History made as astronauts enter space station

Docking: US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken (right) join the ISS existing crew. © SpaceX

Is our obsession with space wrong? Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has triumphed with its first manned US space rocket in a decade. But many believe humans have a moral duty to focus on Earth.

There was no going back. The astronauts Robert Behken and Douglas Hurley felt a huge surge of power as the countdown finished and the Falcon 9 rocket ignited beneath them. Moments later, they were being thrust up through the Earth’s atmosphere and into the cold infinity of space.

Yesterday’s flawless operation as the Dragon capsule – supplied and operated by the SpaceX company – attached to the bow section of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) lab, 422km above China, was not only the first time that a commercial company had sent astronauts into orbit.

It was the latest triumph for the South African entrepreneur Elon Musk. His ambition, he says, is to “grow a rose on Mars”, and his Twitter feed carries a quote from Queen’s song Bohemian Rhapsody: “Open your eyes. Look up to the skies.”

On this Demo-2 mission, which could last for as long as four months, astronauts will carry out experiments before returning to Earth. If everything goes smoothly, Nasa will approve the spacecraft’s use for future missions.

SpaceX is just one of Musk’s projects. He is also the man behind Tesla electric cars; he is developing a device called the Neuralink to allow people to communicate via microchips in their skulls, and he is pressing ahead with the Hyperloop – a high-speed transport system using pods that travel through a system of tubes.

To some, he is a visionary, a latter-day Leonard da Vinci. To others, he is more like Icarus – a man destined to be brought down by hubris.

His ultimate ambition is to colonise Mars – which raises a big moral issue. Should private ownership apply when exploring the vastness of the cosmos?

But there is another question which is perhaps even more profound: does gravity have a moral purpose? Was Nietzsche right when he said, “Remain true to the earth?”

Many believe that humans have a duty to remain on and care for our planetary home – and each other – instead of pursuing a project that would allow an elite few to be transported to another world.

In fact, rather than being regarded as heroic, space exploration could be seen as a form of escapism – a desire to avoid the challenges posed by our mistreatment of the Earth. In other words, cowardice.

So, is our obsession with space wrong?

Tense atmosphere

Yes. We are incredibly lucky to have the rare conditions that support human life here on Earth, so to swap it for a planet as inhospitable as Mars flies in the face of common sense. Nobody would seriously consider it if they did not believe that the Earth was about to be ruined by global warming, and the problem was too big to grapple with. To shirk that challenge is obviously escapism.

No. Space exploration poses challenges just as big as global warming – they are just of a different nature. To climb into a rocket and leave the Earth millions of miles behind requires so much courage that it cannot possibly be described as cowardly. What drives Elon Musk is the fundamental human instinct to explore, and space – in the words of Star Trek – is still the final frontier.

You Decide

  1. If you were invited to go on a test flight for a new spaceship, would you accept?
  2. Should the first people to reach another planet be allowed to claim it as their property?

Activities

  1. Make a diagram of the SpaceX craft and label the different parts of it.
  2. Imagine that you are an astronaut due to take off on a mission tomorrow. On one side of a piece of paper, record the thoughts going through your head.

Some People Say...

“All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality – the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all.”

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), British journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The US decided to phase out its space-shuttle programme after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated on re-entry, killing all seven crew. Instead, Nasa opted to develop new spacecraft to travel to the Moon and Mars, paying Russia to transport its astronauts to the ISS in the meantime. Rather than design the new craft itself, it contracted the work out to two private companies – Boeing and SpaceX. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is expected to be ready next year.
What do we not know?
If and when SpaceX will succeed in sending astronauts to Mars. Elon Musk’s aim is to achieve this by 2024, using a different spacecraft, the Starship, capable of travelling to the Red Planet and back. The journey of 140 million miles is expected to take six months.

Word Watch

International Space Station
Run jointly by five space agencies representing the US, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada, the ISS has been manned continuously since 2000.
Nasa
Set up in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is part of the US government responsible for the space programme, as well as space research.
Visionary
A person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.
Leonard da Vinci
An Italian artist and inventor (1452-1519), considered to be one of the world’s greatest geniuses. He painted the Mona Lisa and designed an early flying machine.
Icarus
In Greek mythology, Icarus’s father Daedalus invented wings of feathers held together with wax, so that the two could escape from Crete. But Icarus ignored Daedalus’s warning not too fly too high – the heat of the sun melted the wax and he fell into the sea.
Hubris
Pride or dangerous overconfidence. In Greek tragedy, it was seen as the fault most likely to bring about a person’s downfall.
Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a highly influential German philosopher. One of his most famous sayings is: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Shirk
To avoid or neglect (a duty or responsibility).

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.