The student engineering culture

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Garnet Ridgway: In 1969, coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing was watched by an estimated 125 million TV viewers, representing 93% of the possible audience. The fact that this figure has not been surpassed in the following 46 years demonstrates that the public’s interest in space exploration has been in decline ever since.

One of the key issues is the lack of milestones to get excited about that are both tangible and significant. Many would question the value of returning to the moon, and a manned mission to Mars may be decades away. Of the spacefaring nations, the USA is certainly the most credible hope for manned interplanetary travel; however, NASA’s current activities appear to be laying the groundwork for potential future missions rather than aiming for specific, near-term goals. The level of support for the US space program ultimately stems from the electorate – if the appetite for space exploration is still present, why isn’t this a more significant campaigning point for politicians? 

Discounting a manned mission to Mars in the near future, are there any other milestones that would ignite public interest? The main focus of many current space programs is to achieve existing capability for less money; while eminently sensible, this is unlikely to set pulses racing. Robotic exploration is technologically astonishing, but simply doesn’t inspire the same emotional response as a manned mission; this is potentially due to the lack of risk involved. Additionally, while robotic probes can send back incredible images of their adventures, advances in computer-generated imagery means that comparable vistas can be simulated on a modest home computer, while films such as Gravity are all but indistinguishable from the reality. In short, people are a lot harder to impress than they were in 1969. 

Looking to broader horizons, while the departure of the Voyager spacecraft from the solar system does inspire an emotional response, it also reminds us of the immensity of astronomical distances. These machines have been hurtling through space for

a generation, yet have completed only a tiny fraction of their interstellar journey. While this is certainly thought-provoking, it is hardly the edge-of-seat, flag-waving excitement of the Apollo era. 

So, is the future of space exploration entirely bleak? Not necessarily, if we see a resurgence of a key element of the Apollo era that’s currently absent: competition. Emerging nations are keen to demonstrate their aerospace industries on the world stage, and are choosing space for this purpose. Imagine, for example, if China was to announce an intention to set foot on Mars within 10 years. Would other nations with prodigious spacefaring pedigrees be content to sit back and watch? 

Garnet Ridgway has a PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has designed cockpit instruments for Airbus and currently works for a leading UK-based aircraft test and evaluation organization. 

Sophie Robinson: The Space Age is far from over; if anything, we’re entering a bold new era of testing and exploration in which commercial companies, alongside government-funded bodies, will take us outside of our terrestrial confines. 

Companies such as SpaceX, headed by Paypal founder and playboy scientist Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, run by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, are at the forefront of this revolution in the commercial sector. Both companies seek to develop fully reusable spacecraft, which could reduce the cost of getting into space by as much as a factor of 100. SpaceX first successfully docked its Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station in 2012, and recent test activities as they tried (and failed, but only just) to recover their Falcon 9 reusable launch vehicle to a floating platform known as the autonomous spaceport drone ship have generated headlines across the world. 

Now private companies are well on the way to commercializing the low-Earth orbits, attention is turning further out into our solar system. Privately run projects such as Mars One, the Dutch organization intending to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025, have been criticized for their outlandish goals and unrealistic timescales, but they are pressing on with their mission. Even NASA is starting to prepare a path to send astronauts to Mars, recently carrying out a study involving 55 participants staying in bed for 70 days to study the effects of long periods in space on muscular and skeletal atrophy. Perhaps Elon Musk’s intention to retire to Mars isn’t so unrealistic. 

Looking closer to home (for me here in the UK anyway), Major Tim Peake will become the first Briton in space for more than 20 years, and the UK’s first official astronaut, when he boards a Soyuz rocket for a six-month trip to the International Space Station in November 2015. Peake’s appointment has coincided with a renaissance in the British space industry, and has garnered much attention through the use of social media to engage with and excite both the next and the current generations of engineers. 

The absence of the element of competition and the excitement it brings, which is so lamented

by my co-author, is still present in the space race, but it now comes from private companies, rather than governments and politicians. Imagine how much we will achieve now we are liberated from years of bureaucratic dogma. Space is only becoming more exciting and more enthralling. 

Sophie Robinson works at the front line of aerospace testing as a rotary-wing performance and flying qualities engineer for a leading UK-based aircraft test organization. She also holds a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Liverpool, UK.

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