The changing face of space
// Mike Bastien

Gazing upon the night sky, we are filled with so many questions. Is there life out there? Is our planet really that small? Will I ever be able to walk on the moon? These romantic ideas are what fuels the science fiction genre and inspires people to discover the secrets of the universe. Yet after spending trillions of government dollars, it is debatable if we have really gotten anything substantial in return.


There have been many events throughout history that have fueled space exploration. It began during World War II when German scientists successfully launched a V2 rocket into space. During the Cold War, American and Russian scientists were competing against each other to prove their superiority. The Americans were the first to photograph Earth from space, as well as sending the first life into space by sending fruit flies into orbit. Not to be outdone, the Russians were the first to have a successful orbital launch by using Sputnik 1 and sent Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human to do so.

Feeling threatened by the Soviets, the US government formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with plans to do what even the Soviets hadn’t done before. On July 20, 1969, the crew of the Apollo 11 were the first humans to walk on the moon. Many people consider this event to be one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, yet it has been argued that the $202 billion (the approximate cost of the Apollo program) could have been spent on something more progressive than bragging rights.

Since its inception, NASA has continued to make contributions to space exploration. In 1990, they launched the Hubble space telescope, which has taken several beautiful pictures of the cosmos, including thousands of distant galaxies and the forming of stars, as well as determining the rate of expansion of the universe. In 1998, NASA teamed up with other country’s space programs to work on the International Space Station. The ISS is used as a laboratory, observatory, factory, and aid in future missions to the moon and Mars. NASA is currently working on a new space launch program to take astronauts farther into space. At a cost of $100 billion, some consider the ISS to be a massive failure.


In recent years, the market for space tourism, while small and exclusively available to a wealthy elite, has grown. Whether it is for leisure, recreation, or business, anyone with enough money can visit the International Space Station for a mere $35 million when booking your trip with Space Adventures. Virgin Galactic is planning on making the price a bit more affordable, at about $200,000.

With the American government’s funding to space exploration being cut by 20 per cent, it might be up to billionaires such as Sir Richard Branson to pick up the slack. Already, there are over 500 people who have put a down payment on Virgin Galactic flights, including Ashton Kutcher, and these participants will require only three days of training. Branson is confident that space tourism is safe for the young and old, even stating that one of the people who pre-purchased a flight is 90 years old.

These suborbital flights will travel 109 km above the Earth at three times the speed of sound. The shuttle can take six passengers, and the journey will last two and a half hours. Virgin Galactic is planning on running a test flight later this year and will hopefully be taking passengers in 2013. “If it is a success,” Branson said in an interview with The Daily Galaxy, “we want to move into orbital flights and then, possibly, even get a hotel up there.”

The draw of space tourism is obvious. Being able to see the Earth from orbit is a spectacle that few get to witness. People who have already experienced space travel have said to have returned to Earth with a heightened awareness of the nature and vulnerability of our planet.

Clumsy people have always been at odds with gravity, and opportunity to abandon gravity is something that a lot of people want to experience. Celebrity endorsement is also expected to help sell more seats, and might even make space travel trendy. Finally, there’s the prestige of being one of the few humans to leave the planet.

Due to the significant cost, personal space flights are only really within the budget of the super rich. One of the concerns about space tourism is that while the travellers are off having fun, we are left to deal with the environmental impact caused by space crafts and space debris. According to Branson, “We’ve been working on a program that can go even farther with cleaner fuels. It could be the cleanest form of air travel there is.”

Branson has also pledged the next ten years of profits (approximately $3 billion) to renewable alternatives to carbon fuels. Yet studies by NASA predict that soot emitted by rockets in the upper atmosphere could lead to significant disruption of the world’s climate, resulting in an increase in temperature and loss of ozone.

Another downside to space exploration is the negative effects it has on the human body. Astronauts who are exposed to long terms of zero gravity run the risk of abnormalities in the eyes and brain caused by pressure in the skull. Without the resistance added by gravity, muscles begin to atrophy. Since artificial gravity is still a ways off, astronauts wear suits with elastics connecting their waist band to their wrists in order to exercise while performing their tasks. Another issue is deterioration of the skeleton, although scientists are experimenting with vibration therapy to promote bone growth.


With these environmental concerns in particular, companies have been looking into alternative ways to get into space without costing the planet. The Japanese company Obayashi Corp. have unveiled plans to build a space elevator by 2050. The elevator would consist of a spaceport floating on the ocean by the equator, and attached to the space port would be a 96,000 km tether made out of carbon nanotubes. At the other end, there would be a space station functioning as a counterweight. An enclosure known as a “climber” that could house 30 people would travel along the tether at 200 km an hour, arriving at the space station in a week. The entire elevator and space station would be powered by solar panels located at a terminal station at the 36,000 km mark. The space station could function as both a space hotel as well as a laboratory.

The elevator could also provide more practical uses. By sending materials up the elevator, companies will no longer have to use large rockets that are harmful to the environment. Philip Ragan, co-author of the book Leaving the Planet by Space Elevator
, states in the book, “The first country to deploy a space elevator will have a 95 per cent cost advantage and could potentially control all space activities.”

Conventional rocket designs cost over $11,000 per pound to transfer objects such as satellites for TV and radio to geostationary orbit. By using the space elevator, this cost can be reduced to around $100 per pound. If a second elevator was built, then the two terminal stations could be connected by a solar ring and provide a large amount of renewable energy to Earth. Large shipments could be transported by sending the shipment up an elevator, then transport it between the two elevators by space shuttle.

This process is also much more fuel efficient than using a giant merchant vessel. “At this moment, we cannot estimate the cost for the project,” an Obayashi official said. “However, we’ll try to make steady progress so that it won’t end just up as simply a dream.”

But why stop there? Space elevators could just be a stepping stone towards space colonization. With Earth’s population reaching its limits, it might be feasible for humans to move into space. Stephen Hawking believes that in order for humankind to survive, we must become a multi-planet species. A possibility would be to construct giant space colonies within Earth’s Lagrangian points.

One of the possible colony designs is the O’Neill cylinder, also known as an Island Three habitat. The colony would consist of two counter-rotating cylinders, each 8 km in diameter and 32 km long, connected at each end by a rod via a bearing system. The cylinders would rotate, causing artificial gravity through centrifugal force. It would be possible to create an artificial atmosphere to protect the inhabitants from radiation. Large mirrors would be hinged at the back of each window with the unhinged edge of the windows pointing toward the Sun. The purpose of these mirrors is to reflect sunlight into the cylinders through the windows. Night is simulated by opening the mirrors, letting the window view empty space; this also allows heat to radiate to space. During the day, the reflected sun appears to move as the mirrors move, creating a natural progression of sun angles. In order to build such a massive structure, asteroids would have to be mined, creating a whole new industry. The logical next step would be to establish a habitat on the moon, which would evolve into colonizing Mars.


On Jul. 8, 2011, NASA launched its last space shuttle, and the International Space Station is planned to be burned up in the atmosphere by 2020. As fewer and fewer are investing in space exploration due to the current economical recession, space is slowly becoming “that place where we send our GPS satellites” and Mars colonization is nothing more than a wide-eyed dream.

However, that’s not particularly a bad thing. As previously mentioned, hundreds of billions of dollars have been sent into the void. Nobel Prize-winner Richard Feynman believed that space travel has never achieved any major scientific breakthroughs. It has been suggested that instead of pictures of red rocks on Mars, the humans of Earth would much rather have better health care, homeless shelters, and similar social services. Potentially, science could have evolved so much more already if we instead had invested those billions into medicine. Gerard DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest gave his down-to-earth opinion in an article for The Telegraph: “The time has come to pull the plug on meaningless gestures in space. An expensive mission to the moon (especially at a time of global recession) seems like lunacy when terrestrial frontiers such as disease, starvation, and drought cry out for cash. Furthermore, expensive space missions add credence to fundamentalist allegations about American spiritual vacuity.”

It is impossible to determine the cost/ benefits of future space travel. Space elevators seem to be the first step to distant worlds, but we won’t see one for at least another least 40 years. Until then it seems like the only activity in space will be commercial flights for the wealthy. Unfortunately, reality is stronger than gravity, and without any urgent need to go into space, governments are investing their citizens’ tax dollars into other priorities.

With so many problems on earth, space travel has become a low priority in the public eye. However there are still a few people out there who willing to devote their lives to unraveling the secrets of the universe, because they know that the sky is no longer the limit.

//Mike Bastien, humour and fiction editor
//Graphics and cover by Camille Segur

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