Tiffany Jenkins: More nations still boldly going

"Buzz" Aldrin Jr. walks on the moon in 1969. Picture: NASA/AP
"Buzz" Aldrin Jr. walks on the moon in 1969. Picture: NASA/AP
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Exploration of what lies beyond our little planet retains a powerful hold on the collective imagination, writes Tiffany Jenkins

“To boldly go where no man has gone before” may be a quote from the science fiction TV series Star Trek, but every time I hear it I think not of Captain Kirk and the half human-half Vulcan Spock with his pointy ears – well not much anyway – but of the aspiration and ambition to launch humanity into space.

Space has always held a powerful place in our imagination, once reflected in an ambitious space programme advanced by America and Russia.

But with the ending of the Space Race – and the Cold War – as well as high profile disasters including Challenger in 1986, which exploded 73 seconds after lift-off killing everyone on board, and Columbia which exploded upon re-entering into the earth’s atmosphere, in 2003, killing its seven member crew, there has been a limiting of horizons and a more cautious approach to space exploration.

In the past there were political motivations and a confidence which meant it was possible for John F. Kennedy to declare, in 1962, in an speech designed to rouse support for Nasa to send a manned flight to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. It was a goal that “will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”.

Space exploration is now seen as dangerous and very expensive. And it is.

Venturing into the unknown is difficult to justify, it’s hard to predict what will happen and what benefits will accrue. As a consequence there are fewer manned flights. Instead, there have been a number of robotic missions and satellites sent up. So when Neil Armstrong died in 2012 it almost felt as if the adventurous spirit that took human beings into space in the first place had expired with him.

But there are encouraging signs of life. In 2010, the UK Space Agency was set up by the government. The British space sector has been described by David Cameron as good for British jobs – it employs about 30,000 people – focusing on satellite technology.

And it gives substantial funds – about £230m a year – to the European Space Agency. But for me, as a non-politician, what is inspiring about it is the incalculable possibilities of exploration and simply finding out what is out there.

This year Major Tim Peake became our official astronaut. Peake is the first Briton selected for the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps and is now in training for his mission to the International Space Station in 2015.

Upon his selection he extolled his delight in being chosen for what is primarily a scientific mission: “I believe humankind faces some enormous challenges this century, and the space arena is going to be fundamental in overcoming some of those challenges.”

On 14 December, China’s rocket Chang’e Number 3 – named after the legendary China moon goddess, and the Jade Rabbit rover – named after her mythical pet rabbit, landed on the moon.

They touched down on the lunar surface in what was the first soft-landing on the moon in 37 years and the third unmanned rover mission. The lander will operate for a year. The rover is on a three-month mission to explore the lava field the Bay of Rainbows named so because it is beautiful. It will survey geological structures, search for natural resources and set up a telescope.

After America and Russia, China is the only nation to land on the moon. China is developing an ambitious space programme with plans to erect a space station in orbit in 2020 as well as a lunar base for astronauts.

The next person to walk on the moon could well be Chinese. These lunar explorations have been made possible because in 2009 millions of tonnes of frozen water was discovered on the moon. This tremendous development means a settlement is more viable, as is the use of the moon as a base for other missions.

Researched properly, the pools of frozen water also hold the key to the history and evolution of the solar system.

Whilst China’s entry into the space game is not really comparable to the space race of the past, something is up. In November India launched a spacecraft to Mars. It is set to travel for 300 days, hopefully reaching the orbit in 2014. If it is successful India will be the fourth space agency to reach the Red Planet, after the US, Russia and Europe. The aim is to examine the state of loss of atmospheric gases, providing an insight into the history of the planet. They are also looking for the signature of methane and, crucially, its source – there is speculation that Mars has a deep biosphere.

And it was on this planet that the most exciting discovery to occur in the last couple of years took place. Towards the end of 2012, Nasa’s Curiosity Rover found mudstone which is formed by the silt of a still body of water. Curiosity had rolled over the bed of an ancient lake where life could have emerged about 3.8 billion years ago. This amazing find is strong evidence that Mars once was habitable. Not that is had life, but that it had the necessary conditions for basic microbial life. Earlier this year it had looked like Nasa’s newest robotic mission to Mars would be a victim of the government shutdown, but in November it launched the MAVEN mission which will probe the atmosphere and act as a communications relay for their Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the surface. Technological developments means the probes are more able than they have ever been.

Mars is looking quite busy these days. The Moon is being eyed up by different nations. The future is bright. 2013 has been a good year for space.