Thursday, April 18, 2019

Space as a point of concord for humanity

Start of a V-2 rocket in 1943
The exploration of space began some seventy years ago, as a continuation of the Third Reich’s war effort to develop ballistic missiles (the V-2 rocket) to bombard Britain and other places without the need of airplanes.
At the end of World War II, the two new great powers (the United States and the Soviet Union) recruited the scientists and technicians who had carried out the German advances in that field, took them to their respective countries and started programs of space exploration, whose first objective was, of course, to obtain military advantages in the cold war that had just begun. As a result of Operation Paperclip (the US recruitment program), German scientists as important as Werner von Braun went to work in the United States. An equivalent Soviet program (the Operation Osoaviakhim) did the same with other German scientists, perhaps less known, but equally efficient. With their help, both superpowers began a space race that would last several decades.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union demonstrated that it was ahead in the space race by placing in orbit the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. (The Russian word Sputnik means satellite). A month later, on November 3, the Russians launched Sputnik 2, with the first living creature launched into space, the dog Laika. The following January 31, the United States managed to put in orbit their first satellite, Explorer 1, thus proving that the Soviets were not too far ahead.
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
In the following years the Russian advantage widened: they were the first to reach the moon (with probe Luna-2, September 12, 1959); photograph its hidden face (Luna-3, October 4, 1959); reach Venus (probe Venera-1, February 12, 1961); and put a man in space (Yuri Gagarin, April 12, 1961), something that NASA did not achieve until almost a year later (February 20, 1962). Finally, on June 19, 1963, the Russian probe Mars-1 was the first to reach Mars.
From that point, the situation reversed. With the Apollo project, the United States took the first place in the space race, putting the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969. The space race continued during the seventies with the first manned space stations: Salyut-1 of the USSR (April 19, 1971) and NASA’s Skylab (May 14, 1973). Shortly afterwards, space collaboration began, with the first Soviet-American joint mission (Apollo-Soyuz, July 17, 1975).
The nineties witnessed important changes in the space programs. On the one hand, the disintegration of the Soviet Union slowed the Russian impulse in the space race; on the other, NASA halted manned space missions after the catastrophes of the Challenger Space Shuttle (January 28, 1986) and the Columbia (January 16, 2003).
International Space Station
In 1998 began the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), which from the beginning has been the result of international cooperation. The placement of the first module, build by the Russians, took place on November 20. The second, by NASA, on December 2. Since then, other countries have collaborated in the maintenance of the station: the European space agency (ESA), Japan and Canada. These five agencies agreed on a rotation system that has kept a permanent crew at the station since November 2, 2000. Other countries, such as Brazil and Italy, participate in particular ISS projects.
Today space exploration is rapidly becoming an international project involving many countries. In the UN, since 1959, there is a Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), with currently 87 participant countries, which makes it one of the largest committees of the UN General Assembly. Among its activities is the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which searches for near-Earth objects (asteroids, comets...) that could impact our planet in the near future, and designs procedures to deviate them before impact, or to mitigate this type of disaster, if it ever happens.
During his last years, Stephen Hawking embraced a pessimistic forecast about the future of humanity, which he saw threatened by many dangers. As a solution, he proposed space exploration, starting with the moon and the closest planets, and culminating, in 200 to 500 years, in a program of one-way interstellar travel to colonize planets in different solar systems. A program like this could only be taken to effect through international cooperation. Would this be enough to stop the permanent internecine struggles that impede the global concord of humanity? I leave this question open.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Space Exploration: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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