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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Space year in review: moon and Mars recapture human imagination

45 years after the last man walked on the moon, private enterprises such as SpaceX are replacing nations as the top players in space travel and the UAE embarks on training its own astronauts

Dubai pupil Alia Al Mansoori's Genes in Space experiment was carried up to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket in August. Scott A. Miller / The National
Dubai pupil Alia Al Mansoori's Genes in Space experiment was carried up to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket in August. Scott A. Miller / The National

Almost everyone is familiar with the first words uttered on the moon, spoken by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, as he became the first human being to step onto the lunar surface: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Few, however, could quote the last words, spoken three-and-a-half years later by the 12th and – for the past 45 years – last man to leave his footprints on the moon.

But in 2018, as humankind turns its face to the stars once again, it is the parting words of Eugene Cernan on December 14, 1972, that have the most profound resonance at the dawn of what is surely a new space age: “We leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.”

In the closing days of 2017 President Donald Trump, flanked by US astronauts past and present, issued Space Policy Directive-1, designed to refocus NASA’s space programme “on human exploration and discovery”. It was, the president said in a speech on December 11, “an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use”.

This time, he said, “we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps some day, to many worlds beyond”.

US President Donald Trump holds up an astronaut toy alongside former US Senator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Jack Schmitt (R), after a signing ceremony for Space Policy Directive-1, with the aim of returning Americans to the moon. AFP PHOTO
US President Donald Trump holds up an astronaut toy alongside former US Senator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Jack Schmitt (R), after a signing ceremony for Space Policy Directive-1, with the aim of returning Americans to the moon. AFP PHOTO

It was a significant closing act to a year during which space returned to centre stage in the human imagination in a way not seen since the heady days of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and the Apollo programme. But as important as America’s contribution to the future of space exploration will doubtlessly be, what became clear in 2017 was that, unlike during the Kennedy era, when the US was in a two-horse race with the Soviet Union, space is no longer solely the ideological playground of vying superpowers, or even of governments.

With 28 and 20 launches respectively in 2017, the US and Russia still topped the leader board for the number of rockets sent into Earth’s orbit, but others are coming up fast, including Europe (9 launched in 2017), Japan (7) and India (5). China, with 17 launches, is snapping at the heels of the Americans and the Russians. In 2018 it plans to launch the first of three component parts that together will form its own orbiting space station.

In its own small way, however, it was New Zealand’s first foray into space in May that showed the way of the future. The flight of a 17-metre-long Electron rocket, built, managed and launched by US-based company Rocket Lab from a peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island, was not an unqualified success – it did not quite reach orbit. But Rocket Lab’s business model – sending small communication satellites and other payloads aloft on relatively cheap, disposable rockets – is seen by many as the future of the commercialisation of near-space.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off from its launch site in Mahia, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island on May 25, 2017. AFP
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off from its launch site in Mahia, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island on May 25, 2017. AFP

But it is thanks to one man that 2017 will go down as the year when private enterprise replaced nations as the most exciting, if not the biggest, player in space. Hi-tech multibillionaire Elon Musk may occasionally be unnervingly glib about space travel, but his decision, revealed in the last week of December, to load a red Tesla sports car on board a Falcon Heavy rocket, set to blast off on a test mission to orbit Mars in January, was pure showmanship.

There is no arguing with the astonishing achievements of his company SpaceX, however, which in 2017 set new benchmarks for space travel. Founded with the twin aims of reducing the cost of delivering payloads into space by developing reusable rockets and colonising Mars, SpaceX has scored a series of spectacular firsts since launching the first private rocket into orbit in 2008. In 2012 it became the first private company to make a delivery run to the International Space Station (ISS) and in 2015 it returned a reusable rocket to Earth for a smooth touchdown for the first time.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in December. SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in December. SpaceX

This year, Musk and SpaceX made large-scale commercial space travel a wholly commonplace event with a record 18 launches. They culminated on December 22 with the hoisting aloft of 10 Iridium communication satellites on board one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. And, as if to underline the vision that one day space travel will be accessible to all, this year Musk revealed plans to send two paying space tourists to orbit the moon by the end of 2018.

Not that SpaceX is the only company vying for space contracts. In March, aeronautical firm Boeing conducted a test of the parachute system of its CST-100 Starliner, expected to start shuttling astronauts to and from the space station in 2018. It is in competition with SpaceX’s Dragon craft, which is already being used to ferry cargo to the station. When either craft comes into operation, it will be the first time since the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis, in 2011, that America will have regained the ability to send its own astronauts into space, rather than having to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off in the air, as seen from El Sugundo, California, in this December 22. Twitter  /  Amanda Stiles
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off in the air, as seen from El Sugundo, California, in this December 22. Twitter / Amanda Stiles

If any single event in 2017 best summed up the increasing popularisation of space, it was perhaps the launch in August of an experiment devised by 15-year-old Emirati Alia Al Mansoori, a pupil at Dubai’s Al Mawakeb School, on board a mission to the ISS. Alia, the winner of the 2017 international Genes in Space competition, came up with a series of experiments designed to study the ways genes alter in space, which could have ramifications for medical treatments here on Earth, but could also prove vital to future long-distance space travel.

This was not the opening venture into space by the UAE. It launched its first Earth-observation satellite, DubaiSat-1, in 2009, followed in 2013 by DubaiSat-2. And this coming year will see the launch of KhalifaSat, the third satellite to be launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, but the first to be developed and built entirely by UAE engineers.

A real size model of DubaiSat 1, which was launched in 2009, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
A real size model of DubaiSat 1, which was launched in 2009, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

As remarkable as these achievements are as vital steps towards the UAE’s becoming one of the world’s key knowledge economies, they are merely ground-laying preludes to one of the most exciting developments yet in the country’s fast-moving story: at the beginning of December, Vice President Sheikh Mohammed, the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, launched the UAE astronaut programme, designed to recruit and train four Emirati astronauts for a mission to the ISS in 2021. It will coincide with the nation’s 50th anniversary.

The UAE was only 10 months old when Eugene Cernan and the crew of Apollo 17 returned to Earth in September 1972. With them, they brought a piece of Moon rock, which was gifted to Sheikh Zayed by America and today can be seen in Al Ain museum. A little over 45 years later, as the UAE embarks on training its own corps of astronauts, it is both astonishing and yet wholly likely that in the very near future Emiratis will be in a position to collect their own souvenirs of space travel.

Pictures of Palm Jumeirah Dubai in Dubai taken from DubaiSat2. EIAST
Pictures of Palm Jumeirah Dubai in Dubai taken from DubaiSat2. EIAST

For the world’s growing space community, including the UAE, the start of 2017 was overshadowed by Cernan’s death in January at the age of 82. But although the passing of the last person to walk on the Moon marked the end of an era, humankind’s growing determination to tread once more in his footsteps breathes fresh life into the words he uttered on the lunar surface.

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