Published in Tribune, 9 November 2007
LAST Saturday, American astronaut Scott Parazynski risked his life repairing a solar panel on the international space station (ISS) on what was reported to be one of the most dangerous space walks ever. A few days earlier, Alan Thirkettle, head of the European Space Agency, told media that Britain had “totally blown it” and made a “fundamental mistake” when it decided, decades ago, that it wouldn’t fund manned space flight.
No matter what overfunded bureaucrats such as Thirkettle say, every time an astronaut like Parazynski risks his life for the ISS, the wisdom of Britain’s decision to stay out is confirmed.
Manned space flight can be justified for one of three reasons: if it is economically viable, if it fulfils our human urge to explore, or if it serves scientific research.
The space station (and space shuttle) serve none of these, and the sooner we realise this, the sooner manned space travel can get out of the rut it has been stuck in for the past 30 years.
Clearly, the current setup is not economically viable, even if Russia occasionally earns a few million in hard currency in return for lobbing a thrill-seeking millionaire into orbit for a few weeks at a time.
After all, if space travel was so profitable, surely the invisible hand of the market would have helped the private sector fire a couple of rockets into space by now?
And if exploration means going to places we have never been before, the ISS fails there too, since all it does is orbit about 170 miles above us. When it flies over south-east England, the ISS is actually closer to London than Leeds is – hardly the final frontier.
The fact is, we gave up on exploring space years ago, and the language of exploration has largely given way to that of routine.
Space travel, now that the pioneering days are over, is supposed to be justified by the science that can be done in orbit. We were promised cheap, regular flights, commuting into orbit, a better use of money than grandiose gestures like the moon landings.
So, countries, tired with the expense and danger of the space race, were conned with the vision of space stations and reusable space shuttles (names, it is easy to forget now, that are supposed to imply routine).
Both the US and the Soviet Union spent huge sums building shuttles (although Russia saw sense and scrapped its programme after a few flights), and both launched space stations of their own, before teaming up with Europe, Canada and Japan a decade ago to build the ISS.
It was an ambitious plan for exploration to give way to useful science and technology. But the new vision of space flight never delivered. As well as exploring nothing and bringing scant benefit to the economy, little in the way of significant scientific research has actually been carried out in 30 years of “routine” space travel.
Modern space travel is only like commuting in the sense that it is tiresome, repetitive and pointless. It has not eliminated the danger and expense that was involved in space exploration, making the ISS and space shuttle a sort of orbital version of London’s Circle Line: cramped, expensive, unreliable, smelly, and going round and round for no obvious reason.
And that’s if the ISS even gets finished. After seven years of construction work, several crucial modules of the space station still haven’t been launched.
The final shuttle is due to go to the scrapyard in 2010, the result of one of George Bush’s few sensible decisions as president – and if there are any more hiccups, there simply won’t be enough flights left to shift up the remaining sections of the station before the ageing fleet of shuttles is retired.
And of 119 launches in the past 26 years, let’s not forget that two have ended in disaster – a worse safety record than the supposedly dangerous rockets they replaced.
Without these missing sections, the ISS has achieved essentially nothing in its seven years in orbit. Except during the brief periods in which two spacecraft are docked with it, it has never carried more than a skeleton crew, which must spend almost all its time on maintenance, and, correspondingly, barely any time on experiments.
But even if the ISS does eventually get finished, it’s hard to see what it will do. Just six years after its projected completion date, and having been under construction for 10, the ISS is scheduled to follow the shuttle and face the great Beeching axe in the sky.
And the cost of this lunacy? An estimated £65 billion so far on the ISS, and another £75 billion (and 14 dead astronauts) on the space shuttle – more than twice the price of the Apollo programme, which brought men to the moon and inspired a generation.
There are people who would have Britain sign up to it all.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Published in Tribune, 9 November 2007
- ► 2009 (11)
- ► 2008 (12)
- ▼ 2007 (13)