Past, Present & Future
On July 20th, 1969, 50 years ago, a team of astronauts led by Commander Neil Armstrong made history by landing on the surface of the Moon. This was merely 55 years after the first commercial flight flew between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of the Space Race, and lasting just over eight days, it represents the challenges and opportunities of spaceflight. The question now is, what will come in the next 50 years?
An Unsettling Ending to WWII
The Second World War is regarded as one of the bloodiest and destructive moments in world history, with over 70 million deaths worldwide. It encompassed battles around the world, namely in Europe, the Pacific and South-East Asia. The conflict lasted six years, which ended with the Japanese Empire surrendering in 1945. A bounty of military and scientific developments came from the war, tainted with the blood of the millions it affected. Despite that peace was signed globally, the end of the war left many leaders uncertain of the future.
Quickly global leaders joined teams; global alliances forged from similar political interests, and perhaps also because of fear; fear of the consequences of choosing the ‘other team’. The ambiguously named “Cold War” consisted of small, and seemingly insignificant pushes to world supremacy by rival political parties. Referred to by the term brinkmanship, it describes the push of a potentially dangerous issue or event, such as an act of war, with the intention of escalating a conflict to the point just before it passes a threshold of acceptance by the international community and before escalating the conflict into full blown-out war. This practice, still used today yet perhaps less obvious, aims to test the political maturity of the opposing party, and dangerously attempts to influence actions of retaliation. This tone was kept for nearly 50 years after the end of WWII and played a significant role in how technology was built and applied for reasons to ‘one-up’ the other party.
The Origins of the Space Race
The power and destruction of nuclear bombs and potentially deadly long-distance nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles saw global leaders wanting to protect their nations from such attacks. Rockets had been an interest to both sides long before WWII, but only during the Cold War were these efforts materialised into government-supported projects. By the late 1950s, both the United States of America and the USSR successfully launched satellites into orbit in quick succession of each other. Only a few years later, the USSR launched their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. A few months after that, Alan Shepard, from the USA side was launched into space. Although he did not achieve orbit like his USSR counterpart, this mission was the preparation for more manned spaceflights. This was likely the consequence, and success, of the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (more commonly known as NASA) in 1958.
Eyes of the Moon
By the mid 1960s, both the Americans the USSR were actively pumping resources into their space programmes. Even President John F. Kennedy acknowledged the successful developments of the USSR space programme, and although he had displayed little support for USA space programmes before, citing them as too expensive, he urged to continue the race for spaceflight. By 1962, Kennedy fully supported NASA projects, which aimed to showcase political and scientific superiority, likely as a way to build on public support as well. Their eyes were on the Moon; to land a person on the Moon and return them to Earth.
On July 16, the Saturn V Rocket, AS-506 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin, their mission, land on the Moon. On July 20th, 1969 (50 years ago at the time of writing this article), the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, three days after they launched from Earth, having covered 380,000 kilometres of spaceflight.
Coming Down to Earth
For much of the concern towards the Space and Moon Race, it seemed like the Americans had won it. However, the Cold War was not much better. Events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the outbreak of the Vietnam War, would still be regarded as events that continued to plague the outcomes of the Cold War. The Moon Race was an accomplishment of itself during a time of uncertainty, that brought together millions of people around the world to share the achievement of one person, who summarised it quite simply by saying “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. But behind his success were teams of engineers, physicists, mathematicians and millions of dollars spent on the space programmes. And this success story did not come without unsuccessful attempts to send piloted missions, as failures on both the USA and USSR side a few years before Apollo 11 stunted space missions. And equally, the Apollo 11 Project, whose mission it was to land a lunar module on the Moon and safely return its crew, was not a single project that upon completion ended the Race to Space. It had merely led to us ask the questions of what could be accomplished next.
NASA continued to send piloted missions to space, notably using their most iconic spacecraft, the Space Shuttle (as seen above). And what was true was that the real accomplishment that came from these space missions was the collaboration of space programmes from different nations. The human presence now in Space is regulated, it’s controlled, and the space is under the protection of international freedom laws. Safeguarding these measures are needed to ensure the collaborative nature of space programmes, to not dominate, but to create and develop new opportunities for the international community.
The Next 50 Years
Technically speaking, it is easy to get to space. It is staying there that’s the challenge. This not only in terms of manoeuvring the spacecraft in a way that it remains in orbit, but also sustaining crews in long term missions. The International Space Station (ISS) was deployed 20 years ago and hosts crews from NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), ESA (Europe), JAXA (Japan) and CSA (Canada). This is truly one of our closest attempts to starting a human presence outside of Earth, but there are challenges that remain. These are mainly regarding the challenges of living in a self-sustainable way, maximising and recycling resources. And above all, it is about being able to be healthy and maintain a high spirit during long missions.
When we think about going beyond the ISS and beyond the Moon, we need to have solutions to these challenges, mainly to successfully establish a human presence on other planets. For about 20 years, attention has been on Mars, the terrestrial planet with the closest characteristics to Earth, despite being 225 million kilometres away. Unmanned missions to Mars, most notably that of the Curiosity Rover, have given us more information about the Red Planet, and have curved our interests in accepting it as the next place to start a civilisation. Missions to the Moon haven’t been as popularised in recent years as they were 50 years ago, but with the mindset of building future cities on other planets, the interest in Moon landings have just begun to start again for all global space agencies.
With more public interest and private companies such as Blue Origin, which aim to implement better ways for human spaceflight, the venture into space is, for the most part, no longer a political statement of nations. It ventures now more to the curiosity of the space flight enthusiast. It is about billion-dollar companies pumping billions of dollars into new markets, namely space tourism, and thus creating new possibilities in science and technology, many of which were still quite simply written as fantasies 50 years ago. It will continue to depend on the collaboration of private companies and governments to push these capabilities even further.
The next 50 years should see a better understanding of what is achievable, new technology that enables better, eco-friendlier spaceflights, ridiculously priced space tourism journeys for the discerning individual and perhaps a final plan in place to send humans to Mars. We perhaps are not entirely serious about the next 50 years and are using our imagination and ambition as catalysts for innovation; it is important to account for realistic ideas. With that said, it will not only take the efforts of engineers, physicists and mathematicians, it is about exploring the human aspect of space missions as well. If one day we leave this world behind, we should take the best of it wherever we go.
This article was written in collaboration with Seanasol. Seanasol is building the infrastructure for self-sustainable, low-gravity farming by bringing together the expertise of aerospace scientists and plant biologists. They strongly believe that “when we move to Mars, everyone will be a farmer.” For more information about their project, visit http://www.seanasol.co.uk.
Cover image obtained from here, under the Noncommercial, Creative Commons Licence.