In a taped message, Mercury and Space Shuttle Astronaut John Glenn set the tone for a conference which focused on the next generation of human space exploration. “I’ve had the privilege of looking down on a small and vulnerable planet we call home,” he said. “When we look the other way, out into space, we see vast and endless possibilities.”
The day-long event brought together space explorers of yesterday, today and tomorrow, to discuss their visions of the next 50 years in space. Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt said, “Human settlement in space is imperative.” Citing trends in population growth, rising energy demands and the threat of climate change, he called for tough, competent management of space endeavours, based on solid business models that can attract private investment. “Governments are not predictable,” he continued, “but the private sector is. Shareholders will invest as long as there is a viable business model showing a clear return on their investment.”
The general consensus among conference panellists was that the human exploration of space is natural and inevitable, but that funding for exploration must be based on sound management coupled with a clear, well-defined and well-communicated vision of what humans are doing in space.
“We need public support behind us,” said Chief European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Michel Tognini. “The communication of space is very important. We are not doing a good enough job of facilitating public access to space.” ESA Astronaut Jean-François Clervoy agreed. “When we meet members of the public, what do you think they want to know? They want to know about the human experience in space. The number one question we get is, ‘What’s it like?’. The public wants to participate in the discovery of space and we need to improve the feedback process, to give them more information, to include them, to give everyone a chance to share in the adventure.”
Five-time US Shuttle Astronaut Jeff Hoffman said: “The majority of space exploration will always be undertaken by machines, but when we do go we have to do our utmost to share that experience. You can’t ask a machine what it’s like to be in space. We have to communicate as space explorers. The explorer who comes back from a mission and doesn’t tell you what he saw has failed.”
Sights ever higher
The meeting’s senior space explorer was the legendary Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot for Apollo 11, the man sitting next to Neil Armstrong when the Eagle landed, and the one who joined Armstrong on the lunar surface. “Looking back,” he said, “we were all inspired. We were interested, excited, motivated. We had energy, and we had clear and strong leadership.”
|Schmitt, Aldrin, Hoffman and Clervoy|
Why did we abandon the Moon? “Things changed,” explained Aldrin. “There were plenty of distractions here on earth in the years after Apollo. More recently, the Columbia accident made all of us call into question just what we’re trying to do in space. The vision for future space exploration, spelled out by President Bush about a year ago, while it is not perfect, is the kind of thing we need – a clear message from the top that people can unite around. First to the Moon, then on to Mars.”
Now in his seventies, Aldrin has lost none of the outspokenness that helped make him a household name in America for decades. “There are so many things happening today,” he said, “We have new players coming on-line. Wouldn’t it be something if we could offer the Chinese a place on the International Space Station? I do not believe it is time to retire the Shuttle. There are many uses to which it can be put – symbolic uses. Imagine ‘space flights for peace’. Imagine if we could send an Arab and an Israeli into space together, or a Pakistani and an Indian. Space has a strong symbolic power for mankind. Space tourism is another great way to get real people, members of the public, onboard.
“We need to commit ourselves to a growing permanence in space. That means we go to Mars and then don’t leave. We need to get serious about what we’re doing. Why are we going to Mars? Is it just to satisfy our egos?”
ESA chief makes special appearance
Joining the conference during lunch was ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain. “It is certainly easier for a Director-General to address a conference like this after a successful launch,” he said, referring to the Ariane 5 lift-off from Kourou, French Guiana, just days earlier. “For ESA, this has been a very good start to 2005. It is just one month since the Huygens probe landed on Titan; we have SMART-1 in orbit around the Moon, Mars Express is in orbit around Mars, we are chasing a comet with the Rosetta probe and next October we launch the Venus Express.”
Dordain was followed by Arianespace CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall. In his presentation, entitled, ‘Extending life beyond earth’, he said: “The Ariane 5 launch is a very important event not only for Europe, but also for the entire world space industry and many other sectors. Now, in addition to our own launchers, we are preparing for Soyuz launches from Kourou. This will give us the ability to launch human space missions from the European spaceport.”