Reaching for stars won't get rid of rats at home

January 19, 2007

Manned space exploration is a fantasy exploited by politicians that diverts cash from real science, claims Gerard DeGroot.

A few years ago, shortly after the Columbia shuttle disaster, I visited the Kennedy Space Centre, where I was surprised to discover two dozen vultures perched smugly on fence posts. While others saw big ugly birds, I saw an ominous metaphor for the decline of the American space mission. But then, a few weeks after my visit, President George W. Bush announced plans to return to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The estimated cost - $400 billion - put smiles back on the faces of those at Nasa. The vultures still loiter, but they're no longer metaphoric.

Critics of the space programme, myself included, find the current interest in "exploration" painfully familiar. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, John Kennedy built a successful presidential campaign by playing on US fears and fantasies surrounding space. He warned: "If the Soviets control space they can control the Earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents. We cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first." Sadly, many Americans believed him.

The fantasies came from Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and comic books. They suited Kennedy's political purposes. While he privately confessed "I'm not that interested in space", he encouraged the American people to believe it would be their salvation. Kennedy recognised that for Americans to support such a costly programme, space had to have a face. Sober science had to give way to something dramatic and heroic. But the insistence on manned space travel meant missions became much more complicated. Capsules had to be designed to keep human beings alive in deep space. This placed severe limitations on what could be explored. Man can't land on Venus, where the surface temperature is 400C. And round trips rule out any venture further than Mars.

In the effort to solve the technological problems of keeping man alive in space, real science suffered. It's no wonder that the most forceful opposition to the moon mission during the 1960s was expressed by scientists who objected to the way their budgets were bled to fund a lunar ego trip.

Meanwhile, the really stupendous feats of exploration were achieved by robotic explorers sent into deep space on relatively meagre budgets.

Bush, unable to think of a Big Idea, borrowed one from Kennedy. This time the evil interlopers are the Chinese, who can't be allowed to occupy the moon first. Nasa, which was planning a respectably scientific mission to Mars, has been instructed that the priority must be a permanent lunar base.

The budget for space science has been depleted to fund this venture, the exact purpose of which has never been properly explained.

Recently, Stephen Hawking gave respectability to the idea of man in space by arguing that we must colonise other planets to ensure the long-term survival of the human race. Much as I admire the great man, that's nonsense. The Earth is indeed doomed, but where precisely might refugees eventually go?J The solar system offers no habitable alternative. The idea of migration is really only taken seriously by science fiction buffs who conveniently ignore the fact that the universe is rather large. Travel, even at immense speed by a select few, would take impossibly long. Suppose a spaceship could be built capable of a speed of 1 million mph (the Apollo capsule reached a maximum speed of about 50,000 mph). To reach the nearest star system theoretically capable of harbouring planets, that super speedy spacecraft would require 4,000 years.

At our current rate of development (or, rather, disintegration), we will turn the Earth into a parched and smoking ruin long before we figure out the problems of travelling to and colonising distant planets. The implication seems clear: we need to remind ourselves that the really meaningful frontiers exist here on troubled Earth. As the former mayor of New York Edward Koch said back in 1970 when Nasa first proposed a trip to the Red Planet: "I just can't for the life of me see voting for monies to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in Harlem apartments."

Gerard J. DeGroot is professor of modern history at St Andrews University. His book, Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest , is published in February by Jonathan Cape, £17.99.

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