Development of space exploration
Jeff Hoffman holds a strong interest in the future of space exploration and human space flight. He commented on how he views the future of human space flight and what he considers to be the most exciting developments to look forward to:
“There are a lot of uncertainties now about the future of human space flight. Right now, we have the International Space Station which is really the central point of space flight for the Western world, for Russia, and of course now the Chinese are also getting involved in human space flight.
“The Space Station is operated to do mainly scientific research. What I hope is that there will also be an international partnership to go beyond Earth orbit with exploring deep space and going out into the solar system. You know if I were a young student now that’s what I would be looking forward to in the future; it’ll be incredibly exciting.”
Since Jeff began his career as an astronaut in 1978, the face of space exploration has changed dramatically.
“When humans first went into space, the critical task was just to show that we could survive. The early space flights demonstrated first of all that we could survive in space and second of all that we could do useful work. We developed the capability of putting on space suits, going out and working outside the spacecraft and learned some of the basic techniques of space flights like rendezvous and docking. All of this culminated in the exploration of the Moon, but unfortunately that was not designed to be a sustainable enterprise. Even so, it was an unbelievable technological, cultural and economic achievement.”
Since the manned Moon landings in the late sixties and early seventies, space research has concentrated on mastering the technology of working in low-Earth orbital space. One of the main areas of activity has been scientific research, as well as developing satellites to aid research. The development of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station has played a key role in this, however, there is also much anticipation that we will be able to continue with human exploration of the Moon and hopefully further afield.
“I would hope that in the 21st century we will redevelop the ability to leave the Earth and continue where we left off with exploration, not just of the Moon, but with objects much further away; near Earth objects, the satellites of Mars, and someday maybe even going down to the surface of Mars itself.
“I think the ultimate goal for human space flight is Mars. The more we learn about Mars, through our automated probes in orbit around the planet and the rovers which have explored the surface of the planet, the more fascinating it becomes. It seems like Mars once had a history with higher temperatures, possibly with liquid water on the surface. Here on the Earth, every place that we find liquid water, we find life. Did life ever exist on Mars? Are there fossil records? Is there still life on Mars? These are very important questions and I think, ultimately, human beings can answer these questions with much, much greater scientific accuracy than our robotic explorers. So, I think for quite a long time we will continue to explore Mars robotically, but I look forward to the day when humans will have a chance to go to Mars and really explore it.”
Future manned missions to the Moon and Mars will require new spacecraft and equipment. Professor Hoffman explained how NASA plans to retire the current Space Shuttle, and replace it with an Apollo-like capsule to make this possible.
“The Space Shuttle was never designed to go any farther than Earth orbit, and I think that is one reason for its retirement. NASA is going to replace it, not with another winged vehicle, but with an Apollo-like capsule. The Shuttle was designed to be used over and over again, and it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at orbital speeds. However, when you come back from the Moon or from Mars, you’re going much faster and the Shuttle can’t survive that.
“NASA has developed plans not only for a new capsule, but for a large launcher that could take the spacecraft to the Moon or beyond. However this new launcher is not currently funded. We’re still waiting to see what the new space policy of the Obama administration is going to be, but if we’re going to explore beyond the low Earth orbit, we’re going to need a huge Saturn 5 type rocket to do it. I hope that once built, we’ll use it not just to explore the Moon, but to explore further afield as well.”
Another key development in space travel is space tourism and the prospect of commercialising space flights. So far there have been only 7 space tourists in what is essentially, an incredibly expensive holiday; at the moment it is an incredibly expensive business; a 10-day flight costs around $20 million US dollars. Professor Hoffman looks forward to the commercialisation of space flights, seeing strong potential in the future of space tourism.
“I’m very enthusiastic about space tourism and I hope that it’s successful. We’re living in a rather extraordinary time in that regard because there’s a whole generation of billionaires who want to develop space for private enterprise and make it possible for lots of people to share the experience.
“NASA currently spends almost a third of its entire budget maintaining the infrastructure of launching people into low Earth orbit and taking care of them when they get up there. If that infrastructure could be provided and maintained by private industry, predominantly paid for by the private sector and if NASA could then buy those services at the marginal cost of the operation, then it would be a lot less expensive and NASA would have a lot more money to spend on exploration, which is what I would really like to see NASA doing in the future, rather than just running a transportation service.”
Professor Hoffman welcomes future developments in space tourism. Although Jeff is not tempted to dish out large amounts of money for a flight, he is in no doubt of his reaction if he were offered the chance to go into orbit once again:
“I was very fortunate to have 5 space flights, so I’m not sure I’d spend that amount of money to have another 10 days in space. But if I was offered the chance to go again, I’d go in a minute. It’s a fantastic experience.”