Space exploration is more than sending billionaires into orbit

The eagle touched down. And Neil Armstrong stepped out. And when millions of people watched grainy shots from their TVs radiating from a camera attached to the side of a spaceship, he said words we can all recall more than half a century later: “It’s a small step man. One giant leap for humanity.

Original Star Trek the series had finished its three-year production six weeks earlier. Now, 52 years later, its non-life star William Shatner himself has flown to the edge of space.

Shatner is probably not remembered as a pioneer, although his short journey outside the atmosphere was not so long ago as science fiction stuff. His journey came at a time when worldly worries seemed much more urgent and cynicism was on the ceiling.

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“Giant corporations and billionaires have been able to fly for free for too long. Sometimes they travel all the way to space,” politician Elizabeth Warren chirped on the flight day, referring to Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos (who called Shatner on his rocket) and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, Prince William told the BBC. in this interview: “We need the world’s largest brains and senses, focused on improving this planet, not finding the next abode.”

Rolling eyes could be expected at Captain Kirki’s obvious PR placement in space. But behind this was a certain antipathy to the idea of ​​a final frontier. The feeling that it is not so important that there are bigger problems on the ground.

Perhaps we have forgotten the enormous amount of Cold War-driven ambition that put man on the Moon and the terrible awe of humanity at this event. We have forgotten how much of our technology, from mobile phones to mattresses, was developed due to space competition.

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We take it for granted that rocket ships transport people – including American and Russian colleagues – to the International Space Station (ISS) at regular intervals. We are not surprised by the idea that a robot like NASA’s Perseverance can not only land on Mars, as it did in early 2021, but transmit high-quality images from 389 million km away.

Now is not the time to look inwards and give up space, says Gordon Oz Osinski, founding director of the Institute for Earth and Space Studies at the Western University, and an expert in planetary geology. And there are silver liners in its commercialization. Due to the interest of private companies in space, take-offs are now as much as 50 times cheaper, allowing government agencies to book routine space flights (eg cargo voyages to the ISS) and focus on more distant missions.

“It’s a sign of how the space program has matured. We needed NASA and Russia to develop these technologies in the 1960s. We needed government power,” says Osinski. That has changed with the involvement of the private sector. Let space agencies do what they really do best, which is to move borders.

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Many missions are expected in the near future that will expand our understanding of the solar system and beyond and may lead to new discoveries and technologies. Toronto-based planetary scientist and scientist Sara Mazrouei calls it the “golden age of space exploration.”

Powered by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency, the powerful $ 10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch on December 18, will allow scientists to enter the universe further than ever before.

In February, NASA’s first Artemis mission will begin with an unmanned flight to the Moon, paving the way for astronauts to bypass and eventually build a crew base with a crew.

In August, NASA’s Psyche mission is scheduled to take off on a metal asteroid between Mars and Jupiter that we know absolutely nothing about. Also this year, the ESA JUICE mission (short for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) plans to explore Jupiter and the three months of Jovia, Ganymede, Callisto and Europe.

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In 2023, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will return to Earth with samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. Since Canada built one instrument, some samples will reach our researchers home.

Even if space exploration does not excite the public like never before, there are countless ways in which space can have an impact, from new technologies being developed as a by-product of space technology to private satellites that offer global reach. high speed internet.

As governments work to redefine the UN space agreement, there are many important geostrategic and jurisdictional issues related to the future of space and its enormous potential resources. It could be affected by worldly hostilities, as China is increasingly interested in space but secretly about its plans, and other countries, such as India, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, are pursuing ambitious space programs.

For Mazroue, more governments in space means more potential cooperation, more space companies mean more technology, and more space tourists mean more wake-up calls.

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“Especially in the midst of a pandemic and climate change crisis, there is always talk of ‘Is this the best use of our money?’ Which I understand. “If you have trouble feeding your family, you don’t care about these billionaires going into space,” says Mazrouei.

But there is no better way to look at the fragility of life than to look at Earth from the edge of space, he says. There is no better way to force the powerful to rethink their responsibilities to the planet.

In 2073, people will probably not quote William Shatner as we quote Neil Armstrong today. But he seems to have experienced the epiphany Mazrouei is talking about.

“I would like to communicate, as much as possible, the danger,” he said after leaving the capsule. “The most vulnerable. It’s so small. The air that keeps us alive is thinner than your skin. It’s a fragment.”

He marveled at the comfort of Mother Earth, the “black ugliness” above her and the blue contrast beneath her. “It’s life. And it’s death.”


This article will be published in the January 2022 issue Maclean’s magazine entitled “A Few More Leaps”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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