A Royal Society discussion showed that there is a still a will to reach Mars - so what's stopping us?

Timandra Harkness

Topics Politics

The UK Royal Society must have been thrilled to see its grand room filled up with a buzzing crowd of all ages, genders and backgrounds, all dying to talk about space travel at the meeting To Boldly Go: The Future of Space Exploration on 9 October 2002.

Clearly the idea of going into space still has the power to excite the popular imagination, and for once the discussion was not threaded with the bitter undertone of fear and despair that often receives the latest scientific advances.

The panel made no secret of their enthusiasm for the audacious adventure of space exploration, and rushed to share their early memories of past glories. The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh, who was chairing, remembered seeing the first moon landing and thinking that ‘all things seemed possible – the very stars seemed to be within our grasp’. But he had to ask, ‘what happened to the Armstrong dream?’.

Astronaut and moon lander David Scott, who had spent time with NASA working at sending crews to Mars, was clear that he saw no scientific need to send humans to Mars. The reason to commit resources to the project, said Scott, is inspiration – and he argued strongly for sending ‘artists and poets and writers’ who could share that inspiration with the whole of humanity.

David Southwood of the European Space Agency (ESA) said that he was first inspired by Sputnik’s launch. But he has been even more amazed by the political changes that meant he was on his way to launch a European satellite from the same launch site in Baikonur, once part of the Soviet Union, than by the technological progress in that time.

Colin Pillinger, another face of British space exploration, was burning with enthusiasm, and it was easy to see how he had motivated enough people to support his ‘Beagle 2’ Mars lander project, which is due to leave Earth next summer on ESA’s ‘Mars Express’, to land on the planet’s surface and search for evidence of life, past or present.

Once the audience got its chance to pitch in, the question of what was holding us back in space exploration began to get a real airing. How boldly was anyone prepared to go today?

David Scott distinguished between the ambitious ‘spirit’ – of which the packed room was evidence – and the ‘reality’, in which justifying the resources and continuing against adversity would be big hurdles. Colin Pillinger said that the changed attitude to risking human lives has affected exploration – when Christopher Columbus left Portugal, said Pillinger, his patrons knew that if he didn’t come back ‘nobody was going to sue anybody’.

David Southwood’s warnings about readying Beagle 2 in time for launch risked casting him as the careful bureaucrat, but he still managed some words of encouragement: ‘You have to believe almost that it is your destiny, that it belongs to you to do it. We [Europeans] have to get that feeling back – you all, collectively, have to be involved.’

Of course, there are many technical hurdles to human space exploration. Finding a power source that can move a much bigger spacecraft than Mars Express over the huge distances to destinations beyond the Moon is still under investigation. The effects of long periods in zero gravity on the human body are still being researched and tackled, and the psychological effects were also raised as a problem.

But as one audience member put it, solving these problems is a matter of ‘industrial evolution’, rather than a quantum leap.

Perhaps the main thing keeping us from Mars is the absence of the ‘bold’ in collective endeavours today. David Scott, for one, believes that the future of space exploration must be seen in terms of hundreds of years rather than decades – but ultimately we will go forth, ‘for the adventure and the spirit of it all, and because that’s what humans do’.

Read on:

The end of the space race?, by Sandy Starr

Challenging Columbia, by Norman Levitt

2001: Retreat from the Space Odyssey, by Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics


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