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Space Station

Why we should not live in the past with the space race

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Space station
    There is a lot going on in space right now. Above our heads, astronauts are going about their daily lives on the International Space Station (ISS). (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Soviet chic
    The ISS is partly monitored from mission control in Korolev, Russia, a place steeped in history. Copyright: (Nasa/Bill Ingalls)
  • Send-off
    Missions to the ISS were supported by the Shuttle until it took off on its last flight on 8 July 2011. (Copyright: Nasa/Bill Ingalls)
  • Space business
    One company taking over from the Space Shuttle is SpaceX, whose Falcon launch vehicle will propel spacecraft into orbit. (Copyright: SpaceX/Chris Thompson)
  • Dragon flight
    SpaceX’s Dragon will be the first privately developed spacecraft to dock with the ISS. (Copyright: SpaceX)
  • Taking off
    The commercialisation of space is happening quickly with the world’s first passenger spaceport, Spaceport America, under construction. (Copyright: Spaceport America)
  • Day tripping
    Space tourists will take a suborbital flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, which is launched from a mothership. (Copyright: Spaceport America)
  • Planet gazing
    There are still some complex missions, such as Cassini’s journey to Saturn, that require international cooperation between space agencies. (Copyright: NASA/JPL)
  • Alien worlds
    Outside the solar system, the Kepler planet-hunter mission is finding alien worlds faster than ever. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
The Cold War may be over but the space race has never been so exciting, says our space columnist Richard Hollingham.

For connoisseurs of Soviet chic, mission control for the International Space Station at Korolev near Moscow takes some beating.

Corridors are lined with corrugated golden panels – the same type of panels, curiously, as were used at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine – and no doubt the cracked sepia-brown linoleum floor tiles were also produced to a central design. But the highlight is a two-storey high mural of Yuri Gagarin, hand outstretched, reaching for the stars. Further along the golden corridor, adding to the nostalgia of past glories, is the preserved control room for space station Mir.

For your average space geek – say, a 42-year-old space reporter and science journalist – it is wonderful to wallow in this glorious history. But the trouble with us space addicts is that we sometimes live too much in the past. So much so, in fact, that our visors become rose-tinted.

Take the Space Shuttle, for example. Many of us complained that it was too costly, too dangerous and too complicated. It was Nasa’s white elephant, we suggested: a dead-end when we should have been going to the Moon and Mars. This is the same Shuttle that, when it was cancelled, made us teary-eyed and sentimental. How could they ground the most beautiful machine ever created?

But it is not just the past. Space geeks can also get obsessed with the far future. If we are not fantasising about boldly going where no one has gone before, then we are fearful (but secretly a little excited), that sentient robots are going to take over the Earth. Although by then, ideally, we will also be colonising the Galaxy, seeking new life and civilisations.

But the real excitement lies between the past and infinity (and beyond). It is here, right now, and always has been – we just haven’t noticed. Because when it comes to space, we are living in a remarkable period. Here is how the evidence stacks up:

The International Space Station (ISS)

 Right now, somewhere above our heads, six astronauts are going about their daily lives in space. (This rather neat site uses Google maps to show you exactly where.) It is not the science they are doing or the observations they are taking that are the most exciting, it is the mundane things: the sleeping, eating, drinking, exercising and going to the toilet. All that stuff is really difficult in space, and if we ever want to leave the confines of low Earth orbit, we need to get the hang of it. And if you have ever seen a space toilet, you will appreciate the horror for you and your companions if you don’t follow the correct procedure when you use one.

Private enterprise

 At a recent space conference I attended, a senior Nasa official gave a speech about the Agency’s future ambitions. Almost every slide he used was about SpaceX.  This startup company, headed by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has already flown a wheel of cheese around the Earth (and returned it safely) and is about to launch a spacecraft to the ISS. The Dragon capsule will carry cargo into orbit, dock with the station and return to Earth. Eventually it will be approved to carry people. The transition from behemoth agencies to private enterprise isn’t necessarily going to be pretty, but if space can make money (and the satellite industry has already proved that it can), then the future for space travel is looking bright.


While the search for evidence of life on Mars remains the focus, Nasa’s Messenger mission is uncovering all sorts of weird information about Mercury – from mysterious hollows to an offset magnetic field. Meanwhile, the international Cassini spacecraft continues to send back remarkable pictures of Saturn and its moons, and the European Space Agency’s Venus Express is unravelling the mysteries of Earth’s evil twin. When you factor in discoveries from the Kepler planet-hunter, the various space telescopes, observatories and Earth observation missions such as CryoSat, then the amount of scientific knowledge being gathered in space has never been greater.

Space Tourism

2012 should see the flight of the first space tourists. It is easy to be dismissive – not to mention jealous – of space tourism ventures. Very easy. Nevertheless, the opening up of space to mere mortals rather than superhumans with ‘The Right Stuff’ (copyright every space agency) is incredibly exciting. It marks the beginning of a whole new space industry. And that’s got to be good for space enthusiasts and the future of space exploration.

All this is happening right now. These ventures may not have the grandeur of Apollo but they have a breadth and depth that the early space programmes never had.

So embrace your inner geek. But while you’re eulogising over those old Shuttle videos on YouTube, or watching the latest Star Trek movie for the tenth time, think about what is going on now. You will be surprised at what you find here.

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