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Monday, 13 April 2015

Opinion: Apollo 13 to today - how far have we come?

Apollo 13 to today - how far have we come?

This Monday is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission. In case you don't know what happened - it was 45 years ago, c`mon, some people seriously won't have - it was a crewed spaceship, on an exploration mission to the Moon.One of the crew called mission control and said "We've had a problem". Now, this was at a time when space travel was solely for the bad assest of the bad assest, so the problem was that... um well check out this re-enactment from the (historically very accurate)movie with Tom Hanks :

Above: Tom Hanks tries to explain to his space ship that now wasn't a great time to do terrible thing it just did. Courtesy of

Hollywood does exaggerate things though, doesn't it? Well, in cased you're wondering just how Hollywood that was, here's a photo taken by the crew of how banged up their ship really was :

Above: The top picture is how Apollo 13 looked as the crew abandoned it (well, the service module part at least). The bottom is how it should have looked. Courtesy of NASA

..and to get it from the horses mouth, here's commander Jim Lovell and his crew, speaking at a press conference not long after they made it home:

How far have we come since then? 
Something I hear a lot amongst space advocates is that, with hindsight, Apollo 13 represents a double failure: Not only was the mission a failure that almost killed the crew, but the Apollo missions themselves are a bitter example of how much mankind can achieve in space....... but doesn't. After all, it's been over forty years since humans went beyond Earth orbit.

Above: The Launch of Apollo 17, the last time that humans went into deep space in person. Courtesy of Dan Beaumont film.
This is a point of view held by some very clever people, who were actually involved in Apollo (although by no means all of them), but I disagree:
In 1969 to 1973 we had the massive, cold-war-inspired, effort of Apollo. Riding a budget that was many times bigger than today's (in real terms), with unwavering political support, NASA accomplished the seemingly impossible: It landed people on the Moon:

Above: If I need to tell you what this is then shame on you. Unless you're like five, in which case: It's the first spaceship to land on the Moon. And well done for getting onto my website. Does Mum know you're using her computer..?

But there was no surface exploration of other planets. None of the smart machines we have flying about our solar system today - there were automated probes to other planets but they were crude, simple, and so rare. Indeed, any and every space launch was a major event. No space stations. No reusable spacecraft. The very idea of a private company looking to access space, or build their own ships would have been laughable. Now, for kicks, check out the timeline of space exploration over on (Link here)

Above: The Millennium Falcon isn't on that timeline. Yet. I have plans....

Look at how many firsts, both exploration, technological (and even in human spaceflight) come after Apollo ended. The end of the Apollo era budgets may have quashed many of the big dreams, but it forced space exploration into an era of innovation it might otherwise have missed. And, thanks to the missions that have flown since Apollo, we have views like this...

Above: Saturn, seen with the Sun behind it, by the Cassini space probe. Courtesy of NASA

...and this....

Above: Sunset on Mars,as seen by the Curiosity rover. Courtesy of NASA.
...and this....

Above: A video taken by the MESSENGER probe as it swoops low over the surface of Mercury. Courtesy of NASA.

...and this....
Above: the plumes of Enceladus, where an mysterious heat source is powering geysers and an underground ocean on a small moon of Saturn. Courtesy of NASA.

...available to the whole world. We know that Mars once was a habitable world, and we're on the way to hunting down the best place to look for any life that was there. We've discovered that worlds like Europa, and Enceladus have oceans to explore, that comets carry the chemical building blocks of life, and that Saturn's moon Titan is a very, very weird place that we can learn a lot from. This year we begin exploring Pluto and the Kuiper belt, and the Dawn mission will map the dwarf planets for us.

And as for manned exploration? It's true, we haven't gone beyond Earths protective magnetic field since Apollo. But today space launches to thew biggest, most sophisticated space station ever built, are routine. Even manned flights are a normal thing.

Above: A tour of the International Space Station, the biggest, most sophisticated space laboratory ever built. Courtesy of NASA/ESA.

We have innovative new approaches to space, like the rise of miniaturised space craft: Cubesats and chipsats are opening space to more and more ordinary people. We have the burgeoning space tourism market. We have many, many missions like Hubble, which stay in earth orbit but look out to the stars -  and have discovered alien solar systems, and imaged planets around other stars. That was feat many scientist though would be impossible for centuries in 1970. And all of the above barely begins on all the missions and discoveries we've made.

Would I love to see ts on Mars, a lunar base, or a manned Jupiter mission? Hell yes. It's a crying shame that space exploration doesn't receive the same high priority treatment that Apollo did, all across the world. But can we really say we've not done anything great since Apollo, that what the crew of Apollo 13 risked their lives for (and other crews died for) has never come to pass?

I suggest this: Go to the timeline of space exploration I linked earlier. Put a few of the missions there into Google, read about the discoveries, and the future plans. I think you'll see: We've come a long way since Apollo 13.

Elsewhere in the Universe:

Conditions for liquid water to form exist at Curiosity rover landing site:
A team from Copenhagen have looked through the data returned by the mars rover Curiosity, and found that the conditions for liquid water to form exist there. A form of perchlorate salt in the soil is able, under the right atmospheric conditions, to suck moisture out of the air until it becomes droplet of salty water. Even a tiny amuont of confirmed liquid water on Mars raises the chances of some form of live clinging on there, and this makes it seem all the more likely.

25th anniversary of the the Pegasus rocket:
The Pegasus is a unique launcher, because it is carried above the lowest, thickest layers of atmosphere by an airplane before launching:

Above: Pegasus launches the IRIS  satellite.
Similar systems, involving jet fighters, are being planned by both private companies and by the DARPA  agency. This week is the 25th anniversary of the pegasus system, showing that such a launcher has the commercial staying power needed to succeed.

Elsewhere on the internet:
Titan storms explain giant dunes
Colour map of CERES reveals an active world

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