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Where's the Ministry of Space gone

18/10/2005. Contributed by Jessica Martin

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The Royal Astronomical Society Commission assigned to investigate The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight has recommended that the British Government re-evaluates its long-standing opposition to involvement in human space exploration.

After 9 months of expert consultation and gathering of evidence from many sources, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Commission assigned to investigate "The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight" has presented its final report to the Society's Council.

The three independent Commissioners conclude by recommending that the British Government re-evaluates its long-standing opposition to involvement in human space exploration.

In summarising their findings, the Commissioners state: "We find that profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best - perhaps only - be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems.

"The wider commercial educational, social and political benefits help justify the substantial expenditure that full UK participation in a future international programme of HSE will require.

"It is hard to conceive that the UK, one of the world's leading economies, would stand aside from such a global scientific and technological endeavour. We, therefore, regard it as timely for Her Majesty's Government to re-evaluate its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration."

Professor Frank Close, Chair of the Commission, said, "We commenced this study without preconceived views and with no formal connection to planetary exploration. Our personal backgrounds made us lean towards an initial scepticism on the scientific value of human involvement in such research.

"However, while fully recognising the technical challenge and the need for substantial investment, we have, nevertheless, been persuaded by the evidence presented to us that the direct involvement of humans in situ is essential if we are to pursue science of profound interest to humankind that can only be undertaken on the Moon and Mars. Autonomous robots alone will be unable to realise those scientific goals in the foreseeable future."

Another Commissioner, Dr. John Dudeney, commented, "The wider commercial, educational, social and political benefits add justification to the substantial expenditure that full UK participation in an international programme of Human Space Exploration will require. A recent BBC opinion poll suggests that there would be strong public support for such involvement."

The third Commissioner, Professor Ken Pounds, added, "Recent developments across the world strongly suggest that, after a 30-year lull, space-faring nations are gearing up for a return to the Moon and then to Mars. It is hard to imagine that the UK, one of the world's leading economies, would not be fully involved in a global scientific and technology endeavour with such strong potential to inspire. We therefore recommend that the government re-evaluates its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration."

The main conclusions of the RAS report are as follows:

The essential scientific case for Human Space Exploration is based on investigations on the Moon and Mars. There are three key scientific challenges where direct human involvement will be necessary for a timely and successful outcome:

- Mapping the history of the solar system (including the young Earth) and the evolution of our Sun by studying the unique signatures left on and beneath the lunar surface;
- The search for life on Mars;
- Detailed, planet-wide exploration of Mars.

Scientific missions to the Moon and Mars will address questions of profound interest to the human race. These include: the origins and history of the solar system; whether life is unique to Earth; and how life on Earth began. If our close neighbour, Mars, is found to be devoid of life, important lessons may be learned regarding the future of our own planet.

While the exploration of the Moon and Mars can and is being addressed by unmanned missions, the capabilities of robotic spacecraft will fall well short of those of human explorers for the foreseeable future.

Assuming a human presence, the Moon offers an excellent site for astronomy, with the far-side and polar regions of the Moon being shielded from the 'pollution' from Earth.

Medical science will benefit from studying the human physiological response to low and zero gravity, to the effects of radiation and in the psychological challenge posed by a long-duration mission to Mars.

There appear to be no fundamental technological barriers to sending humans to the Moon or Mars.

A major international human space exploration programme involving a return to the Moon and the longer term aim of sending humans to Mars is likely to involve the US, Europe, Russia and Japan. There are also growing ambitions in China and India. Under present government policy the UK would not be involved and would look increasingly isolated.

The cost of the UK playing a full role in an international human space exploration programme to explore the Moon and Mars could be of the order 150M per year, sustained over 20-25 years. It is not realistic for the bulk of this to be taken from the existing Government-funded science budget. Rather, a decision to be involved should be taken on the basis of broader strategic reasoning that would include commercial, educational, social, and political arguments as well as the scientific returns that would follow.

There is compelling evidence that the outreach potential for human space exploration can be a strong positive influence on the interests and educational choices of children.

Involvement in technologically advanced exploration of the solar system will provide a high profile challenge for UK industry, with consequent benefits in recruitment of new engineers and scientists. Evidence from NASA and ESA surveys have shown a significant economic multiplier from investment in space projects, with an additional overall gain in competitiveness.

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