 90 minutes since construction began in space in 1998.

The US astronaut Frank Culbertson, commander of the ISS in autumn 2001, recalls the views from the orbiting space station: “As we left the Sun behind and the glare faded, the magnificent cities on the East Coast of the US magically appeared in the blackness below, outlining the Atlantic seaboard as clearly as if drawn on a map with a pen filled with glowing orange ink. From my perch over the North Atlantic - Boston, New York, Atlantic City, Norfolk, Charleston, Jacksonville - all could be seen lighting up for the evening as we sped out over the ocean and headed southeast. And hanging in the sunset above them were, I think, both Mercury and Venus.”

However, soon afterwards, Culbertson recorded another view, this time one of despair rather than beauty, as the ISS flew over the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on Earth and watching life being destroyed is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are.”

The ISS now has 20 component parts from the US, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency. And yet while manned space travel seems the embodiment of lofty ideals, some aspects of life on board a spaceship are surprisingly mundane. There were rows in early space missions as astronauts argued over who had window access. Accordingly, modern spacecraft have more windows. Access to other facilities remains controversial, however, with a Russian cosmonaut complaining this week that he was denied use of the Americans' gym and toilet on board the ISS.

The space shuttle has made 28 trips to the ISS in the past 11 years and Nasa is robust in evaluating its value. Tragically, however, there is an image that remains seared on the minds of anyone who witnessed the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Dr June Scobee Rogers was present at Challenger's launch in January, 1986, to watch her husband, Dick Scobee, commander of Space Flight 51-L. “We felt tremendous joy and excitement as they launched,” she recalls. “Then the unspeakable happened. ”

The impact of the Challenger disaster was felt worldwide as shocked viewers turned from their televisions in horror. Dr Scobee Rodgers took the brave decision to continue the educational work of her husband's space mission on Earth. “Everyone knew how they died,” she says. “We wanted the world to know how they lived.”

Space travel has always had to work hard to persuade doubters of its value. “This foolish idea of shooting at the Moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists,” wrote the British scientist A.W.Bickert in 1926. Even the successful Apollo 11 mission attracted criticism. Writing in The New York Times, Kurt Vonnegut commented that the money should have gone to “cleaning up our filthy colonies here”.

It is a common refrain - why spend money in space when we have problems here on Earth? And in difficult financial times, how much of a luxury does space flight represent? Nasa has an annual budget of about $18 billion, a figure that, postcredit crunch, suddenly sounds small compared with the vast sums sucked into the black hole of banking. It costs about $400million to run a single space-shuttle mission - considerably less than the cost of rescuing a collapsing bank.

My father considers that investment in space is fundamental to the survival of the human race. Quoting the figure that US contributions to Nasa have fallen from 4per cent of the US federal budget in the Seventies to 0.6per cent today, he has said: “We do not deny the importance of fighting for a better Earth, but isn't our future worth a mere fraction of 1 per cent?”

As a sheer testament to logistics and human and technological endeavour, a spacecraft launch has no equal. I saw STS-117 launch on June 8, 2007, from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. In the new book for children I have written with my father, George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt, I describe the scene at a space shuttle launch pad as spectators await the final seconds of countdown before the huge explosion of power launches the spacecraft into the blue skies above. George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt is an adventure story about the ways mankind has used to travel across the universe - from manned space flight to theoretical physics, via astronomy, a quick search for some alien life forms and an explanation of how to get back to the Big Bang.

However, the shuttle launch I saw - an awe-inspiring visual spectacle that made it into the new book- went unreported. Paris Hilton was released from jail the same day and the headlines went to her instead.

But if the space programmes of Russia and the US no longer generate the exuberant national pride they once did, the new kids on the space block are making up for that - and fast. Yang Liwei, who flew the first Chinese manned flight on October 15, 2003, became an instant Chinese media superstar. Since then the Chinese have flown two and three-man missions and completed a spacewalk. The former Nasa adminstrator Mike Griffin has said that China may well get to the Moon before the US returns there. And India is not lagging far behind. An Indian cosmonaut will fly to the ISS in 2013, and the country has a budget of £1.2 billion for its human space- flight programme.

The UK seems rather low-rent in comparison. Space flight rarely attracts negative press here for the simple reason that we spend hardly any money on it. Although British nationals such as Nick Patrick have flown in space, the UK Government has never paid for the training of an astronaut and does not contribute to the European Space Agency's manned space-flight programme.

Even so, the UK has been quietly sneaking up on space. “The success of the British space industry is about the best-kept secret in Britain,” Ojha says. Even though Beagle2, the Mars lander designed by the scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, crashed on to the Red Planet in 2003, British scientists and manufacturers have made a real impact on robotic space flight, the unsung hero of the space age.

“It is disappointing that over the past 40 years we haven't managed to reach Mars with manned space flight,” Ojha says. “But in that time robotic space flight has opened up the solar system to us.”

The term robotic space flight covers a large brief - from the Hubble space telescope to the Voyager probes, now 11 billion miles away from Earth and still travelling. “What were little more than pinpoints of light not so many years ago now are known as complex and fascinating worlds,” says Marc Rayman, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the division responsible for most of Nasa's interplanetary robotic missions as well as many near-Earth missions.

The information that robotic spacecraft send back to Earth also plays a role in preparing for manned spacecraft to land on other planets. The extensive investigation of Mars will be crucial when planning a manned mission to the Red Planet. But will any of today's children be sufficiently motivated to want to join these manned missions to Mars and other planets? The major space agencies are certainly making a huge effort to encourage school-age children to study the cosmos and all its wonders. And there is also a new type of space entrepreneur emerging, swashbuckling space adventurers who may, ultimately, prove to be the greatest inspiration of all. One man who will probably turn out to be responsible for an unprecedented number of astronaut applications is the private astronaut Richard Garriott.

The son of the Apollo and space shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott, Richard grew up surrounded by astronaut families and the space programme. “I was raised believing that everyone could travel into space,” he says. Unfortunately for the young Garriott, a disappointment was in store. “A Nasa doctor told me that poor eyesight would prevent me from ever being an astronaut. I thought to myself that if I could not be a member of ‘their' space programme, I would just have to make my own. And I did.”

Garriott, who made his fortune in video games, has invested heavily in space-

related enterprises, culminating in a trip with the Russian space programme last year to the ISS. While on the ISS, as well as undertaking research into protein crystal growth, Garriott answered a number of questions, such as “Can you gargle in space?” sent to him by UK and US schoolchildren via video. He also maintained a radio link with schools in 26 countries. There seemed little doubt that every one of those children would have flown into space in a heartbeat.

“In this day and age,” Garriott says, “when we clearly see and feel the finite scale of the Earth and how we are all interdependent, space represents the great wonder that lies beyond. I think that this is true for our generation even more than it was for the previous. The previous generation was trying to prove the capabilities of a country and an ideology. Our generation is looking to see how space can benefit humanity here on Earth and how we grow as a species to live beyond the confines of the Earth.”

We shall boldly go, after all.

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