Shatner in space

A few months ago I wrote an article about how space exploration has become boring. The title was deliberately provocative, and of course it goes without saying that I’m approaching the subject from the point of view of a layman. But the point I made stands – it’s been a very long time since any mission to space, and even longer since any crewed mission to space, was of anything more than minor interest.

Many space missions in recent years saw unmanned probes launched, satellites placed into orbit, and the only missions with crews aboard visited the International Space Station. The ISS is without doubt an amazing feat of technology and engineering – but after more than two decades of permanent inhabitation, it’s long since lost much of its interest from the point of view of the layman. Scientifically and technologically space continues to be very important, but for me – and many other folks as well – it’s no longer the inspirational, aspirational place it once was.

The International Space Station.

Partly that’s a consequence of the scaled-back nature of crewed missions, the budget cuts space agencies have faced since the end of the Cold War and its associated space race, and perhaps the difficulty, expense, and length of time required to undertake missions to places we’ve never been before. But regardless of the cause, missions to space in the real world have lost much of their lustre over the decades, and no longer feel as special or as interesting as they once did.

But William Shatner’s recent trek to space was different. Even an old cynic like me felt genuine awe and wonder at the idea that Shatner – Captain Kirk himself – was actually going into space. For decades, journeys to space were the exclusive purview of a tiny number of well-trained air force pilots and scientists. Just getting into the astronaut or cosmonaut programmes required either a career as a high-flying ace fighter pilot or a doctorate in a relevant scientific field. There have been attempts to put spaceflight within reach of more people – Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, was set to be the first teacher to travel into space. But generally speaking, becoming an astronaut and travelling to space was out of reach for practically all of us.

William Shatner aboard Blue Origin’s NS-18 mission.

People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have talked in vaguely-defined terms about future missions to space or to Mars that would bring along more civilians and regular folks, but those missions seemed like a long way off. Then came missions in the last couple of years taking paying passengers – but at such a high cost that space felt like a playground for the billionaires’ club and was still beyond the reach of most ordinary people.

William Shatner’s space flight has gone a long way to challenging all of those perceptions. There’s something truly inspirational about the idea of Captain Kirk actually going into space; just writing those words feels incredibly surreal. This character was at the head of a television show and a franchise that, for more than half a century, has done more than any other to inspire people to look to the stars and to look to a future where space travel will be something anyone can participate in. And here he was, actually making that dream a reality in the real world.

Shatner with his crewmates.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Star Trek as an inspirational franchise. Generations of people have watched the series and been inspired by its message, its morals, its optimism, and its technology. The franchise has a track record of bringing its technologies to life – everything from tablet computers, wireless communicators, video calling, and more were “predicted” by Star Trek before becoming a reality. And perhaps that’s what makes William Shatner’s space flight so inspiring – he made the dream of going to space come true as well. There’s hope that, if Captain Kirk can actually travel into space, as Star Trek depicted all those years ago, perhaps the rest of us can too.

Not to be impolite, but at the age of 90, William Shatner isn’t in the prime of his life in terms of his physical condition. He looks great for 90, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a bit of a belly, a few too many wrinkles, and the ever-present toupée! But I’m not here to criticise any of that – because it’s those things that make his journey to space even more astonishing and aspirational. Not only is Captain Kirk himself in space, but here’s someone who’s older than any previous space traveller, who isn’t in the best shape of his life, and yet still it was possible to undertake that incredible journey. By simply being who he is, Shatner has once again inspired millions of folks who might’ve felt space travel was beyond them. Perhaps they felt they were too old, or they have a health condition, or something else. But seeing William Shatner at age 90 boarding that rocket and floating around up in space demonstrates to all of us that such a journey might be possible after all.

William Shatner and his crewmates boarding their spacecraft.

To me, that’s the success of this latest mission to space. For the first time in a very long time, a crewed space mission managed to get me genuinely excited and emotional; I felt I was sharing that moment with William Shatner and the others aboard the rocket. His sense of awe and wonder was so genuine, and the way he spoke and conveyed how it felt was passionate and beautiful.

There are still issues with space travel. The fact that it costs such an insane amount of money is going to be a barrier for a lot of people. But that was true of many inventions from the motor car to the aeroplane, and now those methods of travel are available to many more people than they were when they were first invented.

The idea that Captain Kirk could actually go into space has captured the public imagination in a unique way.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of a new age of space exploration. No longer will space be the exclusive realm of government-funded agencies, gated off to all but a select few people who were privileged enough to be able to head down the perfect career path. Commercial spaceflight has the potential to open up space to untold millions of people – and not just for short fun jaunts either. Orbital hotels, moon colonies, the exploration of Mars, and so many more things all feel one step closer today than they did just a few short weeks ago. That isn’t William Shatner’s doing – Blue Origin, SpaceX, and other companies have been building up to this moment for years. But once again, William Shatner brought space to the fore and captured the public’s imagination in a way that only he could.

I have no time for the naysayers. Prince William, one of the last wriggling vestiges of a dying aristocratic elite, had the audacity to criticise Shatner’s spaceflight shortly after he returned to Earth, saying that we should focus our energies on fixing climate change, not racing to colonise new worlds. But why can’t we do both? And not only that, but there’s more to fighting climate change than getting to the precious “net zero” that seems to be the fetish of our current crop of leaders. Space can offer solutions – harvesting solar energy, for example, capturing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere, or even building solar shades to shield parts of the Arctic and Antarctic are among many hypothetical ways that missions in space could have a real-world impact. And for all of the criticisms I made earlier of space exploration and missions to the ISS feeling boring from the layman’s perspective, the scientific advances they provide have already made an impact here on Earth.

William Shatner looking down at Earth from space.

For the first time in a very long time, a real-life mission to space managed to capture my attention – and showed off to millions of people that the dream of space travel, embodied by television franchises like Star Trek, hasn’t died. There’s the real and genuine potential to repeat this feat, and as technology continues to improve and costs come down, maybe spaceflight will be within reach of the average person sooner than we might expect.

All William Shatner did was accept an invitation and take his seat. But that simple act, and the wonderful reaction he had to it, was life-changing – and not just for the man himself. Just as he did in the 1960s when he commanded the starship Enterprise, William Shatner has once again inspired people all over the world, showing us that it isn’t futile to look to the stars.

Some images used above courtesy of Blue Origin via YouTube. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Why we should be sceptical and think critically about UFOs

Headlines have been made around the world in recent weeks about an official United States government investigation into UFOs; “unidentified flying objects.” It seems from news reporting as though the existence of alien visitors, which has been denied for decades by successive American governments, is about to be revealed to the public. A handful of images and even videos from official United States military sources have also come out, seemingly showing unknown objects moving through the sky.

But let’s slow down and try to put our critical thinking hats on for just a moment. What have we actually been shown? Beyond the headlines screaming about alien spaceships, what have we really seen in these photos and videos, and could there be an alternative, far more boring explanation?

Have we really seen alien spacecraft?

If you’ve ever studied philosophy, or even read articles on some pop-science websites, you might know what Occam’s razor is. Also known as the law of parsimony, in short the razor says that, when confronted with multiple hypotheses or potential explanations for an unknown event or phenomenon, the one with the fewest or smallest assumptions is preferable and most likely to be correct. To put it another way: the simplest explanation is the most likely.

So what is the simplest explanation for these UFO pictures and videos?

One thing we don’t have are any photographs or live video recordings. The clips and images shown off are all radar, infrared, and images put together from other scans and sensors. A computer takes the information taken in by the lens or scanner and translates it into a visual image. These are not “images” from a “camera” in the usual sense of either term.

It isn’t clear what this image represents.

When dealing with any technology, there’s scope for things to go wrong. An infrared sensor attached to a fast-moving aircraft could misinterpret something close as being far away, or something moving relatively slowly as moving quickly. Changes in the aircraft’s speed and position mean the sensor has to move and adjust its trajectory to keep track of an object, and this can make it appear as though the object is moving unnaturally.

There are many different objects that could be detected by a sensor, infrared scanner, and other sensitive equipment that would be far more likely than an alien spaceship. Balloons have been suggested in the past as one such example, and there are myriad others from reflections and clouds to other aircraft. There’s also the prospect of newly developed technology – either domestic (i.e. American) or foreign – some of these aircraft could be Russian or Chinese spyplanes or drones, for example. Even if we can’t account for every UFO by saying there’s a bug in the code or a problem with sensors or onboard computers, everyday phenomena are still more plausible explanations than alien spacecraft.

The F-117 “Nighthawk” stealth aircraft was developed in secret and is designed to be difficult to detect.

I’m not sure how I feel about aliens. On the one hand, it seems rational to imagine that alien life exists given the size of the observable universe and the consistent detection of exoplanets around practically every observed star. On the other, the lack of concrete proof of their existence, at least in our galactic neighbourhood, could mean that intelligent alien life is exceptionally rare. This is commonly known as the Fermi paradox; the absence of alien life in a universe that can support it.

But if intelligent alien life did exist, is this the way we would expect to detect it?

UFOs have been reported for decades, so if even 1% of the UFO sightings and reports are genuinely of alien origin, what have they been doing all this time? Obviously they don’t intend to contact us or make their presence widely known or they’d have done so by now. Any alien race that’s advanced enough to build interstellar or even interplanetary spacecraft is far superior in technological terms to humanity, and with their knowledge they’d be more than capable of announcing their presence to the world, conquering the world, or doing whatever else they might want to do. The fact that they haven’t is a significant hurdle for alien believers and advocates to surmount.

Another grainy and unclear still frame from one of the UFO report videos.

Then we come to a pretty big question: what’s the point? If an alien race is capable of travelling to the stars, why come to Earth and fly around in our atmosphere? What possible purpose could that serve? It can’t be for any kind of observation; even humans don’t need to fly at 30,000 feet to perform observations of things on the ground. Our satellites, even commercial ones like those used for services like Google Earth, are more than capable of performing accurate scans of the surface of our planet. If aliens existed and wished to observe us, they could do so at a great distance without us ever knowing.

And speaking of “without us ever knowing,” were these aliens careless or did they allow themselves to be detected? If they wanted to make their presence known, this is not a rational way to accomplish that goal. Nor is it particularly threatening or intimidating. If aliens wanted to let the peoples of Earth know that they were here, they could land in the middle of a big city and announce themselves. And if they’re possessing such technology as to be able to travel to the stars, would they really be so dumb as to allow a primitive human to catch them with an infrared sensor or a night-vision camera? I doubt it.

A third UFO as seen from the USS Russell.

The U in “UFO” stands for “unidentified.” By definition, that means we don’t know what these objects are; they were not able to be identified in the short span of time that the various pilots and military personnel spent in the vicinity. That could mean we’re dealing with alien spacecraft, but it also seems very likely that we aren’t. This is not the coup that tabloid headlines and the tin foil hat brigade want it to be. The United States government has admitted that it has detected a handful of objects that it can’t identify. Given the size of the US military, the number of daily flights undertaken, and the increasing reliance on technology, sensors, and computers – all of which are subject to glitches, issues, and even misinterpretations – it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that they’d occasionally spot something that they couldn’t immediately identify.

I like science fiction, and there have been some wonderful depictions of aliens and extra-terrestrial worlds over the years. But we can’t let our wishes and our fantasies guide the real world, and the fact remains that no matter how much we might want to believe in aliens, there still isn’t any proof. When making an argument and building a case, you can’t just slap down any old explanation into the gaps in our knowledge and cry “gotcha!” as if that’s the end of the matter. That’s the classic “god of the gaps” argument that many religious people often make; “you can’t explain X, therefore god.” In this case, some people seem to be making an “alien of the gaps” argument, proclaiming that, because the US military has been unable to identify something, it must be an alien spaceship. That’s simply not a valid argument.

The United States military (Pentagon HQ pictured) is investigating these incidents and will soon release a report.

So I’m sorry to pour cold water on this story. Maybe some of these UFO encounters are genuinely down to alien visitors, but until there’s more proof than a grainy non-image from a sensor made by the lowest-bidding military contractor, I’ll remain sceptical. The discovery of intelligent extra-terrestrial life would be the single biggest scientific achievement of the century, and has the potential to radically change many aspects of human life. Given the scope of such an important moment, we need to be absolutely sure of what we’re dealing with, and this set of unknowns may be circumstantial evidence in its favour, but it’s a long, long way away from being conclusive. It’s possible that “they” are hiding things from the public or not revealing everything they know, but unfalsifiable conspiracy theories and a lack of evidence to the contrary do not make for a valid argument and do not come close to constituting proof.

It’s possible that one day we’ll discover more about extra-terrestrial life. It seems almost certain, for example, that microbial life and bacteria once existed on Mars. But aliens in UFOs flying over United States airspace (and seemingly no other country’s)? As long as these items remain unexplained, aliens are always a possibility. But on a ranked list of all the possible explanations, they have to be at or very near the bottom. So despite all of the excitement, these images and video clips, and the impending government report about them, don’t come close to proving the existence of alien spacecraft. Sorry!

The United States government will soon release a report into “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Some stock photos courtesy of Unsplash and Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Has space exploration become… boring?

I’m a huge fan of Star Trek – which you probably know if you’re a regular around here! What would become the Star Trek franchise was born out of the space race of the 1960s; the incredible excitement of launching rockets, sending human beings into space, and the Apollo programme that would eventually send Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon in July 1969.

It’s hard to remember now, almost fifty years since mankind last set foot on the moon, but the pace of technological progress required to get there in the first place was incredible. The Wright brothers made the first ever powered flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle in 1903. Sixty-six years later, Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind.” In less than the span of a single human lifetime, we went from the horse and cart to the Saturn V rocket.

It’s been more than fifty years since Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the moon.

This was the world my parents’ generation grew up in. My father would’ve been in his late twenties when the first moon landing happened, and like practically everyone his age he can remember that event vividly. My grandfather, on the other hand, could distinctly remember the excitement he and his schoolfriends felt at seeing an automobile – a rarity when he was a child.

For all of the monumental accomplishments made in the field of space exploration in my lifetime, nothing compares to landing on the moon, launching the first satellite, or sending the first people to space. And that’s for a pretty simple – yet devastating – reason: we don’t do those kind of big missions any more. The space race ended, and with it the investment of governments shrank significantly. The scope of future missions was curtailed, and NASA in particular looked to money-saving measures.

The launch of a Saturn V rocket.

We’ve heard in every decade since the eighties the promise that we’d land humans on Mars within ten years – then the decade draws to a close and the promise is repeated. If you’d spoken to someone of my parents’ generation in the late ’60s, the idea that humanity would still have never gone to Mars – or even left Earth’s orbit – over fifty years later would have seemed utterly absurd! Surely, they felt, the pace of technological change and improvement would simply continue, and with it, more exciting space missions would come.

But the fundamental technologies involved in space travel haven’t really changed. The rockets that launch all of our satellites, probes, and astronauts are based on the same technology that Wernher von Braun created for the V-2 rocket during the Second World War. The engines and reactors powering our probes have hardly changed since the days of the Pioneer and Voyager programmes. When the money dried up, and the impetus pushing humans to explore space also dried up, technology stagnated.

Dr Wernher von Braun (circled) initially developed rockets for Nazi Germany before working for NASA.
Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.023-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of the reusable space shuttle was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed for more frequent missions, sending more humans to space and putting up more satellites and probes than ever before. On the other, it limited humanity’s manned missions to Earth orbit only, and restricted the size and weight of those same satellites and probes. The shuttle remained in service for thirty years, and in all of that time, the development of other spacecraft slowed to a crawl.

There are financial and political reasons why this is the case, especially in the United States. For the US government, space exploration is expensive, and thus NASA’s budget is first on the chopping block when savings need to be made! But there are also political reasons – many politicians have promised a return to the moon and further manned missions, yet were unable to deliver due to changes in political control of the White House and Congress.

All of this has contributed to a sense that I have, as a non-scientist and layman, that space exploration has lost much of its excitement.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise during a test-flight.

The recent landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars kind of encapsulated this, and is what prompted me to write this piece. Because as amazing an accomplishment as Perseverance’s successful landing was, it’s an almost-identical vehicle to Curiosity – a rover which has been on Mars, sending back data and photos since 2012.

From a scientist’s point of view, the two rovers may have different equipment. Perseverance may be able to conduct experiments that Curiosity couldn’t, and that’s fine. As scientific instruments I’m not doubting their merits. But as a layman looking in, we’ve been seeing photos of the barren Martian landscape for decades, and in high-definition for almost ten years. It’s pretty much a given that Mars once held liquid water and some forms of bacteria, even if the “smoking gun” evidence has yet to be found, so even if Perseverance were to conclusively prove that Mars once harboured microscopic life… even that wouldn’t feel all that interesting.

The Perseverance Rover recently landed on Mars.

The same applies to manned missions. No human has left Earth’s orbit in my lifetime. Manned missions to “space” today take humans to the barest edge of what we could reasonably call “space” – a few hundred miles above our planet’s surface, locked in orbit. The International Space Station, like the space shuttle before it, may be a wonderful engineering accomplishment, and its experiments may achieve interesting results for scientists, but after more than twenty years of continuous occupation of the ISS, it’s not exactly exciting is it?

The last time I felt truly awed by a space mission was New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto in 2015. Seeing images of a planet – or dwarf planet, to give Pluto its official designation – that had never been visited before was genuinely interesting. New Horizons completed the set – all nine planets that I learned about in school had now been visited and photographed by human space probes. That was an interesting moment.

Pluto in true colour, as seen by the New Horizons probe.

I’m increasingly sceptical, though, that any manned mission in the years to come will recapture that feeling. We’ve heard every few years that a manned mission to Mars is in the planning stages, but so far it’s never happened. There are certainly still technical and medical issues to overcome with such an endeavour, such as the long-term effects of low gravity on human bodies and the not-so-easy feat of constructing a large enough and powerful enough spacecraft to make such a journey. I doubt we’ll see it before the most-recent promised date of 2030.

Nor does a return to the moon seem to be on the agenda – again, despite promises to the contrary. The United States had talked about a manned mission sometime this decade, but nothing seems to have been done to further that objective in a long time; NASA’s “back to the moon” web page hasn’t been updated in several years, and I haven’t heard any talk of the proposed mission in a long time.

NASA’s “back to the moon” web page.

So we’re left with more missions to Earth orbit and probes to places we’ve already been. Nothing about that inspires me right now, and the missions that humanity sends into space have become mundane and routine. Perhaps that’s a comment on how we’ve become a spacefaring species: that rocket launches which would have drawn huge attention in years past are now considered dull. But I think it’s also a comment on how space exploration has lost some of its focus and impetus, with missions opting to stay in – relatively speaking, of course – “safe” territory.

As we come to learn more about space and our place in it, the expectation from decades past that we’d be up there exploring it has failed to come to pass. We’ve discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars in our galaxy, yet we have no way to ever practically visit them. We’ve sent countless rockets up into space to undertake a variety of missions, yet never tried to develop an alternate method of propulsion or getting into space. Because the fundamental technologies underlying our space missions haven’t been replaced, space exploration itself has kind of stagnated.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket uses the same basic technology as the V-2 did in the ’40s.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker.

As a kid I can remember wanting to be an astronaut and having a fascination with all things space. In the late ’80s and ’90s it seemed that there was still the potential to keep exploring and do bigger and better things – even if that potential had gone unrealised for twenty years or more. But it never came to pass, and I find it quite sad in a way that no human has walked on the moon, or even left Earth orbit, in my entire lifetime.

Perseverance landed on Mars a few weeks ago, and I have no doubt that it will send back data and images that will be of interest to scientists. It may even make the long-awaited breakthrough regarding ancient microbial life on the red planet. But as I look in as a layman, I can’t help but feel that I want to see something else. Why not go to Venus, to Mercury, to the moons of Jupiter? Why not send a probe to visit Neptune or Uranus, neither of which have been visited since the Voyager probes flew past them in the ’80s?

Perseverance at NASA prior to travelling to Mars.

Above all, our goal should be to send humans out into space, pushing the boundaries of science and technology to go where no man has gone before. And there’s the rub. We’re sending probes where probes have already gone before. Rovers to planets where rovers have already gone before… and are still actively exploring. Humans are going to a space station where more than 200 people have gone before. More than 550 humans have spent time in Earth orbit. It’s beginning to stretch the truth to call the most recent ones “pioneers.”

There are some interesting-sounding missions on the horizon, including planned missions to Saturn’s moon Titan, flybys of asteroids, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be an improvement over the decades-old Hubble Space Telescope and may potentially help scientists learn more about the formation of galaxies and stars. But there aren’t any manned missions I can feel excited about yet – and as I said I’ll be sceptical of any mission claiming to send humans anywhere other than the ISS until the rocket is on the launchpad and the astronauts are suited up. We’ve been down this road too many times for me to have any confidence, I’m afraid.

NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission will visit Saturn’s moon Titan. (Artist’s impression)

I know how this article comes across, and it’s for that reason I didn’t want to publish it immediately after Perseverance landed on Mars. That is undeniably an accomplishment, one which the team can and should take pride in. And as I keep saying, I’m not a scientist. These missions achieve a lot from a scientific standpoint, bringing in a lot of data about different aspects of the cosmos. The data we gain from missions like Perseverance, for example, will hopefully further inform a future manned mission to Mars.

The fact that we have so much technology in space, and that we see so many rocket launches that they don’t even make the news any more are accomplishments. Humanity’s space infrastructure may not have developed in the way I would have wanted, or in the way people of my parents’ generation may have expected in the aftermath of the moon landings, but we have achieved a lot. None of that should be in dispute, and that isn’t what I’m trying to say in this article.

The International Space Station over Florida.

Space exploration isn’t just about raw data and scientific interest. It needs to be inspirational, calling out to future generations of scientists and astronauts to say “hey, look at this absolutely amazing thing we’ve done.” And for me, that inspiring aspect hasn’t been present for a while. The decisions made going back fifty years or more to focus on Earth orbit and unmanned probes to Mars at the expense of other destinations has led space exploration to feel boring by 2021. I think that’s a shame, but I also worry that if that inspirational aspect remains lost, we may never get it back. If nobody cares about going into space because the things we do in space have already been done before, the resultant loss of interest will mean future generations won’t even try to develop new technologies or push forward to new destinations.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And with space exploration having become a luxury rather than a necessity, there has been no real drive toward creating new and better ways of doing it. Why spend time, money, and resources inventing some kind of anti-gravity thruster when chemical rockets from the 1940s still work? But without that need, that drive, I really do believe we’ve seen space technology stagnate and fail to improve.

The Nazi V-2 rocket (modern replica pictured) was the first truly successful long-range rocket.
Photo Credit: Lars Aronsson, CC SA 1.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

None of these things are easy, and it’s outstanding in many ways that we’re in as good a position as we are in terms of space exploration and space technology. But I can’t be the only one who feels this way. There hasn’t been a truly pioneering manned mission since we last went to the moon in the early ’70s, and when we’re sending probes and rovers to planets that have seen probes and rovers visit on a number of previous occasions… let’s just say that the first time is always interesting, but each subsequent one draws less and less attention and excitement.

The sad reality, I suppose, is that there isn’t any compelling reason to go to space beyond the thrill of exploring it. And thrills don’t pay the bills! We have all of the resources we need here on Earth – at least in the short-to-medium term – and the expense of doing something commercial in space, like mining or collecting resources, versus the potential profit seems to rule it out. Space is hard to commercialise right now, and thus we seem not to be as interested as we were in decades past.

The planet Uranus – last visited by a human probe in 1986.

SpaceX, the most successful commercial space company, makes its money by launching satellites and other missions in Earth’s orbit – as well as from the upcoming Starlink satellite internet service. That aspect of space can and has been commercialised. But the rest of it – the moon, the asteroids, the planets, and beyond – are currently beyond our reach, at least in terms of a cost-to-profit ratio. It falls solely to government-sponsored agencies, then, to engage in exploration.

I always keep my fingers crossed for interesting and exciting news from space. And it isn’t all doom and gloom; there have been some interesting events, such as the recent transit of ʻOumuamua – which may have been the first interstellar object ever detected. But even then, I’m left with a sense of a missed opportunity. We didn’t send a probe to investigate ʻOumuamua because we couldn’t. We lacked the technology to catch up to the fast-moving object, and thus we’ll never know for certain exactly what it was or what it looked like.

Will we put humans back on the moon – or even on Mars – in the next few years, or even in my lifetime? I can’t answer that question with any certainty any more, and having been let down so many times, I don’t think I’ll believe it until I see the astronauts strapped into their seats on the launchpad. I want space to be interesting, for humans to push the boundaries and strike out into the great unknown. And I want probes to do the same, visiting distant parts of the solar system in the name of exploration. Revisiting Mars and the ISS may provide interesting scientific opportunities, but speaking for myself as a layman, these things no longer hold my interest. Space exploration has become boring.

Some images and artwork courtesy of NASA and/or Wikimedia Commons. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Mars by 2030?

It’s the start of a new decade! And as we enter the 2020s, “futurologists” and others are popping up, sharing their predictions for the technologies and events we can look forward to in the 2020s. One prediction that has cropped up on a number of lists is that we – and by “we” I mean humankind – will land at least one manned mission on Mars before the close of the decade.

Sounds amazing!

Except… haven’t we been here before? Every decade since the 1980s we’ve been promised the same thing, both by people who try to make a living predicting the future and by governments and space agencies themselves. So why hasn’t it happened?

Mars – the red planet. Are we going there soon?
Photo credit: ESA – European Space Agency & Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research for OSIRIS Team ESA/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Money is of course a factor. NASA has seen its budget cut dramatically in the last few years, particularly by the Obama administration in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. When citizens are living on food stamps and unable to afford basic necessities like healthcare, it seems more than a little obscene to spend vast sums of taxpayers’ money – their money – on space exploration. Space exploration is seen by many as the ultimate luxury for a government, and is one of the first projects on the chopping block when financial savings need to be made.

The space shuttle programme is also a factor, and that ties into the financial issues mentioned above. The space shuttle was designed to be reusable – largely to help NASA cut costs. And overall that’s a positive thing, because it meant more manned space missions were possible during the shuttle’s lifespan. But the shuttle also stifled technological growth in the space industry. Because there was a reliable, reusable vessel to get humans and cargo into orbit, there was no need for a long time to upgrade it or design new spacecraft, and crucially, successive governments could get away with saying “no” when NASA wanted to undertake those projects, using the excuse that they already had a perfectly serviceable fleet of spaceships, so why pay to build new ones? Many people have said how the space shuttle’s limited cargo capacity has, in many ways, constrained the development of satellite technology by forcing practically every major satellite project during the shuttle era to fit certain size and weight requirements. But the shuttle also, in very real ways, slowed down the development of other spacecraft and other space technologies – including those that would have been required to get mankind to Mars in every decade since the 1980s.

Only six months ago we passed the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing. And sadly, within a couple of years we’ll pass the fiftieth anniversary of the last manned moon landing too. In my lifetime, no human being has stood on the moon or even left Earth’s orbit, yet that would have seemed completely incomprehensible to people in the late ’60s and early ’70s when space exploration was reaching its peak. Back then, the idea that we’d have gone on to Mars and elsewhere seemed an absolute certainty.

So there are definitely practical considerations from here on Earth – both financial and political – as to why a manned Mars mission hasn’t yet happened. But there are other issues at play too, and unfortunately they may mean that Mars by 2030 just isn’t possible.

The longest ever human spaceflight (achieved by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov in the early 1990s) is one year and two-and-a-half months, or 438 days. A mission to Mars, assuming the best possible launch window, would take at least nine months each way, plus a mission on the surface of three months or so, for an absolute minimum duration of 635 days – almost 50% longer than any other previous human spaceflight. And unlike a spaceflight to low Earth orbit, there’d be no prospect of resupplying a ship once it had left on its mission.

A human could absolutely survive for that long in space; there’s nothing to suggest that 438 days is the maximum a human body can last under those conditions. But the problem is that it isn’t just a case of being in space.

When astronauts return to Earth even after relatively short missions in low gravity, it can take weeks or months to adjust to being in gravity again. The reason astronauts are carried from their landing sites when they get back to Earth instead of walking is usually because they physically can’t, especially after months in space. When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon this wasn’t as much of an issue for two reasons – the moon’s gravity is about 17% of Earth’s gravity, and the amount of time they spent in space was only a few days. A mission to Mars gets neither of these advantages, meaning the first humans to land on the red planet after a nine-month-long flight might not even be able to stand up when they touched down.

Mars’ gravity is much stronger than the moon’s, at around 38% of that of Earth. And as we have already covered, the travel time to get there is measured in months, not days.

There’s also the logistics of creating a spacecraft that is capable of getting to Mars, existing as a home base for astronauts while they’re there, and is capable of getting home again. It would need to be a huge vessel – capable of housing the astronauts both in space and while on Mars, and carrying enough fuel and supplies to complete a mission of that duration. Remember that the International Space Station, as well as previous long-stay space stations in Earth’s orbit, were always able to be resupplied, even on short notice. That obviously isn’t possible for a Mars mission, meaning that any spacecraft headed there would have to be entirely self-sufficient.

Realistically that means a crew far larger than the three-person Apollo missions, as there would need to be specialist engineers on hand with the technical knowledge to perform repairs to any part or system of the ship, as well as at least two pilots who could make independent adjustments to the vessel’s trajectory as needed. The ship would also need a dedicated medical facility – and at least one doctor. That would be in addition to the scientists and geologists and microbiologists that would be at the core of the work the mission wanted to undertake. And each additional person requires extra food, water, and air, adding to the weight and size of the vessel, which in turn would need more powerful engines and more fuel.

Then there’s the problem of cabin fever, and the issues humans have when living and working in close proximity with one another for prolonged periods of time. On a Mars mission, there’d be no escape from your colleagues, and no privacy. When experiments have been conducted, putting a group of people in total isolation for a year or more, issues almost always emerge. One famous study that aimed to look at the effect of a long-term Mars mission ended with the “crew” having split into two factions that weren’t even on speaking terms. During the moon missions, real-time two-way communication was possible, albeit with a short delay. On a Mars mission, the distances involved mean that communication would only be possible in the form of recorded messages, and real-time conversations both with the space agency and with their friends and family wouldn’t be possible for the crew – further adding to their isolation.

The duration of the flight also causes another issue – dangerous levels of radiation. On Earth, and even in low orbit, Earth’s magnetosphere shields us from what would otherwise be fatal levels of solar and other cosmic radiation. After leaving the protection of this magnetic field, astronauts would be exposed to much higher levels of radiation than is safe, meaning any spacecraft has to find a way to offer protection from that. And while it’s accepted that the Apollo spacecraft were suitable for the short duration to the moon and back, a spacecraft built to similar specifications would not be good enough for a months-long mission outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere.

Then there’s the concern of Martian microorganisms. One of the main reasons we want to go to Mars is to find out if it supports life – but what if it does? It wouldn’t be possible to create a sterile environment on the Martian surface for astronauts to live in, at least not without making the landing vehicle/home base significantly larger and more complex. So if there are microorganisms present, either fully alive or in some kind of suspended state, what would be the effect of interacting with them?

This was a concern for the Apollo missions, too, and there’s a famous photo of President Nixon with the Apollo 11 crew – while they’re standing at the window of an isolation chamber to keep them quarantined. The risk of contamination is significant, and exposing a human to what is literally an alien microbe could be harmful or even fatal. And while living on the surface of Mars for literally months, it would be very difficult to prevent that kind of contamination, if there’s anything of that nature on the surface at least.

The Mars Rover.
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

So the question I have is this – is a manned mission to Mars genuinely practically achievable with our current level of technology?

It seems to me that we’re missing some key pieces.

The first is some form of artificial gravity, both for the spacecraft and to use while on the planet’s surface. There are some great theoretical means of generating artificial gravity, but none have yet been realised. And unfortunately many of our attempts in this area are hampered by a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of gravity itself – we simply don’t know exactly why gravity works the way it does, even though we’re fairly clear on the how.

Secondly, we really need a faster method of propulsion than we currently have. Partly this is to keep astronauts safe from both radiation exposure and the effects of low gravity, but also it’s a practical concern to prevent astronauts succumbing to cabin fever and avoiding the issues that can develop from living and working in close quarters. If the time to fly between Earth and Mars could be cut even in half, that would be a great first step.

Finally, we need to be able to build a spacecraft larger and more powerful than any we’ve ever constructed. It needs to be large enough to hold its crew, all of their consumables, and have the ability to land and take off from the surface of Mars. Taking off from Mars is an issue in itself – with Martian gravity being a significant hurdle. The spacecraft would need to be able to exist as a home base for astronauts while on the surface, and be shielded from dust storms known to plague the planet. The engineering task of building such a vehicle is enormous.

With all of the issues above taken into account, are we really on course to land on Mars in the 2020s? It’s not impossible, and there are some incredibly clever and outright brilliant people working on achieving precisely this feat. But until the ship is built and the astronauts are suited up and sitting on the launchpad ready to go, I’m going to remain sceptical. We’ve been here before, and previous promises of Mars missions have come to naught. There are huge issues that still need to be tackled to make it a reality, and while it’s definitely possible we’ll get there before 2030, I’m just not convinced yet that it’s a certainty.

Fingers crossed, though!

This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.