The scientific worth of shooting for the stars

The scientific worth of shooting for the stars
Technicians checking Nasa's Maven spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in September. Launched on Monday, Maven will travel 700 million km and arrive in planetary orbit around Mars next September.

Notice how space exploration has suddenly become sexy again?

More than four decades after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, rockets are booming in every sense and Mars has now replaced the moon as the big-ticket destination.

For the first time, India finds itself on exactly the same mission path as the United States, with both countries launching orbiters to the red planet this month.

Even Hollywood has jumped on the outer-space theme. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, has already racked up half a billion US dollars at the box office.

But away from celluloid depiction, commerce is a lot tougher at the coalface of space exploration, where there is no box office return and where the real missions require billions of dollars of state investment.

Is that colossal outlay worth it? Yes, because science - quite apart from significant national prestige - is a major driving force. Were individual nations to call a halt to space exploration, this would signify once and for all that science has been inexplicably subjugated by commerce or politics.

Physical and scientific exploration are central to human life, just as they are to the entertainment industry.

Not surprisingly, the two central "characters" in the 1995 Disney-Pixar animated film Toy Story were a cowboy and an astronaut, embodying two of the most enduring phases in US history and both intrinsically connected to exploration of the unknown on terra firma and in outer space.

But the movie's mantra, "to infinity and beyond", has shifted significantly in the real world. While the US is still the only nation to have landed astronauts on a celestial body, the dynamics of the space race - as it was known in the 60s - has changed dramatically since it began.

The Soviet Union led the way, launching the first satellite in 1957 before putting the first animals, the first man and the first woman into space. The US played catch- up with its series of Mercury and Gemini manned missions as it heeded then President John F. Kennedy's assertion in 1961 that America would put humans on the moon and - more importantly - bring them safely back to Earth.

After the 1969 Apollo 11 landing, the focus between America and the Soviet Union gradually changed from competition to collaboration. Both countries joined forces, sending astronauts from their own and other countries to orbiting space stations.

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