Are we in space

Universe: What do we want there?

Summary: Almost 60 years after the first space flight of the Russian Yuri Gagarin, a new space travel bug seems to have broken out. Americans, Russians and Europeans, but also Japanese, Indians and Chinese are targeting more and more distant destinations. Your scientific missions produce new, fascinating results. There are now so many projects in space that it's easy to lose track.

The “New Horizons” probe approaches the dwarf planet Pluto in July. It is one of many projects with which we want to explore the mysteries of space. Can man live out there anywhere? Will we find raw materials there? Or contact with extraterrestrial intelligences?

The travel bug has broken out again. Most popular destination: the red planet. There is hardly a rocket launch that the US space agency Nasa has not given the label “Journey to Mars”, even if it doesn't even go to the moon. In competitions, citizens should develop ideas on how people could eat, live and work on Mars. When an American astronaut sets off for the International Space Station, the outpost of mankind at an altitude of just 400 kilometers, he is of course doing it in the service of future exploration of the Red Planet.

There is a lot of drumming - about money, public attention, political support - and also a little whistling in the forest. After all, NASA still has no official mandate for a manned flight to Mars, let alone funding. There is only the wish of US President Barack Obama that humans orbit the planet for the first time by the mid-2030s, followed by a landing - at some point.

Achieving the distant and the unknown has always been seen as proof of human efficiency. And that is only one of the motives that draw people into space. There is this curiosity about what it looks like in a place that you can't seem to get to; the dream of fathoming the secret of life in foreign spheres, if there is one there; to find treasures like "the gold of the moon"; To be able to look down at the earth from above. Or maybe to leave them behind for good and to be able to live in the most distant foreign lands. The universe has always been an infinite projection surface for mankind, a target area for utopias. There is little that drives people more than making their dreams come true.

After years of stagnation, the spirit of optimism has returned. Americans, Russians, Chinese and Europeans - all target distant destinations. Japan and India are also exploring our solar system with their own probes (“Chandrayaan”, “Mangalayaan”, “Hayabusa”). Her scientific missions deliver new, fascinating insights almost every day. And for a few years now, private companies have also been stirring up the space market.

So a golden age for space travel? “We still know so little about space that every age is a golden one,” says Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen. The physicist looks after the optical camera on board “Rosetta”, one of the space probes that is currently creating a new image of the solar system. In August of last year, it went into orbit around a comet - a novelty in space travel. Now “Rosetta” accompanies the primeval heavenly body on its way towards the sun.

There is now so much going on above our sky that it is easy to lose track of things. The “Messenger” probe has just successfully completed its exploration of Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system, when one of the outermost celestial bodies receives a visit: On July 14, the US probe “New Horizons” will be the first spacecraft on the dwarf planet Pluto fly by. “There are still so many white spots in the solar system that we urgently need to research,” says Sierks.

For the time being, people only send their devices; they don't even dare to venture too far. Just six people can be accommodated on the International Space Station, almost 60 years after the first space flight of the Russian Yuri Gagarin and 46 years after landing on the moon. In the sixties, NASA engineers dreamed of space stations with 50 or 100 inhabitants, of manned bases on the moon, and by 1986 at the latest, the first voyagers to Mars should set off. Then US President Richard Nixon ("I don't give a damn about space") made a momentous decision. Instead of investing in travel even deeper into space, he commissioned the construction of the space shuttle - a reusable spacecraft for excursions into low Earth orbit.

The shuttle fans were hoping for weekly cheap flights. But the space glider turned out to be a billion dollar grave, its maintenance was expensive. Since then, humanity has been stuck in low orbit. In 1981, when the "Columbia", the first space shuttle, took off, the Cold War was still raging, the "space race" was a duel between Russians and Americans. Today the competition is greater. The Chinese, who are currently building a manned space station step by step, supposedly want to go to the moon in about ten years. The Americans are going with them: Last December, they launched their new "Orion" spaceship. The test flight, still without passengers, brought the "Orion" capsule to an altitude of 5800 kilometers - further away from Earth than any other manned space flight project since 1972.

It is completely uncertain what will be found up there and what benefits it will bring mankind to shoot billions of dollars, euros, rubles and yen into orbit. But the fruits of human curiosity have always only been tasted afterwards. And it has always been an irresistible drive. “We humans are explorers,” says the German astronaut Alexander Gerst. “As soon as we could build rafts, we went across rivers. As soon as we could build ships, we sailed beyond the horizon. Now we can build spaceships, so we'll fly into space. ”Gerst spent six months on the ISS last year. And next on Mars? The 39-year-old wouldn't hesitate for a moment: “The flight to Mars would be the first step out into our solar system. It could provide information as to whether we humans are alone or not. "

Video: NASA press conference - All about the Pluto mission (with animation from 4:30 p.m.)

However, the missile is still missing for this. The "Saturn V", which once brought the Apollo astronauts to the moon, was able to lift 118 tons into space. The currently most powerful US missile does not even manage 30 tons. A new heavy-duty missile should now shoulder the task, the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA is currently developing a first variant for an initially 70 t payload.

The only question is whether SLS will even be ready by the next planned “Orion” test flight: In 2018, an unmanned capsule will be sent on a tour around the moon. Even for possible flights to asteroids or even to Mars, the financing is still shaky. Not least because of this, NASA sticks its “Journey to Mars” label on all activities. The message: If you as a politician do not make enough money for the space program, you are avoiding the ultimate challenge.

Prominent support for the departure into space also comes from other sources: "I believe that we will not survive another 1,000 years if we do not flee from this fragile planet first," says British physicist Stephen Hawking. Whether asteroid strikes or nuclear wars - sooner or later humanity is threatened with annihilation. The only way out are colonies in space or on other planets. Hawking: "Humanity only has a future if it conquers space."

But not all space advocates are philanthropic. It is also a profitable business. On behalf of NASA, companies like SpaceX, founded by the South African billionaire Elon Musk, have been bringing cargo to the ISS for some time. From 2017 they will also carry astronauts.

Musk's company is also working on reusable missiles. After the work is done, you should not burn up when you fall back, as before, but fly back to earth and start again a few days later. "If we can use rockets as efficiently as airplanes, it will reduce the cost of a flight into space to a hundredth," says Musk.

Drastically falling start-up costs open up new business models. For example in the tourism and raw materials industries. One day, space travelers will be able to fly to inflatable stations in Earth orbit for tens of thousands of euros, stay there for a few days and enjoy the view. The US company Planetary Resources plans to head for asteroids that orbit the sun on orbits similar to those of the earth. In their interior there are probably metals that are extremely rare in the earth's crust and correspondingly valuable. Unmanned spaceships could someday take over the dismantling. Some very optimistic speculations even assume that the rich helium-3 deposits on the moon will one day generate unlimited energy in fusion reactors.

Elon Musk wants to present plans for his private spaceship to take people to Mars this year. Musk, who has demonstrated his ingenuity with SpaceX and the Tesla electric car, promises a “completely new kind of spaceship”. A few weeks ago he added: “I think,” says Musk, “we have a good chance of sending a person to Mars in eleven or twelve years.” Not sometime like NASA. Not in "about" ten or 15 years, but in eleven or twelve. SpaceX has a plan.

(NG, issue 7/2015, page (s) 36 to 71)