Why should we explore space?

Should our time and money be going towards projects that are closer to home?
25 August 2015

Interview with 

David Shukman, BBC Science Editor


This year has undoubtedly been a big year for space, with Rosetta and New Horizons both dominating the headlines in many countries. There's also more bigRobonaut ISS Checkout news to come; the first British Astronaut will be heading up to the International Space Station in December. While these missions have enthralled many they have angered others: why bother? Space travel is dangerous and expensive. Why splash the cash on this, when we could be pursuing goals with greater impacts closer to home, right here on Earth? David Shukman, Science Editor at the BBC found himself grappling with exactly this question when reporting on the Philae touched down on the comet, as he explained to Chris Smith...

David - It was more exhilarating, more exciting than I ever believed possible. We were in a packed room and many of the people standing around us had been involved in the project in one way or another for one or even two decades of their lives. And so, there was this extraordinary, very, very human eruption of emotion when the confirmation came through that the lander had successfully touched down. We were standing very close to Professor Monica Grady of the Open University, head of planetary sciences there. Her department and her husband is the principal investigator on one of the instruments on the lander. She was just unrestrained in her joy. I had my first on air hug from her. I think for me, it was a moment that showed the wider world that scientists have very, very human emotions. They have ambitions. They have frailties. They are responsive as any of us would be to moments of high intense drama.

I think the public reaction to seeing Monica's reaction and the reactions of everybody in the control room, and mission control, and the rest of that room illustrated that there is something valuable for us humans just about attempting very difficult things and exploring unknown worlds, and having a shared experience of joy when it works. For me, it was one of the highlights of my career.

Chris - It was similar with New Horizons getting to Pluto. I was fortunate, I interviewed Alan Stern who was the principal investigator on that mission when it was just about to take off. For me as a much younger me then, the concept of something...

David - So 10 years ago, right?

Chris - Exactly, right. So, the concept of something taking that long to come to fruition, you think a PhD's long and that's 3 years and then this is three times that more, it is quite hard to grasp. But then we saw a similar reaction when we saw the first proper pictures of Pluto as that went past. You were there too, weren't you?

David - I was there in Maryland at Johns Hopkins University which was managing the mission and Alan Stern was there obviously. You got to admire the tenacity of the man because he kept suggesting to NASA these missions to Pluto and they kept swatting him away and rejecting him. He described the process of dealing with the rejection, taking stock, getting over the hurt, coming back a few years later with another proposal, and was obviously delighted when the mission was approved. It's easy perhaps to be a bit cynical and to think this is a bit cheesy and certainly, it's quite flag waving over in America. Not everybody who wasn't American kind of appreciated that. But I do think there's something important about finding ways to make science exciting. And if this is a way, I think it's to be applauded.

Chris - Not everyone was enthusiastic though. There was a bit of negative energy coming back, wasn't there?

David - That's right. I mean, in the middle of the sort of Twitter storm and sort of nearly everybody is apparently sharing in the excitement, there'd always be someone who would lob in a little comment along the lines of, "Why bother? Why do we a.) Need to be excited, b.) More importantly, spend any money?" I feel it very keenly certainly. In the newsroom, there are debates amongst the editors about, "Is this stuff important? Do we need to spend any of our dwindling news coverage budget on a space mission to a very distant world?" I mean, I in a blog, responding to those criticisms, tried to make the case, but there's something about human nature which leads us to want to explore. If a door is half open, most of us would want to look. Most of us I think would want to see Pluto in detail and get to know our scientific neighbourhood. I think that's probably why the likes of Scott and Shackleton and Nansen, the great explorers attracted such an enormous following because they were taking humanity beyond existing boundaries into unchartered territory and I think that's something that appealed to a great number of people. When I wrote that blog, quite a number of comments came in and people wrote to me. One comment in particular came to me by email which was sort of saying, "Well done and thank you for doing it" but that I'd miss the point. For him, the main point was very, very exciting space missions surely serve his bigger purpose of being an inspirational springboard for young careers in science and engineering. Probably, the most robust defence of this mission is a combination of, "Aren't we just curious species?" and secondly, if one buys into that argument, that we're going to need clever people to engage in difficult challenges in science and engineering. Surely, this is a great way to try and do that.

Chris - What is next on the space agenda, looking forward from here on in? What have we got coming up?

David - Well, you've mentioned Tim Peake and I think that's a fascinating mission. We've had Brits who became American citizens in order to join NASA and go into space. But Tim Peake is Britain's first official astronaut and he's got a 6-month mission up to the Space Station. His launch date is set for mid-December.

I think it marks an enormous and interesting change in British attitudes to manned space flight. For a very long time, successive British governments just didn't sort of get it. And then I think much more recently, there's been this massive recognition in government circles that rather quietly, Britain has a very impressive network of companies of different sizes, and different institutes and different university departments, very successfully engaged in different aspects of space. I think if you do have a British human presence in space, it acts as a kind of  way of bringing all these disparate activities across the UK together. It provides a kind of figurehead if you like. I'm looking forward to it. I think that'll be probably for a British space journalist, that's probably the next big thing on the space diary which we're all looking forward to.


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