Past Event: Space Exploration

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Thursday 7th February saw the much awaited lecture organised by the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE), entitled Space Exploration in Times of Crisis. The excitement around this event was phenomenal and clearly evident in Clare College’s full-to-capacity 150 person Riley Auditorium. The atmosphere was electric. Evidently, I wasn’t the only attendee who found the confirmed speakers list too good to miss, although I am biased. Like many children I had a fascination with space travel. Rocket propulsion, microgravity, cutting edge technology, heroism, what’s not to love?

However, at a young age it’s easy to become wrapped up in the romanticism of space travel, even more so than normal, as my Dad brought me up on a heavy dosage of sci-fi; Star Trek, Start Wars, Deep Space Nine and everything in between. It’s a surprise I didn’t end up in the Big Bang Theory really. I was desperate to go into space. But that was before I was really aware of the associated risk factor and the fatality statistics affiliated with any manned space mission, the fact that there is zero room for error and no second chances (although, that’s not to say I wouldn’t still jump at the chance!). Also, at a young age I wasn’t concerned about where the money came from for the space programme. Of course now in an era where we have lost half a decade to capitalism’s pre-2007 excesses, to some, huge investment in space exploration seems an unnecessary cost. Then again, it could be the stimulus the West needs to get its economy moving again and set the ball in motion for a whole new epoch of knowledge and innovation. This CUSPE lecture was set to debate this issue.

First to speak was Brigadier General Thomas Arthur Reiter of the European Space Agency (ESA) who was able to provide great detail on the benefits of space exploration, along with the latest information on ESA’s exploration strategy for the coming decades. As a man who has amassed space time aggregating to almost an entire year (>350 days), I struggled to comprehend the quite literally ‘out-of-this-world’ experiences which he must have had. This statistic conjures up a myriad of emotions in most of us; astonishment, admiration, jealousy, anxiety.

Reiter began his presentation by pointing to human life’s almost genetic fascination with space and stars. For millennia the human race, and all other life on earth for that matter, has had a fixed dependency on the sun. It’s not surprising that these entities (in particular the sun) play such an important cultural role, from the past sun worshiping of solar deities (I’m thinking Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas and Pagans), to modern sun worshippers of the sun bathing persuasion. We still remain fascinated by outer space, even more so now that Hubble can take wonderful pictures of galaxies millions of light years away. While our perception of space and stars has changed post-enlightenment, we now find new ways to put things like solar radiation to good use.

The presentation then turned to more obvious topics including Sputnik, Apollo and the International Space Station (ISS). While manned space exploration has not lived up to its expectation as a result of the inherent expense and danger, the impacts of space exploration on technology, science, politics and culture have been numerous. As he put it, science converts money into knowledge and then innovation converts knowledge into money. While on the IIS Reiter and his colleagues were involved in a heavy daily regime of science because, as he stated, microgravity is a wonderful environment to do research for a range of disciplines, including molecular biology, material science, astronomy, meteorology or just simple physics.

Reiter proposed that space exploration can do more than further scientific knowledge and technology, it is able to foster greater collaboration between individuals and nationals, defying traditional political barriers. The classic example is Apollo-Soyuz Test between the US and USSR. A project predecessor to the International Space Station, it was the first joint space flight which saw the Apollo and Soyuz modules dock in space, marking the end of the space race between the two superpowers. This collaboration did much to ease the tension of the previous decades, and the picture of the handshake between Safford and Leonov fills me with emotion. Human feats of this magnitude can help those of different political ideologies, nationalities and races put aside their differences and unite. Perhaps we are overdue something of equal enormity today given the tension mounting between east and west, although I remain doubtful.

The historic handshake between Mission Commanders Stafford (US) and Leonov (USSR) on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project


Finally, no one can doubt that space travel can have profound cultural impacts. Space exploration, specifically the moon landings, inspired a generation (sorry London 2012). It was one (if not the) defining moment of the 20th century. Sadly, it’s so tough to quantify the cultural effects of space exploration these types of benefits are regularly understated. Yet, humans will remain curious about their surroundings. Fact. And, great leaps forward for mankind (again, sorry Neil Armstrong) can change the perception of what is possible. Who knows, perhaps we wouldn’t be sat here today surrounded by iPads and smartphones if key innovators didn’t grown up in a cultural era (like the 60s and 70s) where the technology available to society’s fingertips was being redefined through the space programme.

Reiter finished by outlining ESA’s on going agenda (low earth orbit, the moon and mars) and discussed some of the projected time spans for future missions, including the first robotic expedition to one of Jupiter’s moons which is due for launch in 2022, reaching its destination in 2030. He would like to see a return to the moon, along with exploratory trips to mars, taking place over the next couple of decades.

Dr Iya Whiteley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Space Medicine at the UCL Mullary Space Science Laboratory, then stepped up to the podium. Dr Whiteley’s research interests lie in understanding the medical and psychological impacts of space, particularly from long-duration human space flight. Having recently directed the ESA study on the development of technology and techniques for dealing with the psychological impacts of manned exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, she brought great diversity to the panel.

The hardest psychological factor to overcome on a long space journey is boredom. Furthermore, astronauts who return home after a completed space mission have a fundamentally different perception of earth. While this is not surprising, Dr Whiteley made it clear that this has the potential to have a large impact on an astronaut’s mental health and on their relationship with family and friends. Interestingly, while space may test the limits of human endeavour, it also has the ability to test our potential.

Cernan on the surface of the Moon as part of the Apollo 17 landing


Dr Whiteley explained that she and her colleagues at the Centre for Space Medicine see space as a type of ‘laboratory’ (although she didn’t like using this word to describe it) that they can use to investigate and understand the human condition. She then went on to show us just how little we know about the side effects of going on a long distance mission, such as to Mars. It is crucial that we understand more about these side effects because the actual psychological support model for a crew going to Mars would need to be vastly different from the type used to go to the Moon, or live in low earth orbit on the ISS. On a relatively short mission to the Moon, which in the context of Mars is reasonably close, a manned expedition to Mars would receive far less support from Mission Control because flight time would amount to more than one year. Hence, a larger degree of responsibility and knowledge would be bestowed on the crew for them to maintain themselves, their spacecraft and the mission. Dr Whiteley stated that we still have a vast amount of work to do in this area before we are ready to attempt a manned expedition to Mars, particularly if we want to mitigate the post-flight psychological effects for returning astronauts.

Last but by no means least, Professor Lord Martin Rees the popular Cambridge heavyweight, weighed in at the front of the audience for the final speech of the day. Without the use of the audio-visual equipment, Rees also gave a quick recapitulation of the history of manned space flight, as manifest by political rivalry and propelled by rockets designed as intercontinental ballistic missiles. Even today those first trips to space, particularly to the surface of the moon, are still so impressive. As Rees put it, they managed to land a man on the moon using less computer power in the whole of NASA, than what we have today in a humble washing machine.

Yet, since those first missions there has been a substantial societal shift in light of the fatality rate standing at around 2%. Now we are less inclined to fund astronauts, who have a considerable risk of not returning, by the means of tax funded public programmes. Rees pointed to the issue of space travel becoming routine because it simply cannot be treated like this due to the error margin associated with failure. Each time that a manned space mission has ended in disaster (for example, Challenger, 1986 and Columbia, 2003) it has led to national trauma and mourning, with questions being asked of the value of such exploratory missions.

Consequently, many space programmes have had their funding scaled back and manned flight has been somewhat reduced. But while the geo-political rivalry that led the cold war space race might be over, many eyes for the future of long distance space travel are fixed firmly on China. For the Chinese have the financial capacity to invest in space exploration. They may well want to carry out a similar feat to the Apollo missions, and try to go one further than the Americans by sending a human to Mars. This was conveyed as a possibility, and the only likely avenue for publicly funded space travel.

On the other hand of course, we are now seeing a variety of commercial space flight companies racing to be the first to offer space flight places to regular civilians. SpaceX and Virgin Galactic spring to mind. But these companies are not just planning low earth orbit missions, as Rees explained. Private missions are now being planned to orbit around the back of the moon and apparently, a ticket has already been sold for the second mission (for over $150m!), while the ticket for the first mission still remains unsold! According to Rees, private adventurers have the highest chance of being the first to go places like Mars (if China doesn’t step up to the bar), as opposed to public agencies.

Finally, Rees touched on the issue of manned space travel versus robotic (something which Reiter previously highlighted as not being a dichotomy). In contrast to Reiter’s outline of ESA’s exploration strategy, which includes both manned and robotic expeditions, Rees believes that ESA should focus solely on robotics. This is because of the expense of human flight, and the fact that in comparison to the US budget, ESA’s budget is considerably smaller. He sees ESA’s future as sticking to what it has done best in the past; robotic exploratory missions.

In conclusion, the lecture was a roaring success and gave us a captivating insight into the historical and future aspects of space travel. The heterogeneous backgrounds of the panel members really made the content of the lecture interesting and absorbing. We saw a range of arguments – technological, scientific, political and cultural – for why manned space missions should continue. But while space missions will no doubt continue, what is interesting is that there has been a change in who is likely to undertake missions in the future.

With the introduction of private companies entering space exploration, both public and private institutions are now contending for new realms of exploration. This hybridisation brings long term questions to the forefront of the debate, because if the cost and risks associated with space travel are too great for states, their affiliated institutions and voters, we could see publicly funded space programmes diminish. Alternatively, if private firms are unable to leverage the knowledge, skill and organisational capacity needed through private finance, we could find that the only long-term model of exploration is through the existing realm of international collaboration (unless we see subsidisation). The prevailing theme of the debate was the political and cultural importance of manned space exploration over the past fifty years. This poses the interesting question of whether the future benefits will be of the same scale, or as effective at healing national rifts, if private firms man the bridge. Hmmm. Time will tell.

Edward Oughton

Event Sponsor





Martin Rees is Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and former Master of Trinity College. He was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1995, and was nominated to the House of Lords in 2005 as a cross-bench peer. He was appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 2007. Lord Rees was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979 and in 2005 took the office of President until 2010.Lord Rees studied at Cambridge University and then held post-doctoral positions at Cambridge, California, Princeton and Sussex before becoming a fellow of King’s College and Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, a post he held for eighteen years. For ten years, he was director of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.Lord Rees’ current research deals with cosmology and astrophysics, especially gamma ray bursts, galactic nuclei, black hole formation and radiative processes (including gravitational waves) and also cosmic structure formation, especially the early generation of stars and galaxies that formed relatively shortly after the “Big Bang”. He has authored or co-authored about five hundred research papers, lectured, broadcast and written widely on science and policy, and is the author of seven books.


Dr Iya Whiteley is a Deputy Director of the Centre for Space Medicine at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL. She undertakes research on space psychology, Long-duration Human Space Flight, Human-Computer Interaction & Human-Robot Interaction among other interests. She has recently worked at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) as a Human Behaviour Performance Specialist and contributed to the development of the Human Behaviour Performance course for the new European Astronaut corp. She directed the ESA Study on the development of technology and techniques for psychological support of the crew during exploration missions to the Moon and Mars. Iya was a on Steering committee for Space Psychology and Human-Machine Systems group on THESEUS program representing UK (“Towards Human Exploration of Space: A European Strategy”), funded by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme.  


  Thomas Arthur Reiter is a retired European astronaut and is a Brigadier General in the German Air Force currently working as Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations at the European Space Agency.
Thomas Reiter holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Technology and a honorary doctorate from the German Armed Forces University in Neubiberg/Munich. He graduated from Goethe-High School in Neu-Isenburg in 1977, from the German Armed Forces University in 1982 and from the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) in Boscombe Down, England, in 1992.
Between October 1996 and July 1997, Reiter underwent training on Soyuz-TM spacecraft operations for de-docking, atmospheric re-entry and landing. He was awarded the Russian ‘Soyuz Return Commander’ certificate, which qualifies him to command a three-person Soyuz capsule during its return from space.


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