The Best Of Humanity And The Worst Of Humanity

Posted: July 9, 2011 in World News
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As we come to the end of a fortnight in which the foundations of a press-politics relationship have been shook, possibly fatally so, it seems clear that the revelations surrounding the News Of The World hacking scandal will not be going away any time soon. In the same week, we saw the end of an era as STS-135, Space Shuttle Atlantis, arrived back on Earth for the final time.

Humanity’s desire to push for the limits of technology gave us the space race in the 1960s, with superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a battle to be the first to put man in space, then to put man on the moon. The Soviets won the first round, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completing an orbit of the Earth in April 1961. The Americans seemed to be far behind in the race for the moon, but the defining moment of the space race was John F Kennedy’s speech to Congress outlining his desire that the US put a man on the moon before the Soviets. This kick-started the funding that was needed to turn the existing US Mercury program into first Gemini, then into Apollo. Eventually, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong guided the Eagle LEM to the surface of the moon, and won the second round.

It is this desire to be the first and best that makes humanity such an intriguing study. Without this impulse to be better than other people, many of today’s technological advances would not have happened when they did. It is unfortunate that the main driving force behind advancement seems to be war between large administrations, indeed the development of the computer has its origins in military research. Alan Turing, widely recognised as the father of modern computing, worked for the British Government during World War Two to decrypt German encoding devices, including the Enigma machine. The Manhattan Project led to a proliferation of nuclear power throughout the world. The Wright Brothers’ powered flight innovations were taken into military developments, where the majority of refinements were made that led to commercial aviation advancements.

Now that the Shuttle program is coming to an end, and within an era of general worldwide peace, the onus for space flight is being passed to private entities. Whilst the US private sector comes up for a design for a new launch system and orbiter, American astronauts will be carried into space on Russian Soyuz rockets. Barack Obama has effectively retooled NASA for the purposes of a future manned mission to Mars, with an aim of landing on Mars by the end of 2040 at the latest.

Does this mean that private companies will look at space as a way of filling a profit and loss sheet with positive numbers? In days past, money was never a driving factor in research, development and delivery of a new project, which is why the military and Governmental organisations were able to keep ahead of the private sector. But because of the nature of the world we live in today, money is a much more prominent factor in almost everything that is done. Governments can live or die on the amount of money they spend or save, and this means that development of knowledge is placed much lower on the list than previously. Can private enterprise really deliver the cutting edge that NASA needs?

In truth, the Space Shuttle program lasted far longer than originally intended, it was meant to be a ten-year mission with multiple launches each year. However, the number of launches was reduced and the program stretched as long as possible, again due to cost restraints. George W Bush signed the NASA Authorisation Act 2005, setting in motion the shuttle’s replacement program, Constellation. This program was to have a wider scope than both Apollo and STS in that it was aiming to establish a base on the moon before shooting for Mars.  Budget constraints meant that Obama signed the NASA Authorisation Act 2010 to vastly reduce Constellation’s mission profile and also the State’s fiscal liability.

With new fears about the United States debt levels, it is possible that we may never see the Mars program in our lifetime, and that is a great shame for both science and humanity. We are natural explorers and inquisitors, desperate to find out why we are here, what else is out there and whether the stars can be bridged. The end of the Space Shuttle program shows that the American ambition has been blunted by reliance on outdated monetary systems.

It is time our planet worked together as one in our efforts to explore the local space neighbourhood. Unfortunately, I fear that it will take a new space race to stretch humanity to its best. In the meantime, space will remain seen but not touched, and we will be entering a new spatial dark age. And that is a massive shame.


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