Many young children dream of being astronauts when they're younger - myself included! Global investment is poured into the space industry, and almost every powerful country in the world is involved in a 21st-century version of the Space Race. The mysterious and alluring nature of the stars above us has become well and truly ingrained in the public psyche. Whereas once it was mainly championed by those with a scientific background or political agenda, now a large majority of the general public has an interest in space-related ventures - and now that it promises to become more accessible for Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bloggs via ventures such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, it is more fascinating than ever.
However, several recent events that have threatened the future progression of the space industry and manned spaceflight. NASA, the US space agency giant, had a particularly tricky time defending its reasoning when it grounded the iconic space shuttle fleet in August this year. Budget cuts made it impossible for the agency to maintain and run these 'space taxis', halting their forays into manned spaceflight completely. This was much to the dismay of Apollo astronauts Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, who urged Obama not to curtail the industry and lead America onto "a long downhill slide to mediocrity". NASA instead opted to redirect their cash flow into the development of space-based telescopes and satellites.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was one of these projects. It hit the headlines often recently as it ran further and further over-budget and over-schedule. Proposed in 1996 as an infra-red eye on the universe, its aim is to provide insight into the oldest objects in our universe and thus explain how we got from the initial Big Bang to life as we know it today. Initially granted a budget of $2.5 billion with a launch date of 2014, this has since evolved into a project due to launch in 2018, with an overall spend of approximately $8.5 billion.
Projects such as this do not endear space agencies to the public, particularly in the current financial climate. They also risk potential cancellations and budget cuts - as indeed the JWST has luckily managed to endure. The famous Hubble Space Telescope has been going for over 20 years, requiring numerous upgrades, repairs and replacements. Russian satellites sent to Mars have gone missing without a trace. Many launches haven't even managed to clear the Earth's atmosphere - this is particularly tragic when remembering the very first Apollo mission and the space shuttle Challenger. When the space industry is such a risky, expensive and dangerous business, why do the public still display such an interest in space exploration?
Astronomy is arguably one of the most pioneering and exciting sciences, and offers a possibility of discovery that is relatively unmatched by other disciplines. This is well displayed practically by the hunt for extra-solar planets, the planned exploration of the Martian surface, the sheer numbers of past manned explorations and the extreme lengths to which astronauts and scientists are willing to go to in order to enable further research - even, for example, being locked in a small box in Russia for months on end to simulate a trip to Mars. Socially, it is displayed through our fascination with beautiful solar phenomena such as the northern lights and eclipses, the hugely successful market created out of naming stars and lunar surface areas after your loved ones, and the immense viewing figures experienced by science communicators such as Sir Patrick Moore and Brian Cox.
Superficially, astronomy provides opportunities for beautiful photographs and imagery. The time-lapse video below, taken aboard the International Space Station, has been doing the rounds online for a few weeks now and is definitely a must-see piece of footage. Equally, the Astronomy Picture of Day website is always stunning.
From Michael König on Vimeo.
Space is one of the only scientific topics that has successfully managed to bridge the gap between science and society. It has benefitted from exceptional science communication and media popularisation, and as a result has become truly integrated into society. It offers the chance to explore not only our past by searching for extra-terrestrial life, but also the possibility to explore the future, and our capabilities to inhabit other solar system bodies and develop interstellar flight.
Such concepts are so extraordinary they seem fictional, but space research allows us to genuinely explore such possibilities through technological advances and increased theoretical knowledge. Although all scientific disciplines are invaluable, none manage to inspire child-like excitement and wonder quite like space - and as the UK Space Agency embarks on a UK-wide tour to inspire the next generation of astronauts through its Mission X challenge, we may be colonising our solar system sooner than you might think.