Do you remember the heady days in ’69 when the first crackly radio messages were coming in from our first men on the moon? Perhaps you weren’t alive then. Despite being a child, I recall the absolute excitement at seeing the grainy images of Neil Armstrong plodding on the surface of the moon. Many of you will no doubt decry the massive waste of money poured into space exploration and whilst I feel that some of the money spent on the arms business could be gainfully spent elsewhere, I feel the space business has a definite benefit. This is the result of many arguments with my more liberal down-to-earth spouse who chortles at the rather ‘blue sky’, esoteric benefits we derive from space exploration. Stephen Hawking, noted wryly that: “What is justification…on getting a few lumps of moon rock? Aren’t there better causes here on Earth”. But as he points out, we could have argued “that it was a waste of effort and money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase. But the discovery of the new world made a profound difference to the old. Spreading into space will have an even greater effect. It will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine whether we have any future at all.”
Currently led by an accomplished professional engineer, Mike Griffin, NASA turned 50 on the 29th July and has become somewhat controversial in the wake of some of the disasters and complaints about public money being misspent. It was set up rather hurriedly in the fifties, in response to the imminent launch of Sputnik by the old Soviet Union. This led to NASA’s finest hour, when John Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Unbelievably, in the sixties NASA had access to almost 1% (0.75% actually) of America’s GDP to make this a reality. The pictures transmitted back to us of the frail earth hanging in “a hostile void over an unchanging lunar desert” changed our view of ourselves. And perhaps our relationship with God? At present in NASA there is tension between the manned (shuttle and space station) and unmanned (third of the budget of $17bn) teams, for budget and resource allocation. The real exploration of space, however, is accomplished by the unmanned group – as we observed from the latest Mars efforts.
The thrust today is for NASA to create a more open system thus allowing other companies and individuals to join in.
What should we do with the information coming out of NASA and space exploration?
• Look at ways to harness this. Google have set up planetary visualization projects such as Google Moon, and Google Mars. Others are doing protein crystallization projects on board the space station.
• Use it to excite our youth into moving into science and technology and to embrace engineering.
• Examine how we can apply the incredible virtualization technologies from unmanned space exploration to our own engineering worlds. For example, the vehicles on Mars, provide some superb opportunities to apply this more vigorously in unmanned work in mines and underwater exploration and indeed (my favourite interest) remote labs.
• Grab and use some of the great free resources (incl. stunning images of space) floating out from NASA – which few people are aware of. We refer to them in our courses. See them at: www.nasa.gov ( then to http://www.osti.gov/bridge/ for some pretty good engineering books/reports). If you haven’t been to the site, do yourself a favour and browse for a few minutes and add it to your favourites.
And remember what Abraham Lincoln said (as far as the rather uncertain space exploration effort goes): “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.”
Acknowledgements to The Economist for the inspiration for the article (and one quote) and and Stephen Hawking’s Keynote on ‘Why we should go into Space’.
Yours in engineering learning