Tuesday, July 22, 2008
It was 50 years ago that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. The beeping radio signals that emanated from the satellite heralded the space age. Since then humans have journeyed into space and returned safely; satellites have helped study the earth, keep watch over the weather, and broadcast TV programmes; probes have gone to other bodies in the solar system; and space-based telescopes have gazed at the far reaches of the cosmos. Just 12 years after the launch of Sputnik, humans walked on the surface of the moon. Then the intense rivalry between the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — that drove the space race disappeared and public interest in space waned. It is now 35 years since the last of the moon travellers returned home. During this period, the launching of satellites and humans going out to live on the International Space Station for months at a time has become an almost routine affair. Yet we could be on the threshold of a new and exciting age of space exploration and space travel.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the earth’s natural satellite. Japan’s first lunar probe Selene (nicknamed “Kaguya”) that was launched last month has reached its orbit around the moon. China’s Chang’e-1 spacecraft is likely to follow soon and India’s Chandrayaan-1 is expected to be launched in April 2008. All three countries have plans for further unmanned exploration of the moon. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wants to retire the Space Shuttles by 2010 and concentrate on the development of a new space transportation system. It aims to have humans back on the moon by 2020 and to begin the manned exploration of the Mars by 2037. Russia too is considering human flights to the moon and the Mars, and the present indications are that China, Japan, and India are likely to despatch, in course of time, their own astronauts to the moon and perhaps beyond. A new age of space exploration will surely see competition among space-faring nations. But if such exploration is to be sustained, as it must if humans are to establish a foothold in alien and inhospitable environments, cooperation will be vital. The International Space Station has proved that it makes sense to pool resources in an expensive venture. As a common goal, one needs to remember what Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian school teacher who formulated some of the basic principles of rocketry and came to be hailed as the ‘father of space travel,’ wrote in 1911: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”