x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Goodbye, Space Shuttle - now, which way to the moon?

As a chapter in the American space odyssey ends, can kids still dream of going to the moon?

For a seven-year-old growing up in 1970s Abu Dhabi, the end of the century might as well have belonged to a different universe. In many ways, it did.

Cool spaceships, slick uniforms and laser guns: the British sci-fi series Space: 1999 had the lot. And it took place on a lunar base. It was a future I was happily prepared to wait for. But that future, like flying cars, better airline food and decent daytime television, never came.

And now almost 12 years after that betrayal, it seems that mankind's exploration of space has ground to a halt.

In the unlikely event you've been living on the moon, you've probably heard that Atlantis, the last Nasa shuttle still in operation, has blasted into space for the final time. When it finally returns to Earth next Wednesday, the space agency's 30 year shuttle programme will come to an end.

It will also be almost 42 years to the day since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind remains one of the 20th century's most famous images. And even some of Nasa's failures were glorious: salvaging the Apollo 13 mission was in many ways as stunning an achievement as landing on the moon.

But the shuttle age captured the imagination far less than the Apollo programme, with the two disasters of 1986 and 2003 the obvious low points. Now, sadly, the US is leaving the party, at least for the time being.

With the Americans out of the way, Russia, with an estimated budget of $3.8 billion (Dh14 billion), looks set to lead space exploration for the first time since the Soviet Union became the first nation to send a person, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Russia also plans to get a man on the moon by 2025 as well as to continue to send missions to the International Space Station. Meanwhile China, perhaps with more reasons to colonise space than any other nation, plans to expand its low-key space programme, currently budgeted at $1.3 billion, to have their own space station in 10 years' time and, like the Russians, to land a person on the moon.

And while China has grand hopes of getting to Mars and beyond, for now the moon seems to be the limit of these two nations' ambitions, not to mention capabilities. Indeed, the title of a recent article in The Economist predicted The end of the Space Age.

"I think humans will reach Mars, and I would like to see it happen in my lifetime," Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, once said. That seems as likely as Neil Armstrong or Aldrin himself returning to the moon. Manned visits to Mars seem a remote possibility in any of our lifetimes.

With the global economy in a downturn, it is perhaps understandable, if depressing, that ruining the ecologies of other planets is not a priority for most advanced nations. So where does this leave us dreamers?

Nasa will continue to back private space exploration. In February, US President Barack Obama called on Congress to fund the space agency in 2012 to the tune of $850 million to advance private space travel. And while space tourism, led by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, looks set to take off, it is unlikely that such expeditions will get anywhere near the moon, and even less likely that they will provide free press junkets for journalists. Tickets, for the record, start at $200,000, and there's no guarantee there won't be a crying baby in the next seat.

When it comes to space exploration, the Middle East has yet to take small steps, never mind giant leaps. It would be a shame if some countries that can afford significant research do not get involved in space exploration in the coming decades.

For now, the sum total of Arab contribution to space travel stands at two: Prince Sultan ibn Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia who was part of Mission 51-G Discovery that launched on June 17, 1985; and the Syrian Muhammed Faris who flew to the Mir Space Station in 1987. If one seven-year-old space junkie had known this all along, maybe he would have focused on his football career instead.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae