The final frontier - what next for space?

Materials World magazine
2 Oct 2011

‘Space..the Final Frontier’, intoned William Shatner’s Captain Kirk voiceover to the popular science fiction TV and film series, Star Trek. But with the Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission recently marking the end of NASA’s manned space flight, for the time being at least, that frontier stops in low Earth orbit. How important is manned space flight to pushing scientific boundaries and are manned voyages to other planets feasible, or necessary?

From Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight to the crew of the International Space Station orbiting Earth today, via dozens of space missions and the epoch-defining Apollo moon landings, putting people in to space captures public imagination like no other human achievement.

Last year, I attended a talk by Duane Carey, a name few will have heard of and yet over 1,000 people turned up to listen to him. The fact that he was an ex-space shuttle pilot might have had something to do with it. He didn’t disappoint, as he recounted his time with NASA, discussing the practicalities of spaceflight and his own journey from high school to space school.

Indeed, NASA is acutely aware of the need to justify the billions of taxpayer dollars it spends and to foster a greater awareness of the practical benefits of this investment in aerospace research and development. Since 1976, it has published Spinoff, a magazine that describes some of the technologies that have found their way into wider use. To date, this has featured over 1,750 stories of how NASA technology has been transferred to the private sector, from digital imaging to MRI scanners. Although two materials popularised by the space programme – Teflon for space suit linings and Velcro to hold down items in zero gravity – were invented in the 1930s and 1940s, respectively, for completely different purposes.

Relatively few of these developments were required specifically for manned flight – most were for the scientific instruments and experiments conducted in space, and many of these have been carried by unmanned satellites and space probes. Even those experiments that require samples to be returned to Earth, such as the Materials International Space Station Experiment, a suitcase-sized container attached to the outside of the space station to expose potential space construction materials to the environment, could be carried by unmanned re-entry vehicles.

Ironically, the greatest advances in our understanding of how the universe came to be have come from the Hubble Telescope, designed to operate remotely, which yet required an in-flight repair to correct a spherical aberration in its primary mirror that could only be done by a human being. Hubble is coming to the end of its service life and will be replaced later this decade by the James Webb Space Telescope. This tennis court-sized observatory will orbit far beyond Earth’s moon, detecting infrared radiation and will hence be capable of seeing the furthest objects in the universe. Although led by NASA, it is truly an international and collaborative project, with 15 countries taking part and sharing the data. Webb will open the door to how the universe was formed, and where it is ultimately heading. While that may not be as dramatic as Star Trek or as memorable as Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon, I believe that it will prove the most revealing of all our space exploration to date, manned or otherwise.

Further information

Spinoff website