Why the next giant leap in space
will be an international effort
by Will Venn
When humans last stepped onto the moon, President Nixon was in the White House and Gough Whitlam had just become Australia’s Prime Minister.
The footprints are still there, as is the political will to return, but a 40 year-long lunar absence, punctuated by the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, suggests human exploration of space has taken one giant leap backwards.
Listening to the students and three astronauts who are attending the UniSA and International Space University’s (ISU) Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program (SHSSP), it becomes evident there is optimism about our future in space and that optimism is both well placed and hinges on international collaboration.
The five week long SHSSP program features presentations by 35 lecturers, covering subjects which range from satellite remote sensing to issues of law associated with space, indicating that the study of space continues to ignite a passion and relevance across a variety of research fields on Earth.
Michael Davis, co-director of the SHSSP program, highlighted the range of useful topics that participants of the program are engaging in at Mawson Lakes campus.
“We have 38 students from 10 different countries who are learning about how space can help us on Earth through, for example, remote sensing, GPS systems, environmental monitoring – pertinent with the current bush fires, and satellite communications,” he said.
“They will also look at space policy and legal issues surrounding space and will work on a project on space sustainability.”
The international and collaborative approach to the program is evident not just in the range of nationalities represented by the students in attendance, but also by the astronauts who are involved the program: Korea’s first person in space Dr Soyeon Yi (pictured above), Adelaide born and NASA trained astronaut Dr Andy Thomas, and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli.
An enrapt public audience who attended the SHSSP's International Astronaut Event in the city’s Italian Centre, to ask these astronauts questions about life in orbit, underlined the continued fascination space holds across the wider community.
In particular Andy Thomas (pictured right with SHSSP students) identified the financial difficulties involved with space programs, revealing that the price of individual shuttle missions had risen from $300 million – when he began his career – to an unsustainable $1 billion per trip price tag.
With such phenomenal costs involved, the relevance of international collaboration and industry partnerships becomes apparent, as Andy explained.
“Space represents an extreme frontier – it’s fraught with risks and costs. In the past national space programs had a very centralised nationalistic program usually enthusiastically supported by governments; it showcased what a country could do,” he said.
“In the 1960s and 1970s that was true, that paradigm led to the Apollo program and the human landings on the moon, and later the Mir Russian Space Station.
“In the past, setting footprints and a flag on a dusty planetary surface was considered an expectation of an advanced society. Social priorities have now changed and communities are asking why do this? It’s a challenging time for space flight.
“The high cost of space exploration means international partnerships have now become the norm – not the exception.
“That is why the ISU is important because it teaches these attributes, the legal issues and how they fit in a geopolitical framework if the cause of human exploration of space is to continue.”
From freeze dried food, joysticks and microchips, the practical benefits and technological innovations that have resulted from space exploration are well documented, but the concept of international goodwill and cooperation is another vital outcome of space exploration and one which could seal its future.
It is also a concept embodied in the collaborative working practices of the SHSSP and the students attending the program in 2013.