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Space travel is hard

6 November 2017

When I was a bright-eyed young lad in the early 1960s, it seemed to me that the future would see mankind boldly colonising the universe around him.

Sci-fi was my favourite genre of bedtime reading and the incredible advances of the time which took place in the areas of rocket propulsion and kicking stuff into earth orbit seemed to make it a dead-cert that we'd soon be traveling far from our little blue-green sphere.

A Fall of Moondust was one of my favourite science fiction works (thanks Arthur C Clarke) and I recall it being the first story in a much treasured volume of such works, hard-covered and bound in a leather-like substance. The pages of that story were worn thin and the concept of us soon having a base on the moon was something that was taken for granted by all kids (young and old) of the era.

I often fantasied that the very book I was reading could be placed across the hole in the moon-craft's thin hull so as to stem the leakage of its atmosphere into the icy void which is the vacuum of space.

Not once did I even remotely come close however, to realising just how quickly computer technology would grow and become miniaturised. That simply didn't cross my mind.

But here we are, more than half a century later and there's still no manned base on the moon.

Hell, even our one and only orbiting space station isn't the refueling depot and half-way house that was predicted for such craft "back in the day".

Instead of being a bustling commuter hub, the ISS is simply a collection of compartments and solar arrays which plays home for a few men and women who engage in an endless stream of science experiments and observations. Visitors are few and far between.

Yet there is vastly more computing power in a single tablet aboard the ISS than existed in any one place on earth when Arthur C Clarke penned most of his brilliant stories.

So why is it that we've come so very far with computer technology but are still pretty much grounded when it comes to space travel?

Why haven't we visited any other celestial body since the early 1970s?

Why haven't we yet set foot on a single other planet in our solar system, let alone visited other far-away stars and galaxies?

Well of course the laws of physics prevent the latter but other unfortunate truths still prohibit the former.

Firstly, space exploration is a hideously expensive undertaking and the "glamour" of such activities has all but been extinguished in the wake of the moon landings.

"Been there, done that" seems to be the perspective of most regular folk. Why spend countless billions and risk people's lives by sending them to another rock in space when there are so many problems to be solved right here on Earth?

What I do find interesting of late is that so many private companies and individuals seem to have caught the space bug. We have Elon Musk's SpaceX corporation doing some really cool stuff and effectively taking over the more mundane tasks that were previously the responsibility of NASA.

And this week, Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame just sold $1.1bn worth of Amazon stock and there is speculation that he's going to be pouring a fairly sizable chunk of that change into his commercial space-flight company Blue Origin.

Perhaps, now that public fascination with space has all but died, it will be private industry that picks up the baton and runs with it. Could the lure of profits be the ultimate driver for a renaissance in space travel and exploration?

Whilst this may be true, I still believe that the stated timelines by the likes of Musk for putting people on Mars are massively optimistic -- although no more optimistic than the pages of so many science magazines of the 1950s. I fondly recall reading in the pages of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines of the 1950s and 60s that we would already be living in colonies on Mars by the year 2000. Yet strangely, no mention of smartphones, tablet computers or the internet.

The only thing you can be sure about when it comes to predicting the future is that it will come, eventually -- albeit not in the shape or form you might be expecting today.

Time for more predictions from readers. In what year do you think man will place his first foot on Mars and will it be a commercially funded venture or a more altruistic science expedition funded by the peoples of wealthy nations?

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