Space Science and Technology - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 8:01 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, the Americans committed 4% of the federal Budget to Apollo. Had that level of spend been sustained, there would have been footprints on Mars by now. But once that race against the Russians was won, there was no imperative to sustain that massive effort, so Apollo remains, half a century later, the high point of manned spaceflight.

However, space activity has burgeoned. We depend routinely on orbiting satellites for communication, satnav, environmental monitoring, surveillance and weather forecasting—and for science. NASA’s budget remains much larger than that of the European Space Agency, but it is mostly spent sustaining America’s pre-eminence in manned flight. On the unmanned front, we should proclaim more loudly that ESA has parity. The successes of Rosetta, Planck, Gaia and Copernicus—all strongly involving the UK—fully match what NASA has achieved. We can be proud of Europe’s publicly funded space effort and should remain key players.

In parallel, the Government should foster commercial projects, supporting launch sites and research and development. They should also promote educational ventures—this is where Leicester and the Open University deserve special mention. We must not forget the influence on young people of such enterprises. Space is second only to dinosaurs in fascinating the young. In coming decades, the entire solar system will be explored by fleets of tiny automated probes, interacting with each other like a flock of birds. Robotic fabricators will construct in space solar energy collectors, telescopes and industrial-scale structures.

Will there be a role for humans? The practical role for them gets ever weaker with each advance in robots, sensors and miniaturisation. It is therefore hard to justify massive funding by taxpayers. Manned spaceflight should be left to privately funded adventurers prepared to participate in a cut-price programme far riskier and far cheaper than western nations could impose on publicly supported civilians. The phrase “space tourism” should be avoided. It lulls people into believing that such ventures are low risk. If that is the perception, the inevitable accidents will be traumatic. These exploits must be sold as dangerous sports or intrepid exploration. By 2100, thrill seekers in the mould of Sir Ranulph Fiennes may have established bases on the moon and Mars. Elon Musk of SpaceX says he wants to die on Mars, but not on impact. We should cheer on these enthusiasts.

We should never expect mass emigration from the earth. Here I disagree with Musk and my late colleague Stephen Hawking. It is a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from the earth’s problems. Coping with climate change is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic. There is no planet B for ordinary, risk-averse people. We must cherish our earthly home.