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OPINION

Why we need more space

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaTired of being cooped up at home? How about a trip to… the moon? A space walk? A fortnight at the International Space Station? Certainly beats the grocery store.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Travellers could be doing space walks at the space station by end 2021 or early 2022

Space walks and 10-day stays in the International Space Station are on offer from Space Adventures by end 2021 if you have US$55 million lying around/ photo: Space Adventures

AS THE world twiddles its thumbs at home obsessing over rather small dreams like a dash to the grocery story through a gap in the Covid clouds, seven organisations and nations are on their way to space, four of them to the fabled and mysterious Red Planet. Others are dreaming up unimaginable space thrills.

In 2004, observing the new-fangled space dash by private enterprises hoping to jettison tourists – and possibly harridans and groping old codgers – in low orbit, I suddenly realised that on 21 June 2004, something had happened that would change our lives and the face of conventional travel forever.

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High above the baking Mojave Desert, SpaceShipOne dramatically extended the boundaries of both compound words and human knowledge. An exhausted and relieved Mike Melvill, the pilot, had just concluded complex manoeuvres 100km up in the ether. “As I got to the top I released a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit. It was amazing,” he said.

{The pilot who had just concluded complex manoeuvres in space said, "As I got to the top I released a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit. It was amazing ...

On 19 July 2020, space minnow UAE sprang into the race raising more than a few camel eyebrows, with a successful launch of its Mars-bound ‘Hope Probe’ from Japan. The probe will attempt to slip into the Martian atmosphere in 2021 – coinciding with the UAE’s 50th anniversary – to spend roughly two Earth years orbiting and photographing Mars as that planet lazily concludes its own 687-day solar circuit.

Days later on 23 July China’s muscular Long March 5 rocket blasted off from Hainan island in the balmy South China Sea carrying a very special payload – the Tianwen-1 Mars probe. The mission involves a seven-month slingshot through space with an orbiter, a lander, and a rover that will be deployed in February 2021 to carry out numerous experiments while it hunts for invaluable water ice.

One of the most anticipated Mars landings – in a 45km crater named Jezero targeted as a possible cradle of life – will be by the NASA mission’s Perseverance rover, the size of a small van, packed with tools to excavate a sizeable collection of rock samples. Liftoff was on 30 July. The rover, like its fellow craft in the vicinity, will not be returning to Earth, so the samples are to be picked up by a later NASA-Euro mission. Causing great excitement for the scientific community will be Ingenuity, a helicopter devised for the rarefied Martian air. If successful, it will catalogue the first flight on Mars and certainly the first rover snapshot by a drone.

The European rover Rosalind Franklin (named after the late British DNA research pioneer), is not joining the party just yet as its launch has been delayed till 2022, another Covid casualty.

While tourists wait to pay vast sums to be shunted into space on short hops or enjoy weightlessness – as well as the unique experience of bringing up their breakfast – on diving aircraft, Mars tourism is taking shape, in China. On the outskirts of the shimmering Gobi Desert, Bai Fan, an enterprising entrepreneur has set up his privately-funded Mars Base1, simulating conditions on the Red Planet as an introduction for schoolchildren, with plans to extend the facility into a self-contained resort for space buffs. Visitors can now thrill at the hiss of an airlock as they step into the modular domes with an inbuilt greenhouse and living quarters. Reality TV too has invaded a region better known for its humdrum nickel mining.

SpaceX (teaming up with Space Adventures) plans to send up to four space tourists on low Earth orbits by late 2021 or early 2022 as well as three tourists on a US$55m 10-day trip to the International Space Station. Whether they will participate in floating M&M experiments has not been disclosed. Space Adventures promises to have tourists in lunar orbit (with a Russian collaboration) and spacewalking (with a full size mock-up of the Space Station for rehearsals) before long.

Virgin Galactic has its eyes on that space station too, which runs the risk of becoming an awfully crowded space once loaded high fliers start pouring in demanding to redeem their frequent flyer points.

Russian MiGFlug continues meanwhile with its Zero-G weightless stomach-churning parabola flights in huge whale-belly Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft (dubbed the ‘vomit comet’ by exhausted enthusiasts), based just outside Moscow at the Star City cosmonaut training centre.

For more conventional thrills sign up with Incredible Adventures (Novgorod) for a high altitude high speed MiG-29 whoosh over Moscow or an ‘edge of space’ experience if edge-of-the-seat Trump news fails to entertain.

For now the planets are aligned for a one-time Mars-shot as that rusty orb inches ever closer to Earth offering tantalising images but nary a whiff of its secrets. Named after the Roman god of war, it might ironically just be the one bit of space rock to bring countries together to pool resources for manned missions and joint scientific endeavour.

If we assume travel beyond our planet is a shared interest – whether existentially for future generations, to find fast vanishing or newer minerals, to seek the facts about our solar system and our Big Bang ancestry, or for the enjoyment of bored wealthy galactic peripatetics – Mars is a revolutionary first stop that could change life on Earth forever. It will certainly change the way earthlings look at each other. Will it breed tolerance? We’ll find out.

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