Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sweet and Sour for Spaceflight

By Morris Jones

Tthe 50th anniversary of human spaceflight is a somewhat embarrassing time for the space community.

2011 marks an historic anniversary for science buffs. This is the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. Half a century has passed since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit of the Earth aboard his Vostok 1 spacecraft, enthralling the world, but also causing fear. The flight was yet another symbol of rising power from a bellicose Soviet Union, whose leaders threatened the security of the West with a rising arsenal of nuclear weapons. Spaceflight was thus both sweet and sour for a turbulent twentieth century world.

The issue, at least in the short term, was for America to answer the Soviet challenge. Its response was the Apollo program, a hugely expensive project designed to counteract Soviet dominance in space. In 1969, the Apollo program reached its climax when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

The sixties were exciting times for spaceflight. Every month, something new seemed to happen. Great expectations were drawn for the decades that were due to follow. It was expected that there would be huge space stations, bases on the Moon and human expeditions to Mars.

To the chagrin of space fans, most of the space age has been far more mundane. Spaceflight has become regular and routine. Our world is ringed with so many satellites that space junk is now a serious problem. We have the International Space Station in orbit, and robot probes exploring the planets. Spaceflight has steadily advanced in its technology, but it hasn’t really taken a “giant leap” since the Apollo days. Young people, once enthralled by astronauts, now shun spaceflight.

This major anniversary should prompt celebrations and a renewal of interest in spaceflight. But the real response is pretty muted. The world is locked in a global financial crisis that has captured attention of governments and the general public. The space community itself is experiencing even more dismay. Thousands of aerospace workers in the USA are losing their jobs as NASA terminates the space shuttle program. America has no replacement spacecraft for its astronauts, and will need to buy seats on Russian spacecraft for several years. NASA has no clear plan for its near-term future, and the White House seems generally indifferent to its problems.

After so much time, we should have gone a lot further. We should also have a more robust group of international space programs. Exactly why this hasn’t happened is a complex story. The early years of the “space race” were driven by almost paranoiac fears of world domination by an evil Soviet empire. When politics and strategic issues settled down, governments lost the will to plough so much money into spaceflight. The general public, so fascinated by the early days of spaceflight, now simply accepts it as a normal part of life, but not as something on the cutting edge. It’s also true that we have struggled to produce breakthroughs in basic technology. Today’s rockets are only marginally different from the rockets of the 1960s. They’re expensive, complex and unreliable.

A new breed of private space companies is trying to break the barriers, developing new launch systems and spacecraft that should be cheaper and more reliable. Hope is strong, but they have yet to fully prove themselves.

So we enter this anniversary at a somewhat embarrassing time for the space community. It’s difficult to compare what could have been, with what we really have. But hard truths can sometimes serve as wake-up calls for a rebound. In the decades ahead, the space community hopes to see that.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer.