The dawning of the space age opened our eyes to the universe and the planet we inhabit, and the ability of humankind to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere triggered a revolution in science – on this there was no disagreement among the Russian scientists interviewed by RIA Novosti in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight.
However, many of the scientists expressed doubts about the need for further manned flights, saying that robots are now the best way to explore space.
View from space
We live at the bottom of an immense ocean of air, protected from harmful radiation and high-energy space particles by the atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field. But this layer of protection also presents a challenge for astronomers because it only allows a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum through – the visible light range and some radio waves. Once we were able to propel satellites and spacecraft above the atmosphere, we could see the whole spectrum from gamma rays to long waves.
“Before we couldn’t see what the universe looks like in x-ray, ultraviolet and gamma rays as well as in certain radio frequencies. Technological advances allowed us to make new discoveries – things we did not even suspect could exist,” said Sergei Yazev, senior fellow at the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Siberian branch.
Igor Mitrofanov, head of the space gamma spectroscopy lab at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, believes the space age marked “second revolution” in astronomy and astrophysics. Galileo led the first revolution with the invention of the first optical telescope 400 years ago.
“This was the beginning of astronomy conducted from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. We learned that there are many sources of x-ray radiation and gamma rays in space, and that interstellar space is filled with cosmic rays,” Mitrofanov said.
Sergei Lamzin, deputy head of Moscow State University’s Sternberg State Astronomical Institute, cited gamma-ray bursts and black holes, which can only be seen by the x-rays they emit, as examples of phenomena discovered with satellites.
Once in orbit above the atmosphere, the capabilities of ordinary optical telescopes greatly improve. “The famous Hubble telescope allowed us to see details that are extremely difficult or even impossible to see from the Earth,” Yazev said.
Mitrofanov added that this advance allowed astronomers to see more of the universe than ever before and to search for planets orbiting distant stars.
Spaceflight revolutionized planetary science. Instead of passively observing from Earth, scientists were able for the first time to venture beyond the atmosphere with the latest technology, leading to a myriad of amazing discoveries, such as lunar permafrost and the ocean on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
“Spacecraft have reached all the planets in the solar system. They have been used to examine celestial bodies on the ground, collecting samples, taking high-resolution photos of the surface and recording weather data. There was a time when we could only dream of doing such things,” Yazev said.
Most of the scientists interviewed by RIA Novosti said that there was no longer any need to send humans into space. Unmanned missions can get the job done.
“Most people in developed countries no longer feel the same patriotic excitement over manned space flights that people used to feel in 1960s and 1970s, with the possible exception of China. Today, being a cosmonaut is an extreme and dangerous profession. It is similar to being a soldier, test pilot, deep-sea submersible pilot, mountain climber and so on. The overall trend in all these professions is to keep people out of danger. Submersible robots and unmanned aerial vehicles, tanks and military machines – they are cheaper and more reliable, ” said Vladimir Surdin, senior fellow at the Sternberg State Astronomical Institute.
According to Surdin, human beings cannot compete with robots in space. For example, NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity, has been on the red planet for seven years already. The robotic spacecraft Odyssey has been orbiting the planet for a decade, and Voyager spacecraft have been in use for more than three decades.
“The data-to-cost ratio of these spacecraft is hundreds of times greater than that of manned space missions,” the scientist noted.
The effects of space conditions on the human body have been thoroughly studied over the past 50 years, leading Surdin to ask: “Why continue spending huge amounts of money looking into minor details if it is already clear that a manned flight to the Moon is possible while a manned flight to Mars is almost impossible?”
He believes that spending so much money on manned spaceflight is unreasonable. All major tasks are already being carried out by unmanned vehicles, which are becoming increasingly more compact. Manned spaceflight cannot be made similarly efficient.
“Human pilot needs to eat, drink and breathe. They cannot shrink down to the size of Tom Thumb. This is why I believe that the age of manned spaceflight is in its twilight,” Surdin said, adding that manned spaceflight should be reserved solely for medical and biological research.
In defense of cosmonauts
Many scientists agree that space research carried out by robots is often cheaper and simpler. However, they do not agree that manned spaceflight is a thing of the past. Our ability to take circumstance-driven decisions and the flexibility of the human brain are irreplaceable in certain situations.
Igor Mitrofanov said that a robotic vehicle can easily take pressure and temperature measurements on Mars but “as missions get more complex human beings will be needed…This is why future exploration missions to the Moon and Mars will be based on an optimal balance between manned and unmanned flights.”
Alexander Bazilevsky, head of the Laboratory for Comparative Planetology at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, believes that human beings are irreplaceable where “unconventional thinking” or investigation are needed.
“For example, a highly qualified exobiologist working on exposed rock on Mars may well discover an indication that life once existed there. Human beings are also the only way to investigate a tragedy at a base or colony on another planet,” Bazilevsky said.
Sergei Lamzin believes that only human pilots can effectively repair or replace failed equipment.
“As time goes by, increasingly complex and expensive equipment will be used in space, which will have to be assembled and tweaked while in orbit. Humans are the only option in the foreseeable future,” he said.
He also believes that the race for natural resources will eventually force humankind to explore the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies. There will be flights to distant worlds regardless of the practicality.
“We will keep doing it because it is utterly fascinating,” Lamzin said.
“Anyway, it should not be an either-or scenario, manned or unmanned flights. They should complement one another. How to divide the funding between the two is another matter, which depends on economic and political circumstances,” Lamzin said.
Another supporter of manned spaceflight is Vladimir Kuznetsov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Pushkov Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation.
“The use of cosmonauts in space exploration and the ability to launch manned flights at any time are crucial elements of the space exploration doctrine. We should not abandon the achievements and technology of manned space exploration, accumulated over the past 50 years. We should build on them, and this will require that we keep planning and carrying out manned flights,” Kuznetsov said.
He also believes cosmonauts will be indispensible in future efforts to establish research and transit bases on the Moon.
Sergei Yazev recounted in his interview how in the early 20th century Konstantin Tsiolkovsky believed that it was time for humankind to leave its cradle, the Earth.
“We need to explore new living environments and to learn how to feel comfortable in them. The future of humankind will depend on it,” Yazev said. “This is why a continuous human presence in space – at first in orbital stations and later in fixed bases on the Moon and Mars – is necessary. Their payoff will eventually be huge.”
Yazev believes that politicians don’t properly understand or appreciate space exploration: “Citing a lack of money is unconvincing to me. I believe even the tangential benefits of space exploration programs outweigh the positive effects of Russia’s investment in the 2014 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup.” He also noted that manned spaceflight requires high-tech production facilities. Continuing manned spaceflights will result in the creation of new jobs and lead to advancements in technology, nuclear energy, the development of new materials, life support systems, communications and environmental protection.
“All this could help Russia take a leading position in the world, to say nothing of the new technology and feeling of national pride it would create. Reports from the Moon and Mars could be more exciting than reports from the Olympic Games, making the endeavor economically viable,” the astronomer concluded.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.