Editorial | Published:

Where man has gone before

Nature Physics volume 3, page 663 (2007) | Download Citation

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Fifty years after the launch of Sputnik, does the prospect of manned spaceflight, back to the Moon and onwards to Mars, still have the power to impress?

Image: NASA

They say the past is a foreign country. Trying to imagine the world from which Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched, it certainly seems so. The year was 1957: a youthful Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (but only from the waist up), the first FORTRAN compiler was released, and the world reeled from the Suez crisis and the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising. As two idealistically opposed superpowers faced each other down, the impact of Sputnik was huge and memorable, as Joe Burns recounts in this issue (page 664). Burns was sixteen years old, and Sputnik left a lasting impression, carrying him on into a scientific career.

A similar moment of inspiration is noted by Mike Lockwood (page 669), this time with the 1981 launch of the first Space Shuttle, Columbia. And for this (thirty-something) editor, it was Mars — the images of the eerie red landscape (although devoid of little green men) beamed back by the Viking landers in the 1970s; television's Space 1999 was a playground obsession.

There is no doubt that space and space travel have the power to impress, especially for the young. This fact has been cited in a newly released advisory-panel report1 that recommends — before a UK government review of space policy due this month —the pursuit of a programme to put British astronauts in space. The ongoing decline in the UK in the number of young people choosing to study science could be tackled, the report suggests, if the youngsters could see, and be inspired by, Britons in space.

It can be argued whether or not the young people of Britain would respond more positively to the presence of a compatriot in space than of an astronaut of another nationality. But, where space is concerned, nationality should not be an issue. The flag-planting adventures of the past are over. The future of space exploration must be a global concern — not only must the huge expense be shared, but also the political and military implications of putting material from Earth into space (be it human or not) are as serious today as they were in 1957.

The possibilities of global cooperation in science have already been explored — with success — in the building of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and now also in the planning of a future International Linear Collider. Similar world-wide collaboration is developing in space research, notably in the form of the Global Exploration Strategy, which involves 14 space agencies, including the national agencies of Russia, Japan, China and India, as well as NASA and the European Space Agency. In a framework document2 published earlier this year, the GES recommends itself as a forum “through which nations can collaborate to strengthen both individual projects and the collective effort”.

All well and good. But, as might be expected from space agencies, the document is positively evangelical in its selling of the Moon as “a second home in the Solar System” and of “the most rewarding objective” of landing humans on Mars. In his Commentary, Lockwood, although positive about the science that could be done on the Moon, presents a more tempered view of the realities of human space travel.

In considering the possibilities of space for the next fifty years, the reasoning must be solid and scientific, not swayed by notions of popular appeal. According to the GES, apparently “the public has marvelled” at the building of the International Space Station. The public is also acutely aware of the loss of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle crews. The return of man to the Moon will not have the imaginative impact of the Apollo-11 landing because it's just that — a return, not a 'first'. And although an astronaut on Mars would be a first, that planet has already been revealed in such detail by the hugely successful robotic missions that is hard to imagine a human landing now having the same impact as that original “giant leap for mankind”.

The world is a different place, one in which science fiction and virtual reality, and even the real frontiers of theoretical physics, have stretched the public imagination far beyond our present, and foreseeable, capabilities in space. We can't go back to 1957 and the sense of wonder that greeted the Sputnik launch, nor recreate the 1960s and the political drive that led to the first Moon landing. But if now our aspirations in space are driven by the desire for meaningful progress in science, and by a global enterprise that is independent of political gain or national feel-good factors, that really might impress the kids.

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