Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Crewed spaceflight: on Tim Peake’s Return

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I got asked to make some comments about Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS just before his return this weekend. What I said didn’t actually make it into print, but that makes it a good blog post so here it is…
  • What has he achieved?

The key thing from my point of view is all the public outreach work to schools etc. in the UK and elsewhere. This effort has been really strong and, as someone who grew up during Apollo, I’m sure it will help inspire a new generation to think about space and science more generally.

Scientifically, aside from looking at how space affects human beings, the achievements will be more limited. For many areas of research, including much of space astronomy, the ISS is not an ideal environment.

Technologically, we are gradually learning how to live and work in space, and that is part of a long term investment. Whether the ISS is the best place for this is unclear. We saw with the BEAM how lower cost alternatives to the ISS might come about, and the UK is a world leader in development of lower cost approaches to getting into space, whether via Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or through the air breathing rockets of Reaction Engines Ltd and their Skylon concept.

 

  • Was it worth all the time/money/effort?
The short term scientific returns of crewed spaceflight are very poor. The ISS itself has cost over $100Billion. If spent on robotic missions that money would allow us to send dozens of rovers to the Moon and Mars and establish a fleet of space telescopes scanning the skies. Politically, though, this would never happen because the justifications for crewed spaceflight are not scientific, they come about for reasons of national and international prestige. Usually this means that the money spent on sending people into space comes from budgets different to those used for space science – in the European Space Agency, for example, these budget lines are quite distinct. I do worry though that in the UK, where the %age of GDP the government spends on science, at 0.48% (2015 figures) is the lowest in the G8, and lower than the average for the Eurozone (0.73%), OECD (0.71%) and Euro28 (0.67%), we don’t have the spare cash to spend on projects like this if that money comes from the general science budget. It cost £2M just to send up the food Tim Peake ate on the ISS. That same money could have been spent funding dozens of scientists working on anything from searching for life in the solar system to treatments for cancer.
The long term benefits of Tim’s mission will hopefully include greater enthusiasm for science among the public and among the school kids who took part in the huge range of activities that were a core part of his Principia mission. That may make it worth the price, but the UK will only benefit from this if our paltry level of science funding improves. This is an urgent problem which would only be made worse if we leave the EU.
Space, like science, is a long term game requiring a long term commitment. One-off prestige projects are great, but we have to be in it for the long haul, and that means we need long term funding at levels matching those of our competitors. Only with that will the full benefits of Tim’s time in space be seen.
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Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

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