The human imperative

Over half a century after the first person orbited the planet, human spaceflight is at a crossroads. National space programmes are in decline and commercial human spaceflight has yet to properly lift off. The future of our greatest endeavour is uncertain and yet, argues Christopher Riley, to fail at this frontier would be to turn our backs on all of human history and the galaxy itself

The human imperative
Within 50 years of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight, thousands of people were taking to the air each day, making flights hundreds of times longer than that of the Kitty Hawk. As a species we have never had all our feet on earth at the same time again; taking it in turns to eat, sleep, read, work and watch movies high above the ground, inside our aircraft. Humans have had a permanent presence in the sky now for decades.

Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin’s first flight above the atmosphere, the same could be said of spaceflight. Over 550 people from more than 35 countries have now followed him. And today, thanks to the miracle of the International Space Station, we have had a permanent human presence in earth orbit throughout the 21st century.

Coming so long after our first human flights to the moon, this colonisation of low earth orbit often seems insignificant and unimportant. Most of us are unlikely to know the names of those who live on board the space station, let alone to have celebrated the triumph of human spirit that this beacon of international collaboration represents.

You can see it for yourself next time it passes over your home at 5 miles a second, and more than 200 miles above your head. ( Humanity’s 450-tonne city in space is the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and the moon, and far more than just a remarkable piece of human ingenuity. Our latest extra-terrestrial outpost represents another major milestone in our common history.

It’s easy to see such progress as something which was meant to be; as if it were some how written in the stars that we would first explore earth and then move out into space. But there is no destiny propelling us along this path. There never was.

National pride and Cold War politics first catapulted us there 50 years ago. But even then, with this political imperative, our footsteps on the moon were not guaranteed. It took the United States four million ‘man years’, squeezed into a decade, to eventually place 12 of its citizens, against the odds, on the lunar surface. Then after nine triumphant moon missions; political pressure and economic influence brought a stop to human spaceflight beyond earth orbit as abruptly and irrationally as they’d started and driven it forward.

The US and Russian national space programmes soldiered on separately in low earth orbit until a few determined people succeeded in forcing them to work together. Today 14 nations have joined them in partnership on the International Space Station. And whilst working collaboratively together is sometimes far slower and more costly than working independently, it is something that, despite the economic downturn, continues to be prioritised for the greater good.

For in the field of human space flight there can be no secrets between partners. Secrets would jeopardise lives. Success in such an extreme engineering arena demands a mindset of sharing. And when nations are forced to share knowledge, they are less likely to wage wars against each other.

Such a side effect might seem reason enough to guarantee the future of human spaceflight, but as with all our endeavours, we have a choice: To remain as a space faring species, working together to overcome the challenges of living beyond the earth for generations to come. Or to call a halt to this human activity, relying instead on our increasingly able robotic explorers to conduct extra-terrestrial exploration on our behalf.

This summer Nasa’s Curiosity Rover will become the largest and most sophisticated wheeled vehicle ever to roll onto the surface of another world. Around the same time, the veteran wheeled robot Opportunity, now into its eighth remarkable year of motoring across the red planet, will break the distance record for an extra-terrestrial drive; held by two human explorers since Apollo 17 in 1972.

By August this year five active Mars missions will relay a daily stream of planetary science data from our neighbouring world without a single human explorer in sight. Many astronomers and planetary scientists use such facts to call for an end to human spaceflight, hoping instead to divert the funds that would be saved into an accelerated programme of telescopic and robotic exploration.

But such an argument misses the point about why humans must continue to inhabit earth orbit, and to venture beyond.

An absence of confirmable results from 50 years of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) programme has taught us how rare intelligent, technological civilisations seem to be within our galaxy.

The further discovery of over 600 extra-solar planetary systems, since the mid 1990s, has given us a new appreciation of how exceptional the life-nurturing attributes of our own Solar System seem to be.

And new knowledge of the biology of evolution is beginning to reveal the number of improbable steps it took for intelligent life to evolve here on earth. For one of these branches of intelligence on the tree of life to sprout a shoot of Homo sapiens was even more improbable.

Combined these remote odds with the further twists and turns of human history; the rise of rational evidence based decision making, the practicing of science and its appliance to create new technologies and medical advances, the synchronous rise of two superpowers and their race to develop human spaceflight, the dawning of virtually instant global communications, the growth of the internet and the empowering interconnectedness of the world wide web, and suddenly this present epoch in the history of the Cosmos feels incredibly precious.

Chance has thrown up something very special in the Universe. And that something is us. With our consciousness, our culture and our insatiable curiosity we are a priceless quirk of Galactic evolution.

But there’s a cruel twist to all this luck. Geological history suggests that other vertebrate species flourish on earth for between two and four million years at most, before environmental changes lead to their demise. We might be lucky enough to extend this period a little by applying our intelligence, but ignorance and complacency risk off-setting such advantages too.

To remain rooted on a single planet, orbiting a single star would be to turn our backs on any prospect of avoiding our inevitable decline. Human spaceflight alone offers us a passport to our possible preservation. To have stumbled into this capability as a species, only to turn our backs on it within a few short decades, would seem a terrible waste of Cosmic serendipity.

It is unthinkable today that we would have abandoned powered flight before its commercialisation cemented it so firmly into our culture. Half a century after its conception, human spaceflight’s commercial operations are only just emerging. This year Elon Musk’s company Space X will fly the first commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic corporation will conduct the first test flights of its new SpaceShip Two, designed to bring sub-orbital spaceflight to the masses, and next year Eric Anderson’s Space Adventures will resume commercial Soyuz capsule flights, with the planned launch of it’s eight private astronaut to orbit.

But without the continued support of established government backed space programmes these commercial human spaceflight operations will flounder. Continued government investment in the field of human spaceflight is vital for decades to come, just as it was in the field of powered flight a century before. And our national space agencies need to push out further with missions to near earth asteroids and the moons of Mars.

Commercial enterprise will surely follow, but nations must continue to pave the road to the stars, which Gagarin first lead us along over half a century ago. As the result of such rare cosmic occurrences, we don’t have a choice to continue our journey into space, but a duty to undertake such adventures. Our failure to do so would be a tragedy of Galactic proportions.

Dr Christopher Riley is the Producer and Director of First Orbit, the real time re-creation of humanity’s first space flight. Shot from on board the International Space Station and combined with the original mission audio, the film re-lives Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit of the Earth. It has been released in 30 languages on DVD and Bluray this year to mark the annual Yuri’s Night celebrations on the 12th April. For more information visit


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