To boldly go: some thoughts on space travel

We have been observing the stars since before recorded history. In 1865 Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon a tale of a lunar expedition. In Verne’s novel the Baltimore Gun Club decide to build an enormous cannon, large enough to fire a projectile at the moon. This appeared to an extravagant flight of fancy by the French author. But with the development of large and relatively efficient rockets during the first half of the 20th century space exploration became a reality. But before humans could go into space we would require the help of other animals.

Contrary to popular belief the first animal in space was not a dog, but a fruit fly. The Americans define space as beginning at an altitude of 80 km. The diminutive astronauts were loaded on to an American V2 rocket along with some corn seeds, and blasted into space in July 1946. They were used to test the effects of exposure to radiation at high altitudes. Albert II, the first monkey in space, went up in 1949. he was known as Albert II because there had been an Albert I, who had suffocated to death in 1948 before reaching the 100 km barrier. Albert II also had an unfortunate end when the parachute on his capsule failed on landing. In 1951 Albert VI managed to get back from space, only to die two hours later. There was one exception to all this death. Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, lived for another 25 years after she spent 16 minutes in space 1959 mission. Baker died of kidney failure after breaking the record for oldest living squirrel monkey. Her gravestone frequently has one or more bananas on top.

The first animal in orbit was indeed a dog, Laika, who was sent up by the Russians in 1957. She died of heat stress during the flight. And a further ten dogs were launched into space before Yuri Gagarin, made it up there in 1961. Six of the dogs survived. The Russians also sent the first animal into deep space in 1968 – a tortoise. Guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, scorpions, wasps, worms, beetles, cockroaches and spiders have all been into space. In 1973 the mummichog became the first fish in space when carried on Skylab 3 to use for biological. The first Japanese animals in space were ten newts in 1985.

The Soviet launch of a Sputnik in October 1957 was a traumatic moment for the United States. The satellite, which was the size of a basketball, orbited the Earth nearly 1,550 times. It was a stunning propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower immediately declared the “Sputnik crisis” – there were important military implications – a country able to launch a satellite into space could also effectively deliver nuclear missiles to American soil. In 1958 The National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA. But the effects were more far-reaching. There was a massive boost given to science in general.

The Space Race was won by the Americans in 1969 with the first moon landing. Of course you could argue that the Russians had already won after Gagarin went up. The Americans simply invented a new race. It was President Kennedy who set the challenge of reaching the moon by the end of the sixties. The Americans were spending 5% of GDP on the space program. 400,000 people worked on the Apollo project for nearly ten years, a total of four million man hours. Kennedy would not see his dreams fulfilled, but the Americans were able to set foot on the moon just before the decade ended. Between July 1969 and December 1972 they would land on the moon six times and twelve astronauts would walk on the moon. And then it all stopped.

The next challenge appears to be Mars. But any manned mission would present serious difficulties. The journey would be long and extremely boring. The astronauts would be living in cramped conditions with no privacy. And the food would be awful too. It would take six months each way. They would then have between 30 days and a year and a half on the red planet. If the astronauts stayed the latter time it would be 1,000 days in Space twice the previous record.

Space can have very negative effects on humans Astronauts spend most of the first 24-48 hours feeling or being sick. You remove gravity, which has been a constant as life on this planet has evolved over billions of years.  Bones and muscles waste. The heart atrophies. You come back less than you were; it has been estimated that on a Mars mission, astronauts would lose one-third to one-half of their bone mass. There are problems of hand-eye coordination.

There are also the psychological effects of being cooped up in confined spaces for extended periods of time. Last year saw the finalisation of a record-breaking simulated mission to Mars. Six male volunteers, from Russia, Italy, France and China, travelled 100m kilometres without moving a centimetre. The experiment, known as Mars500, had the six brave guinea pigs living in a “spacecraft” for 520 days. The simulation took place at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The crew managed to survive without killing each other, even if nerves were a bit frayed at times. It was a challenge for the men: one of them claimed that what he most missed was the randomness of life.

What does the future hold for space travel? A manned Mars mission seems decades away. There is much less optimism around. Space exploration now represents just 0.5% of American GDP, although the U.S.still spends more than the rest of the world put together. There are still some possibilities. Perhaps we could send robots. Other nations, especially China, will surely play an increasing role. Given the complicated economic situation and the prohibitive costs, greater international cooperation could be another solution. Finally I imagine there will be more commercial activity in space. However I do rather miss the visionary rhetoric of the last century. I will finish with just such an inspiring quote.  It comes from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan:

Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival. Travel is broadening. It’s time to hit the road again.

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One Response to To boldly go: some thoughts on space travel

  1. Alberto says:

    Call me lunatic, but I seriously don’t believe that the Americans have reached the moon.

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