The New $ 10 Billion James Webb Space Telescope; As the private sector funds routine space flights, space agencies can ‘push the boundaries’ (Courtesy of Desiree Stover / NASA)

The Eagle landed. And Neil Armstrong came out. And as millions of people watched the grainy images on their televisions, broadcast from a camera mounted on the side of the spacecraft, he spoke the words that we can all recite by heart more than half a century later: “That’s a small step for a man. A great leap for humanity. “

The original Star trek The series had ended its three-year production six weeks earlier. Now, 52 years later, its nonagenarian star, William Shatner, has himself flown to the edge of space.

Shatner is likely not remembered as a pioneer, even though his brief journey out of the atmosphere was, not long ago, the stuff of science fiction. His journey came at a time when earthly concerns felt much more pressing and cynicism was increasing.

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“Giant corporations and billionaires have had a free ride for far too long. Sometimes they take that trip to outer space, ”politician Elizabeth Warren tweeted on the day of the flight, alluding to Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin (who invited Shatner on his rocket) and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. Prince William, in an interview with the BBC, argued: “We need some of the best brains and minds in the world focused on trying to repair this planet, not on trying to find the next place to go live.”

Hopefully they would roll their eyes at the obvious PR stunt of putting Captain Kirk in space. But behind him, there was a kind of antipathy towards the idea of ​​the final frontier. A feeling that it is not so important, that there are bigger problems on the ground.

Perhaps we have forgotten the enormity of Cold War-fueled ambition that put a man on the moon in the first place, and humanity’s abject awe at seeing it happen. We have forgotten how much technology, from cell phones to mattresses, was developed thanks to the space race.

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We take it for granted that rockets transport human beings (American and Russian colleagues, too) to the International Space Station (ISS) at regular intervals. We are not surprised by the idea that a robot like NASA’s Perseverance rover could not only land on Mars, as it did in early 2021, but also transmit high-quality images from 389 million kilometers away.

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Now is not the time to look inward and give up space, says Gordon “Oz” Osinski, founding director of the Western University Institute for Earth and Space Exploration and an expert in planetary geology. And there are silver lights for marketing. Due to the interest of private companies in space, launches are now up to 50 times less expensive, allowing government agencies to outsource routine space flights (such as cargo trips to the ISS) and focus on missions further afield.

“It is a sign of how the space program has matured. We needed NASA and Russia in the 1960s to develop these technologies. We needed the power of the government, ”says Osinski. That has changed with the participation of the private sector. “Why has NASA spent its money on something that has really become quite routine? Let the space agencies do what they really do best, which is push the boundaries. “

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There is much to look forward to in the near future – missions that will broaden our understanding of the solar system and beyond, and could yield new discoveries and technologies. Sara Mazrouei, a planetary scientist and science communicator based in Toronto, calls this “a golden age of space exploration.”

The powerful $ 10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency and scheduled to launch on December 18, will allow scientists to observe the universe further afield. never.

In February, NASA’s first Artemis mission will get underway with an unmanned flight to the moon, paving the way for astronauts to conduct flybys and eventually for the construction of a manned lunar base.

In August, NASA’s Psyche mission is expected to launch en route to a metallic asteroid between Mars and Jupiter that we know absolutely nothing about. Also this year, ESA’s JUICE mission (short for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) is planned to explore Jupiter and three Jovian moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.

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In 2023, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will return to Earth with samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. Because Canada built one of the instruments, some of the samples will make it to our scientists.

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Even if space exploration doesn’t excite the public the way it used to, there are countless ways that people on the ground could be affected by what happens in space, from new technology being developed as a by-product of aerospace engineering to satellites. private companies that provide global services. Internet of high speed.

And as governments work to redefine the UN Outer Space Treaty, there are many important geostrategic and jurisdictional issues related to the future of space and what we do with its vast potential resources. Earthly animosities could play a role, with China increasingly interested in space but secretive about its plans, and other countries, such as India, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, carrying out ambitious space programs.

For Mazrouei, more governments in space mean more potential collaboration, more companies in space mean more technology, and more space tourists mean more wake-up calls.

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“Especially in the midst of the pandemic and climate change crisis, there is always a conversation about ‘Is this the best use of our money?’ What I understand. If you’re struggling to provide food for your family at the end of the day, you won’t mind these billionaires going into space, ”says Mazrouei.

But there’s no better way to put the fragility of life into perspective than by looking at Earth from the edge of space, he says. There is no better way to incite the powerful to reconsider their responsibilities to the planet.

In the year 2073, people probably won’t quote William Shatner the way we quote Neil Armstrong today. But he seems to have experienced the kind of epiphany that Mazrouei talks about.

“What I would love to do is communicate, as far as possible, the danger,” he said after leaving the capsule. “The vulnerability of everything. It is so small. This air that keeps us alive is thinner than your skin. It’s a splinter. “

In amazement, he described the contrast of the “black ugliness” above him and the blue below, the comfort of Mother Earth. “This is life. And that is death.”

This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline “A few more giant jumps.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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