EXPLORING NEW FRONTIERS
THE CHALLENGE & THE DANGER
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin began a new chapter of history when on 12 April 1961 he became the first man to travel into space, orbit the earth and return home. With tragic irony he was to later lose his life in a plane crash in 1968.
US astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were applauded by the world when on 21 July 1969 they became the first men to set foot on the moon. Since then, international space programmes have included dozens of manned and unmanned missions. The first NASA space shuttle, Columbia, took off on 12 April 1981twenty years to the day from Gagarin's flightand safely returned to earth with its two crew members after circling the earth 36 times on a flight lasting 32 hours and 22 minutes. In 1995 Valeri Poliakov returned to earth after spending what then was the longest period in space438 days aboard the MIR space station.
The Columbia shuttle tragedy of 1 February was NASAs 107th active shuttle mission. Throughout history, men and women have sacrificed their lives in the development of exploration, from the simple nomadic wanderers to the ancient mariners, from rail and road construction to Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Stepping into the unknown will always be fraught with unpredictable and unknown dangers and those who volunteer to carry out such exploration rank among the bravest souls.
Yet those who venture into the cold of space run a terrible risk. The smallest miscalculationeven the smallest mechanical or electronic failure can result in the gravest of consequences. They are also constantly at risk from the unknown dangers posed by space debris, both natural and man made, in addition to other as yet unidentified dangers.
It can be difficult to mentally encompass the benefits of progress and exploration, regardless of the field in which it occurs. In the early days of medicine, people were horrified by exploration into the human body itself. Yet without that exploration, medical treatment could never have reached the stage it has and through which billions of people can benefit. Man has spread throughout the planets hospitable regions and, notwithstanding its harsher environments on land and sea, space is now the next frontier.
Despite our knowledge, it is still an unknown frontier. The ancient mariners were able to look out across oceans, sail upon familiar stretches. They were knowledgeable of weather, of tides, of foreign ports. It was not a wholly unknown environment. Those who venture into space do not have that luxury of knowledge.
In physical terms, space is the next frontier and who knows what may follow. Although our scientific data may be accumulating, we still know very little about the universe in generally understandable terms. We have conquered deep ocean exploration, but as yet we do not possess the technology to colonise the ocean beds. We perhaps do have the technology to build a space station on another planet, just as we are still constructing the international space station and on which at the time of writing three US astronauts occupied. It may be that further into the future we will conquer planetary colonisation and it may also be that we need to colonise another planet for the survival of our species.
The seven astronauts who lost their lives on 1 February 2003 did so in pursuit of human progress. In that, they were truly heroes.
Web site highlighting funding and other problems at NASA by former NASA engineer Don Nelson
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