Opinion – Jon McBride, former astronaut
Jon McBride, former astronaut and ambassador for Kennedy Space Center
It’s been thirty years since my eight-and-a-half day voyage into space aboard the seven-man Challenger space craft. Since then, developments in space technology have opened up vast possibilities for space scientists and explorers. Today, excitement surrounding these possibilities is rife, and there are a number of public and private sector space technology companies racing each other to reach the next big milestone in space discovery.
The big question everyone has been asking is where the next generation of space explorers will go – as well as who will be the first to get there. The general opinion over the past twenty years has been that we would go back to the Moon. This is still true; it is highly likely that humans will return to the moon within the next ten years. However, with the announcement of Mars One – which will see a colony of humans established on the Red Planet – it is now clear that our footprint is about to step a lot further afield into our solar system. Our first steps on Mars will take some time to reach, but it is realistic to think that they will happen within the next 20 years.
The transition from Earth to Mars is, of course, not straight-forward; depending on orbit, the surface of the Red Planet varies from 54.6million to about 401million kilometres from that of Earth. Due to the distance, we won’t be able to go directly there; we’ll have to go there via a ‘half-way point’, such as an asteroid. We may even capture our own asteroid, put it into orbit around the Earth, and stop off there. Other possible routes to Mars could be via certain Lagrange points – five locations around a planet’s orbit where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the spacecraft, sun and planet interact to create a stable location from which to make observations. These points could also be used as halfway stations between Earth and Mars.
In terms of who will get there first, there are five major players – the USA, Russia, China, Europe and – more recently – India. It is not yet clear who is leading the race to set foot on Mars, one of its moons, an asteroid – or who will be the first to revisit the moon. But we’re likely to see a lot of decisions made during the next five years, and our directions in space will become a lot clearer.
Understanding our own planet
With all the excitement surrounding our possible mission to Mars, it shouldn’t be forgotten that sending humans into space is not just about exploring what is beyond the realms of the Earth; space exploration is critical to understanding our own planet. Many people don’t realise that they are in contact with space technology from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night. The SMS messages we receive on our mobile phones and our satellite TV signals all come from space – one in three mobile phones use technology that was invented for NASA spacecrafts, features such as motion detectors and zooming all come from NASA technology.
Zero G training
Landing with the shuttle
Jon McBride's team
Training in a swimming pool
Jon McBride's crew
On board Challenger's flight deck
Photo of the English Channel taken from space by Jon McBride
Lesser known still among the general public are the medical uses of space technology; cardiac catheterizations and joint replacements are only possible because of links to satellite systems in space. Developments in space technology are crucial to the development of life on our planet and there should be sectors in each country’s respective governments that should commit to conducting research in space science and in futuristic programmes developing technologies that are capable of solving many current and future world problems.
One of the most important purposes of space exploration is to solve the many mysteries of our seas; in many respects, our oceans are just as unknown to humans as space. There are vast stretches of ocean that reach several miles deep and – even now – we do not have the technology that will allow us to explore the entirety of these depths. However, in the past fifty years, technology has evolved; in 1965, we could only examine depths of up to 1,500 feet. We now have improved sensors to explore the bottoms of deeper seas. Our technology has come a long way, but, as has been highlighted during the search for the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, we still have a long way to go before we can fully explore and understand the habitats created by our deepest oceans.
Enabling responsible living
Space technology can teach us a lot about our vast seas, and can play an important part in our quest to keep our oceans clean. While there are infinite discoveries to be made in outer space, we need to concentrate our resources on Mother Earth. The primary purpose, after all, of space exploration is to understand our own planet better, so that we can live better, more responsible lives. We’ve already done a lot of damage to our planet, but we can’t keep taking from our Earth without figuring out how to give something back. The hard truth is that if we don’t maintain sustainability, Mother Earth won’t be able to sustain us, and we will outgrow our planet. At the beginning of my lifetime, I remember seeing so many pristine areas of untouched land, but now most of these are all gone; we have humans living in nearly every nook and cranny of the Earth. Our population is rising at an astonishing rate and one day we will get to the point where our planet can’t sustain this – that could be as soon as this Century.
There is a future for the human race. But we need to start putting measures in place to support ourselves – not just now, but in the future. Space technology is so important – it is not just about “winning the space race” and seeing which country can be the first to walk on Mars. It is about developing technology that will enable us to understand our planet – and its role in this solar system – so that we can sustain the human race for as long as we possibly can.