Our next giant leap will need private backing

Until the 1950s space travel was a futuristic concept, familiar from H. G. Wells and Jules Verne — and from comics and cornflake packets. But Sputnik, followed by Yuri Gagarin’s (and John Glenn’s) circling of the Earth made it real. The advent of the space age crystallised into reality human fantasies that dated back centuries.

The Moon landings came less than 70 years after the first powered flight — Orville Wright’s “brief hop” at Kitty Hawk — and only 12 years after the launch of Sputnik. Had the space race sustained its momentum, one might by now have expected a permanent lunar base, or an expedition to Mars. Neither has happened. The Apollo programme was a transient spin-off from the rivalry of the Cold War. The impetus was lost — a prime example of the ever widening chasm between what can be done technically and what there is a motive for doing (Concorde is another instance).

Manned spaceflight has understandably lost much of its glamour, as it hardly seems inspiring, 40 years after Neil Armstrong’s triumph, merely to circle the Earth in the space shuttle. Close-ups of the Martian surface and of Jupiter’s moons and cosmic images from the Hubble Telescope receive more media coverage than routine shuttle flights. It is only when disaster strikes that the shuttle makes headlines.

The burgeoning scientific, commercial and military applications of space do not need people, but have benefited from the technical advances that have brought mobile phones with far more computer power than the whole of Nasa had at the time of the Apollo programme. There seems little practical or scientific purpose in sending people into space at all: certainly none that can justify the costs. Every advance in robotics makes the case weaker.

There is nonetheless broad enthusiasm for space exploration, to the Moon, to Mars and beyond, as an adventure for (at least a few) humans. But it will have to be in a different style, with different motives.

The next human beings to walk on the Moon may be Chinese. China has a dirigiste government that could bankroll a risky Apollo-style programme. In the US, a panel of experts is advising President Obama on whether to set a goal of landing on Mars, and whether to construct a permanently manned lunar base. Such a programme would involve huge expense, and “safety culture” may make the cost prohibitive. The US public reaction to the shuttle’s safety record — two disasters, each a national trauma, in 120 flights — suggests that it is unacceptable for tax-funded projects to expose civilians even to a 2 per cent risk.

Even if the US embarks on such an enterprise, Europe would be ill advised to become a minor partner in it; unless the “entry ticket” were very cheap, it would be far better to focus on achieving a world lead in robots and miniaturisation.

To keep the costs of manned spaceflight acceptable, it must be openly accepted that it is hazardous. The first explorers venturing towards Mars would confront risks far higher than in a Shuttle flight: even “one-way tickets”. (It is astonishing that the Apollo astronauts avoided disaster. President Nixon’s speechwriters prepared a eulogy in case Armstrong was stranded on the Moon, never to return.) But why should we wish to occupy an environment far more hostile than the Antarctic or the ocean depths? There is a parallel with terrestrial exploration. Columbus, Vespucci and Magellan were as much enmeshed in nationalism and politics as astronauts have been.

Some explorers, for instance Captain Cook’s expeditions to the South Seas, were publicly funded, at least in part, as a scientific enterprise. For some — generally the most foolhardy — the enterprise was primarily a challenge: the motive that drives test pilots, mountaineers, round-the-world sailors and the like.

Any of these motives could drive the first travellers to Mars, or the first long-term denizens of a lunar base. Manned spaceflight could be a lot cheaper if it were not state-funded or a multinational programme, but bankrolled privately. There have long been maverick dreamers with schemes for space exploits. Such enthusiasts now include wealthy people with genuine commercial and technical savvy. Companies funded by Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, and Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, are developing new rockets. The recent “Google prize” to launch a robotic lunar lander is engaging many ingenious inventors, and leveraging far more money than the prize itself. Potential sponsors with an eye on posterity might note that Queen Isabella is now remembered primarily for her support of Columbus.

If humans venture back to the Moon and beyond, they may carry commercial insignia rather than national flags. Perhaps future space probes will be plastered in logos, as Formula One racers are now.

Perhaps “robo-wars” in space will be a lucrative spectator sport. Perhaps pioneer settlers in space communities will live (and even die) in front of a worldwide audience — the ultimate in “reality TV”.

One plausible scenario would involve a permanently manned lunar base, pioneers on Mars, and perhaps small artificial habitats cruising the solar system, attaching themselves to asteroids or comets.

Issues of environmental ethics then arise. Would it be appropriate to exploit Mars, as did the pioneers who advanced west across America? Should we send “seeds” for plants genetically engineered to grow and reproduce there? Or should the Red Planet be designated a natural wilderness, like the Antarctic?

The answer, I think, depends on what the pristine state of Mars actually is. If there were life there — especially if it had different DNA, testifying to quite separate origins from life on Earth — there would be widely voiced insistence that Mars be preserved as unpolluted as possible.

What would actually happen might depend on the character of the first expeditions. If they were governmental (or international), Antarctic-style restraint is feasible. But if the explorers were privately funded adventurers of a free-enterprise disposition, the Wild West model would be more likely.

Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the Moon. On leaving he said: “We leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” Whether or not there is a resurgence of manned spaceflight, the Apollo programme will always be a pioneering feat of engineering, organisation and courage.

Martin Rees. Lord Rees of Ludlow is the Astronomer Royal.