The Future of Human Space Exploration


As the funding for the various international space agencies is maintained despite astronomical costs, Conor O’Nolan writes about some of the recent work in the field

Human space exploration has been an iconic feature in the history of the last few decades. Recently, massive progress has been made towards what is recognised to be one of the main targets in space exploration: Mars. However, it is unlikely that anyone will set foot on Mars for, at the very least, a decade and a half.

Earlier this month, after just over five hundred days, six men emerged from a locked windowless shed in a Russian research facility. They were involved in an experiment as part of research regarding the feasibility of a manned mission to Mars. Their only contact with the outside world was a phone and Internet connection with a twenty-minute delay.

The men were continuously monitored for psychological stress and fatigue. It was only really after the halfway point of the mission that any vaguely serious problems arose. After they had spent three days performing geological research on a simulated version of the surface of “Mars” (i.e. a warehouse with red sand in it), serious boredom began to set in. Their goal had been completed but they still had nearly another two hundred and fifty days to go.

It is clear from this experiment that one of the most serious problems for astronauts going any further than the moon is passing the time. The astronauts involved spent at least an hour a day exercising, which in space is very important because low gravity environments can cause muscle degradation. The crew also had a Wii fit board and Guitar Hero with them to help get through the days. Every so often a simulated emergency would happen, such as a fire on their ‘ship’, which forced the crew to work together. Overall, they made it through the entire mission without any major upset, clearly demonstrating that given the right group of people, tasks involving sending people on extremely long journeys in very close quarters can be achieved quite successfully.

China has been making progress in building its own space station after being repeatedly turned away from their attempts to join the other sixteen nations involved in the International Space Station (ISS). Their most recent success was getting two sections of unmanned spacecraft to dock together. Although their program is significantly behind any other nation’s space program, it marks significant progress in China’s aim to have a functioning space lab by 2016.

While NASA retired their iconic shuttle program this summer, they still have numerous missions planned. Last year NASA’s funding was approved up until 2013; plans have been made for the development of exploration technology for human spacecraft, as well as the development of the American lab on the ISS and the continuation of its use until 2020. Plans for a permanent base on the moon were recently abandoned after budget cuts caused by the global recession. President Barack Obama gave a directive to NASA which laid out plans to land on an asteroid by 2025. Landing on an asteroid would help lay all the foundations for a mission to land on Mars. MIT professor in aeronautics Ed Crawley stated that “if humans can’t make it to near-Earth objects, they can’t make it to Mars”. Missions to Mars have been plagued with misfortune, even earlier this month a Russian probe due to collect soil samples from one of Mar’s moons ‘Phobos’ got stuck in the Earth’s orbit when some of its engines failed to fire.

Despite the interest in space science that manned-voyages generate, and the colossal technical feat in actually launching a spacecraft, it is often asked whether there is any actual value in sending people into space. The late Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynmann was of the opinion that man’s journeys to space had never really contributed to any major scientific discovery. Ultimately, he is right; we have learnt incredible things from projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope, but what we’ve learned from people being in space is, beyond how they behave or react in completely different environments, fairly minimal. The work that is being done now may as well be thought of as an investment for future generations, who will hopefully have the resources for much grander missions and goals. It is unlikely that any of us will ever be affected by any research that is being carried out, but we can always dream.