by Zakutnyaya Olga
Moscow (Voice of Russia) Apr 17, 2012
21st century runs into its second decade, but man's space endeavours are still largely limited to the near-Earth orbit. Space agencies in USA, Russia, Europe and China debate the future of manned space flights, while skeptics question their benefits. Will the adepts of space with men overcome their opponents in the quest for the outer space?
Since mid-1980s, when the Soviet Mir station had been delivered to the orbit people have been permanently living outside the Earth, i.e. in the near-Earth space. Earlier versions of space stations, of the Soviet Salyut series, and the US Skylab, provided mankind with orbital research and observation facilities from the early 1970s.
However, hardly anyone can say that circling around the planet is worth being called space voyages. The problem is that 51 years after Yuri Gagarin's flight manned space seems to get into the prolonged doldrums with the International Space Station (ISS) on the orbit as the symbol of this persistence.
Looking back, sci-fi writers as well as space designers of the Space Era eve were sure that people will penetrate the Solar system in less than a century. The hopes proved to be rather hasty, even though the first leap from sub-orbital flights to the Moon for the USA took merely a decade. Still, the price of the trips compared with their outcomes was too high for them to continue.
The longer route first taken by the USSR and then adopted to some extent by other space powers led to the advent of orbital stations in the Earth's vicinity which were supposed to be both space labs and test beds for future interplanetary missions. Even though there is the ISS (just prolonged to 2020), there is no plan of what will come next.
While building new space station seems rather senseless, traveling farther misses the point to the same extent. The key question is what can and what shall be done by people in space with acceptable balance of costs and outcome.
Lunar preparation for Martian race
The Moon being the nearest space body is the most convenient location for space observatories that combine advantages of both space and Earth-based telescopes. Since the Moon does not have atmosphere, nothing hinders the astronomic observations.
At the same time, no engines are needed to keep the Lunar research facility in the orbit. Moreover, new telescopes can be added to the initial construction, hence securing longer life of the observatory and less funds for its maintenance.
Vladimir Hartov, the head of the Lavochkin design bureau, the principal engineering organization for RadioAstron and Phobos-Grunt projects, named the manned flights to the Moon the first stage of the human exploration of deep space.
Next comes Mars, but unlike the Moon, Mars is too far to speak of its exploration by the humans. Even though space enthusiasts call it 'the spare planet for the mankind', this is hardly an option considering Martian environment with thin atmosphere almost deprived of oxygen and its exposure, same as Moon, to the outer space radiation/ However, when approached as a sport contest, Martian expedition becomes slightly more feasible, even though one should learn to withstand space radiation before traveling that far.
On the other hand, there is China developing its own space station Tiangong and cherishing plans to send people to the Moon is a new factor to be considered. Most likely, the Moon race will be spurred by the new actors, which is partly confirmed by the gradual revival of Moon debate in the media.
However, it is still uncertain whether Chinese plans for the Moon are more specific than anyone else's, while up until now the Chinese manned program was rather an iteration of the 'elder' space powers. No matter who will be first on the Moon in the 21st century, the question of the future still remains.
Source: Voice of Russia
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