Tag Archives: space

Are we nearly there yet? The normalisation of space exploration

Will it be exciting when Man eventually lands on Mars?

Yes! – and no …

On the one hand it may not be particularly dramatic in the way that the Moon landings or the Shuttle missions were. The problem is that advances in technology and mathematics have seemed to “normalise” space exploration, removing many of the nail-biting uncertainties, much of our fear for the astronauts’ lives and a sizeable slice of the shared pride we feel in Man’s ability to push back yet another frontier.


When British astronaut Timothy Peake set off across the tarmac to board the Russian Soyuz TMA-19M spaceship recently, he looked pretty relaxed. And personally I thought that was understandable, given the number of missions into space that have taken place over the past sixty years or so. Obviously it was a rather special day at the office. But it’s about 113 years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft; some fifty-eight years later, Russia sent Yuri Gagarin into space; and fifty-five years still further on, Mr. Peake is safely ensconced in the International Space Station, where he’ll live with his fellow astronauts until June.

And yet despite all the many previous missions, things can still go pear-shaped. It took only a few drops of water to force an early termination of Peake’s space walk (the first by a British astronaut), amid suppressed panic in the control room down at Baikonur.

So, back to the Mars landing. Will it be really dangerous?

Yes! – and no …

Think about the business of guiding the Mars lander onto the surface of the Red Planet. If such a landing were to take place on Earth, my guess is it would struggle to make headlines anywhere other than in the inside pages of a few magazines aimed at aviation nerds. Will Mars be all that different? Unlike the prelude to the Moon landings, we’ve already received countless spoilers about the Martian terrain from a range of exploratory vehicles. Some of the maps of Mars available online are almost comparable with Google Street View. The commander of the first craft to touch down on the red dust of Mars will probably feel much more at home than did Neil Armstrong, when he and Buzz Aldrin – yes Aldrin, not Lightyear – touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. So there’ll be far less cause for concern there.

The first media event to really spark the British public’s interest in space travel wasn’t the Apollo missions but a radio drama series called Journey Into Space, launched in 1954. Set way in the future (1972), the series followed the dramatic adventures of Jet Morgan, fifteen years after the “conquest of space”, which had (apparently) occurred in 1965 – well they weren’t far out! I remember certain episodes really well – and I wasn’t alone. The episode transmitted on 10th January, 1955, achieved a broadcast audience share of 17%, whereas the newsreel transmitted simultaneously on BBC TV Radio_Times_5_Dec_1954had an audience share of 16%. This was the last time that a radio programme achieved a higher rating than concurrent TV programmes (source: Wikipedia).

In the days before cgi and 3D glasses, the power of the human imagination to create terrifying mindscapes was just as strong – probably much stronger, given the desensitising produced by the constant torrent of extreme media imagery to which our minds are subjected on a daily basis nowadays.

Even now, the mental picture of Mitch becoming disengaged from the spacecraft and drifting away into the echoing void of the BBC Home Service remains with me; and as for the robotic words transmitted by the crew member who appeared infected by some strange, space-borne disease, “This – is – Whitaker …“, that was definitely a good time to hide behind the sofa!

Of course Tim Peake’s spacewalk did look a bit old hat, coming after Gravity and The Martian. You could be forgiven for thinking that NASA, the Russian roscosmosspace agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) should be sued for plagiarism, given that Hollywood has normally “been there” – allbeit only in a cinematographic way – light years before those organisations.

Much of the recent Hollywood epic The Martian – a very good watch – was more about the trials and tribulations of a marooned human being battling against loneliness and a hostile environment than any real worries over the technical feasibility of his rescue. And Robinson Crusoe had obviously staked out that turf some 200 years ago. The ability of the guys at Mission Control to bring astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) safely home was never really in doubt.

The emphasis in the film/novel was on Watney’s human frailty and his inventiveness. He did the kind of things other people have done in so many similar situations back on terra firma. He just happened to be some 140 million miles from Earth. (Yes, I know, the distance between Earth and Mars varies wildly because of the different orbits of the two planets). He grew spuds. It would have been interesting to know what variety he planted; and how interesting too that Timothy Peake is right now involving British schoolchildren in experiments with “rocket seeds“. His initiative may well turn out to be the start of a whole new curriculum of space botany.

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster was just three days ago and one thinks back, of course, to the tragic fate of US teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the educational insights her mission might have provided. Fortunately all wasn’t lost and NASA have reconstructed the “teacher in space”‘s plans in six recorded lessons, available here.

All of our cultural background will play into our assessment of how exciting the Mars landing will be. And many of the influences will come from cinema or literature or techology. And maybe even David Bowie. Some will feel powerless to move the astronauts’ rover over the Martian terrain, until the X-Box version of the Mars landing is launched. No means of clicking … it’ll be a truly frustrating time for them … especially as it already appears that there’ll be no hostile aliens attacking the valiant pioneers. Conversely, as reality inevitably catches up with imagination, the Mars-based creative industries will start to feel the pinch as actual fact undermines speculative fiction.

So, any causes for concern?

Yes! Very much so …

The “Martian Curse” has produced a high proportion of failures in the various attempts to land unmanned craft on the planet. The presence of men on board a Mars lander will provide “hands-on” beaglecontrol of the touchdown manoeuvrings; but the possibility of pilot error will also be ever-present for the first time. (The best laid plan of a British Mars explorer came to naught, of course. The ill-fated Beagle 2 mission, which had many of us on the edge of our armchairs at Christmas time back in 2003, disappeared without trace; until January last year, that is, when it was spotted by the HiRise camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Its solar panels had failed to deploy properly, so it had been unable to communicate with Earth).

But there are a number of other concerns. Earlier this month, for instance, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in its annual report, expressed frustration at the way space missions were being funded and safety compromised:

“From 2012 through 2015, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] was not funded at the requested levels. Going forward, we are concerned that the CCP may not be sufficiently funded to execute the planned program and sustain competition, which we believe to be critical to both safety and success. The ESD funding levels have been flat—an approach that does not reflect the profile needed for a human space flight development program. Funding for the NASA Aircraft Management System has been erratic, with little likelihood of future stability. Sustainable funding is needed to prevent increased flight safety risks.

“We remain convinced that a primary contributing factor to our perceived accretion of risk is continued lack of clear, transparent, and definitive formal risk acceptance and accountability. We have had a long-standing recommendation on this topic that remains open and has not been adequately addressed”.

Space exploration is no longer just about NASA, of course. More and more countries are seeing the potential for profit, technological advancement and education. And as the space adventure turns into a story about Mankind as a species, rather than one about the US and Russia, the speed with which new knowledge is acquired and new capabilities developed can only increase.


But, just as the sight of a giant Boeing 747 taking off has become fairly unremarkable, so our journeys to Mars will one day be mundane.

For me, the real nail-biters, will be the first trips to Titan and Enceladus (which is a bit smaller than Britain – see artist’s impression below – source: public domain), respectively the largest and sixth largest moons of Saturn. These two moons seem to hold out the real possibility of Man finding life on another world.



Now that will be really exciting …





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Apollo XI and the physics of God

Forty-five years ago this month, Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the most unforgettable words ever spoken, as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module and became the first human being to set foot on the Moon.

As he said, it was “… one small step for a man”; though in fact, of course, many thousands, if not millions, of steps had already been taken in the long and winding road that led to Apollo XI‘s landing. So many technological achievements, arguably dating back to the invention of the wheel and beyond, had fuelled that jaw-dropping expedition.

On the one hand, as Armstrong put it, it was as though our species had taken a “giant leap” in its evolutionary journey; on the other hand, the landing can be characterised as simply the product of the cold, level headed application of scientific knowledge, technological advances and computer power.

As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the part played by God in all of this. When John F. Kennedy made his “We choose to go to the moon” speech, he was careful to ask for God’s blessing for the “adventure”. And when the Apollo VIII astronauts entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1968, they took turns in reading from the book of Genesis.

It seems to me that these statements of faith were probably a lot to do with pandering to assumed public sentiment in the US. (buzz_aldrin_EVA_selfieThough not entirely: it’s interesting that Buzz Aldrin‘s personal communion service on the surface of the Moon was held in secret – see Buzz Aldrin selfie, right, taken during his EVA). But having in mind the experiences of Galileo, Darwin and others throughout history who’d made giant leaps previously, the finance department at NASA knew that offending religious sensibilities via revolutionary discoveries would not necessarily stimulate increased budgets for future missions.

Nonetheless … with all the analytical and computational power at their disposal, I’m surprised that true believers at NASA and other scientific bodies have never sought to establish the physical nature of God. If they’re as convinced of his existence as the statements of the astronauts and certain space scientists suggest, it would surely be worthwhile undertaking some kind of work to buttress their belief with empirical evidence? To my mind, there is a very curious contradiction in the way they can spend so much of their lives rigorously searching after solutions to the most difficult problems in physics, harnessing cutting edge knowledge and equipment to chase down fine details which may produce further giant leaps, whilst at the same time blocking out of their mind any thoughts of questioning the nature of this supposed all-powerful, all-seeing super being.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an extensive body of scientific, metaphysical and/or philosophical literature exploring ideas around the physics of God. For instance, James Redford, in his 2012 book The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything, available via links here, seeks to use theories about the ultimate collapse of the universe into a final cosmological singularity – the “Omega Point” – as a proof for the existence of God.

Rather than try to explain the origins of the Big Bang, of which “The Omega Point is a different aspect”, Redford places his trust in a projection of generally-accepted quantum gravity theory into the most distant imaginable future, to describe God as a state of being which will come about following the development of infinite computational resources. (So for “God”, read “Science”; or “If you can’t beat them, join them”). We can all take comfort in knowing that scientists will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of the “multiverse”; but, with a nagging worry that, as the state of singularity approaches, scientists may have other things on their minds than increasing computer power (and also that scientific theories themselves evolve), I find very little of value here.

Darwin's_finchesThe truth of the matter is that, just like Darwin’s finches, religious beliefs tend to be modified to respond to changes in their habitat. With each new “giant leap” made by Man, some of the bonds that hold together the DNA of religious beliefs are broken and re-form to adapt to the changing climate of opinion and the social and scientific environment.

For absolutely explicable reasons, many people (some astronauts included) need to hold onto a religious belief as they take their all-too-short, wondrous, worrying ride on and around this planet, as it processes through the inexplicable heavens.

To that extent, the scientific basis for the existence of God is to be found not in physics, but in psychology.

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