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And yet, we will continue to travel in space

The tragic way in which the journey of "Columbia" ended will not stop NASA's plans. The agency has already announced, for example, a plan to send astronauts to Mars. Other research tasks will also continue. An ancient drive, curiosity, underlies efforts to explore the universe


By: Amnon Barzilai, Haaretz. The article is part of the collaboration with Walla!
Preparations for the launch of the space shuttle "Columbia" were still underway when the head of the American Space Agency (NASA), Sean O'Keefe, discovered that the President of the United States, George Bush, was about to announce the launch of a project to send astronauts to Mars. According to O'Keefe's announcement, made in mid-January, the journey to Mars will last about nine months, during which the astronauts will cover a distance of about 60 million kilometers.

"The conquest of Mars will be a very important move. Whoever reaches Mars will stick a stake there, like in the 19th century in the Wild West," says Prof. Yosef Agassi from Tel Aviv University, who specializes in the philosophy of science. Like other experts, he also believes that the crash of Columbia and the death of the crew members will not stop NASA's plans to launch spacecraft and astronauts to explore space.

Prof. Yuval Naman, who founded the Israel Space Agency and was the first Minister of Science, welcomes the planned journey to Mars. According to him, Mars is the planet whose conditions are closest to those on Earth. Therefore, it is necessary to check if there is life on Mars, or there was in the past. Naman also does not rule out the possibility of settling people there. The cost of the journey to Mars, including the construction of the space vehicle, the preparations and the training of the members of the expedition, is estimated at more than 10 billion dollars.

"The departure of the human race into space is probably a necessary step in our development. It is not impossible that at some point, in one or another region of the vastness of the galaxy, we will also encounter other forms of life", writes the astrophysicist Prof. Hagi Netzer, who authored the book "Journey to Reason", which deals with the search for life in the universe, with Ami Ben Best. The authors of the book mention the research spacecrafts that were launched in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs outside the solar system to examine planets throughout the galaxy.

The main drive to search for new worlds is curiosity, says Prof. Agassi, "a life with curiosity has a completely different quality than a life without curiosity. Curiosity brings not only pleasure, but even creates more humane regimes, a more tolerable human life."

Like Homo erectus

Zvi Yanai, who was the editor of the magazine "Mechukut" and later the director general of the Ministry of Science, says that the thirst for knowledge and the desire to explore the unknown stem from a primal need, which already characterized man's ancient ancestors. About 200 years ago, about 10,000 human-like creatures, Homo-erectus, lived on the African continent. "They left the African continent for areas with different vegetation, other landscapes and unfamiliar climate conditions. They had to deal with new situations, with anxiety." Yanai adds that there is no single explanation for that journey, but the qualities that characterized Homo-erectus are willpower and curiosity. "The need to explore what lies beyond the horizon has continued ever since until the space programs."

Columbia and its crew were sent into space to conduct scientific experiments, but the initial impetus for the establishment of the American space program was the Cold War. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space. A month later, another Soviet satellite, Sputnik 2, was launched, including the dog Laika. "The thought that once every 90 minutes a Russian satellite would pass over the US was a huge accelerator for the American decision to earmark funds for purposes they hadn't thought of before," says Prof. Netzer. The race to conquer space has begun.
On December 6, 1957, American prestige suffered a third blow, with the failure of the Vanguard satellite launch. But the US increased its efforts with the help of German scientists led by Werner von Braun, who were recruited after World War II into the American missile program. On January 31, 1958, the USA launched the Explorer 1 satellite, which weighed 14 kg.

In the same year, NASA was established and a short time later the USA managed to catch up. In 1960, the first communications satellite, Echo 1, the first weather satellite, Tyros 1, the first spy satellite, Discoverer 1, and the first navigation satellite, Transit, were launched. Within five years, the US launched 148 satellites.

"To learn what kind of universe we live in, you have to go outside the atmosphere. The debate that arose in the US was whether the discovery process should be manned or with robots," says Prof. Neman. The scientists preferred to launch unmanned satellites, for several reasons: launching humans increased the risk, required increasing the weight of the satellite, limited the acceleration of the satellite and required the construction of satellites with many backup systems. The expenditure on launching manned satellites was almost three times the investment in unmanned satellites.

The debate was decided by the US president at the time, John Kennedy, who said that at the very least it would be necessary to send a man into space. On July 20, 1969, the USA made history. The Apollo 11 spacecraft with a crew led by astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. "Kennedy was right," says Naman. "Robots have limitations. As long as there is no man in space, there will be questions that will not occur to us and will not be examined."

The first space shuttles were developed in the XNUMXs. Some of them have had arms controlled from Earth installed to pick up damaged satellites. The satellites were returned to Earth and repaired. In the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, ambitious plans for building space stations and even colonies on the moon were hatched at NASA. It became clear, says Prof. Netzer, that the costs involved in implementing these plans are enormous, even for a superpower like the USA.

But on March 23, 1983, in the midst of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan announced the strategic defense initiative called Star Wars. The ambitious plan is designed to protect the US from a surprise missile attack, using weapon systems placed on satellites flying around the Earth. The expenditure was estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars. The collapse of the USSR in 1990 led to the end of the Cold War and the cancellation of the plan.

Breaking the limits

In the nineties, the USA launched the first space station, Alpha, but the world's scientific community was more enthusiastic about the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. The length of the telescope, which was built with an investment of two billion dollars, is about 13 meters and weighs about 12.5 tons. From an altitude of 600 km above the Earth and with a resolution ten times higher than that of any telescope on Earth, Hubble has so far transmitted hundreds of thousands of images from space. The telescope discovered objects billions of light years away from Earth.

Dr. Yoav Yair from the Open University lists some of Hubble's achievements: documenting the collision of a comet with the planet Jupiter, which provided a first impression of the destructive power of such an event, and the discovery of gas rings around the remains of a supernova. The discovery made it possible to understand the mechanism that leads to the end of the lives of stars.
One of the original missions of the space shuttle Columbia, in which Ilan Ramon flew, was to install a new camera in the telescope. The camera was supposed to improve Hubble's resolution tenfold, but the mission was canceled.

Despite the tragic way in which Columbia's mission ended, Prof. Asa Kosher from Tel Aviv University believes that the risk involved in launching manned satellites is not high. "There is no justification for taking a high risk and NASA's risk manager took into account small risks," says Prof. Kosher. "This is also what Ilan Ramon said. Disasters can happen."

Prof. Kosher does not accept the position according to which launching spacecrafts for space exploration, which is intended, among other things, to discover the secrets of creation, as a provocation of a higher power. "There is no provocation here. Who sets the boundaries? The verse 'The heavens are the heavens for my Lord and the earth he has given to the sons of men' (Psalms 16:XNUMX) is rooted in an ancient concept that has been lost forever. We are part of nature and as humans we have the ability to think, plan, break boundaries. There is nothing unnatural in what we do."

Prof. Kosher also rejects the claim that the conclusions drawn from space research on the formation of the world contradict what is written in Genesis. "There is no way to answer metaphysical religious questions on the basis of physical theories," he explains. "The great religions portray God as someone who acts, does deeds. There are views according to which God's main act is to create the world and there are those according to which God watches over his world. The book of Genesis is the holy writings of the Jewish and Christian religions. The function of the text is not to be a physics, biology or history book. His role is to express the religious values ​​as they are supposed to be expressed in human life. Many religious scientists accepted the position of Isaiah Leibovitz, according to which science is concerned with the field of facts and religion with the field of values, their expression and fidelity to their meaning."

Prof. Agassi, who sees the exploration of space and the quest to conquer it as a direct continuation of the history of discovering continents and countries, mentions that from the dawn of history man wanted to fly. "The idea is that you don't know what to do when faced with something new. All breakthroughs are dangerous. That's what happened on land journeys and that's what happened at sea as well. Ships sank. This also happens in space."

Prof. Naman believes that the continuation of space exploration will lead to the spread of man in the universe in the future. "In a hundred to two hundred years there will be 20-15 billion people living on Earth. The earth will be a kind of crowded Calcutta. For its security, humanity should spread to a second solar system. If humanity remains in only one part of the universe, the chances that it will survive for many billions of years are slim."
Technological developments related to space exploration
* Communication satellites (television broadcasts, internet, mobile phone)
* Satellites for weather forecasting (storm warnings)
* Ground navigation satellites (GPS)
* Observation satellites - gathering information about living conditions at sea and on land for the purposes of agriculture and ecology
* Satellites for mapping the earth
* Satellites to monitor the effects of the hole in the ozone
* Military photography and communication satellites (alerts on the deployment of military forces for a surprise attack)
* The miniaturization revolution in industry
* Earlier detection of breast cancer
* Perfection of the X-rays
* Insulation blankets
* Baby thermometers

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