UK government to part-finance manned Mars mission?

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2009

marsI know, it sounds pretty far fetched – but evidently all this stirring talk of great achievements has gotten someone hot under the collar, as Wired UK gives the (apparently exclusive) news that the UK government may change its policy on funding contributions to the ESA in favour of supporting manned missions, possibly someday sending a Brit along on a manned mission to Mars:

… Drayson said that the review would not result in a larger budget for space research in the UK, but could reverse the country’s refusal to fund manned missions. He said the European Space Agency’s (ESA) selection of a British astronaut, Tim Peake, for its astronaut training programme and the agency’s work towards a mission to Mars would help to capture the public imagination.

[…]

To date, the UK has only supported robotic explorations in space, and stipulated that the £180 million that it pays towards the work of ESA is not used for manned space programmes. As a result, the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, travelled to the Mir space station on a Soviet rocket in 1991 as part of a privately funded mission. Other Britons who have also reached space did so by changing their nationality to become American or by going as space tourists with Russian space shuttles.

Drayson hopes to change this stance, but acknowledged that any UK manned mission would be the result of a collaboration with other nations. “Reaching Mars will be a huge scientific challenge but it won’t be done without a global effort,” he said.

The consultation will also look at whether the current UK space body, British National Space Centre (BNSC), should be replaced by a new British space agency. Drayson suggested that the new agency will be called Her Majesty’s Space Agency.

HMSA… sounds like something from an as-yet-unwritten Warren Ellis comic. Who knows what will actually come of it – the UK government will say anything that they think has a hope of raising a smile at the moment – but it’s quite gratifying to think that we might get involved more seriously with space exploration. Sadly I’m now way too old and unfit to even consider revitalising my childhood dream of being an astronaut… I doubt they’d need a blogger, anyway. *sigh* [image from Physorg]

But hey, I’ll bet Paul McAuley’s pretty stoked by the news; only yesterday, he was suggesting that a Mars mission should be reinstated as a long term goal for human space exploration:

Not because it’s easy; because it’s hard. Not because the Russians (or Chinese) might get there first. Cold War imperatives like that died when the Berlin Wall came down. No, we should send an international mission, for all humankind.

[…]

Impossibly ambitious? Foolishly optimistic? Maybe. A waste of money better spent on problems right here on Earth? These guys don’t think so. And hey, there are always going to be problems here on Earth, and most of the money will stay right here, employing an army of specialists and engineers, stimulating new technologies. There’s been a large amount of looking back, these past weeks, and regret for what might have been, if the Apollo programme hadn’t been abandoned. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

And, as pointed out at The Guardian, there’d be no shortage of volunteers for a manned Mars mission, even if it were made plain that it was a one-way ticket:

“You would find no shortage of volunteers,” said John Olson, Nasa’s director of exploration systems integration. “It’s really no different than the pioneering spirit of many in past history, who took the one-way trip across the ocean, or the trip out west across the United States with no intention of ever returning.”

[…]

Nasa is currently bound by Kennedy’s directive to bring its astronauts home, Olson said. But the other nations rapidly developing space programmes may shed the constraint, as could the commercial companies that may supplant national efforts. “Space is no longer for power and prestige; it’s truly for economic benefit,” the Apollo 11 flight director Eugene Kranz said. “The technology that emerges from high-risk, high-profile, extremely difficult missions is the technology that will keep the economic engine of our nation continuing to go through the years.”

With currently foreseeable technology, a round trip to Mars launched from a lunar outpost would take two to three years – a journey of six to nine months each way and a year-long mission on the surface.

If I was even close to meeting the selection criteria, I’d volunteer without a second thought.

But in the meantime, while we’re stuck here on Earth, how about a little mood music, eh? This video features a bootleg recording of Pink Floyd’s lost “lunar landing jam”, which they played out live as part of the BBC’s covergae of the Apollo landings [thanks to DailySwarm]. Get yer interplanetary blues on…


The end of science?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

science in action?Over at The Guardian, Ehsan Mahsood wonders whether the culture of modern science is stifling the radical thinking and new discoveries that have always been science’s hallmark and driving force:

Revolutions in scientific thinking are always difficult – but perhaps one reason why we may see fewer of them in the future is because of the highly professional way in which modern science is organised. It takes a lot of courage to challenge conventionally accepted views, and it needs a certain amount of stamina to constantly battle those who want to protect the status quo. Mavericks do not do well in large organisations, which is what some scientific fields have become.

Progress in science needs researchers who are not afraid – or who are encouraged and rewarded – to ask awkward and difficult questions of theory and of new data. It is easier to question mainstream views if you are independently wealthy, as many scientists in previous ages tended to be. But I wonder how many of us would do so if we were employed by the state and our career progression depended on the validation of our peers?

Mahsood has a point here; you only have to look at the computer industry to see that the bigger a corporation gets the less likely it is to do something genuinely innovative. But it strikes me he’s overlooking the potential for unaffiliated independent scientists to work together in ways that wouldn’t be funded by cautious or conservative governments or foundations – what about all the DIY biohackers, for example?

Sure, there’s only so much they can do alone, but the internet means they have all the tools they need to network with their fellow enthusiasts, share information, collaborate… so maybe we’re not seeing the end of science as Mahsood would have it, but the end of state-funded science (at least for non-military applications). You could argue that clades of unaffiliated ‘rogue’ scientists would introduce a large element of danger, especially with regard to genetic or viral research… but then state-funded establishments have made their fair share of screw-ups, too, despite (or perhaps because of) the baroque architecture of procedural regulations. [image by neys]

But hey, let’s think positive here: at least science is opening up new channels for international diplomacy.


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