End of the shuttle, but not the end of humans in space

Senior reporter

When the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off through the atmosphere later today (weather permitting), it really will be the end of an era. That’s an overused term but an accurate one when you consider how, for thirty years, the shuttle programme has inspired people around the world to help continue mankind’s exploration and utilisation of space.

And now, with no replacement manned vehicle available or planned, the US appears to have dropped out of the most exciting aspect of the space industry, leaving China and Russia as the only nations capable of sending humans into orbit. Indeed, the US will now have to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

There are arguably good reasons for not renewing the shuttle. Manned space travel is, of course, incredibly expensive and dangerous. We’re some way off from being able to travel to Mars and although there is so much we could still learn by sending humans into orbit or back to the Moon, continuing to do so just doesn’t have the same bold symbolism of the Apollo programme to capture the necessary public enthusiasm and political will.

But assuming that Atlantis’s final journey marks the beginning of the end for human space flight would be folly. A new space race could be developing between India and China as they vie for the accolade of second country to put a man on the Moon – although we’ve yet to see concrete plans from either nation.

Japan, and, bizarrely, Iran also have plans for manned missions, while EADS Astrium and the German space agency DLR are hoping to adapt the European cargo vehicle ATV to carry people.

Then there is the fledgling private space travel industry. Virgin Galactic has yet to announce dates for its first commercial flights but it’s hard to doubt Richard Branson’s determination (and financial commitment) to make the venture work.

Elon Musk’s Space X claims to have been profitable since 2007 thanks to contracts with the US Air Force and with NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS following the space shuttle retirement, as well as winning the largest ever commercial space launch contract with Iridium Communications. This puts Musk in good stead to pursue his plans of manned spacecraft, which he has said are under development with a two-to-three year completion time.

It may be even be the case that NASA comes to rely fully on private substitutes for having its own manned programme, especially as the US’s ballooning public debt makes it increasingly difficult for the government to divert money to a grand space project.

The other alternative is to make more use of robots in space. Atlantis will carry new tools to the ISS that will allow its Canadian-built robot handyman Dextre to repair and refuel satellites, controlled by operators on Earth. The two-armed telemanipulator has already removed the need for human spacewalks in some situations since its activation in February this year.

But, as delegates to this week’s UK Space Conference in Coventry heard, there are many tasks where even the most sophisticated robots cannot replace an astronaut. For a start, humans are much better at spotting interesting or unusual things than a robot. You can program a machine to complete a task but you can’t give it a sense of wonder or curiosity.

Surprising as it sounds, human explorers can also travel a lot faster. On 1 June, the current Mars rover Opportunity passed the 30km milestone, having travelled over 50 times its designed distance since its landing in 2004. The crew of Apollo 17 covered over 34km during their three days on the surface of the Moon.

There’s also an argument that once you go through the huge effort of engineering a craft to carry humans, you can carry an awful lot of extra equipment for marginal extra cost. With unmanned missions, every gram of mass counts.

Given the massive challenge of sending people into space and the time and money it takes to develop a craft to do it, it seems likely that manned missions will be out of the news for some time. But the enduring awe with which we view space – not to mention the practicalities of our increasingly satellite-dependent society – mean it will probably be only a short hiatus in the history of our exploration of the heavens

See the next issue of The Engineer – published on 18 July – for a special feature on plans to return to the Moon and why human space travel isn’t going out of fashion.