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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 18:16 GMT 19:16 UK
40 years in Space: David Whitehouse quizzed

Forty years ago on Thursday, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

Gagarin had been in training as a cosmonaut for just a year and 29 days, but for only the last two of them had he known he would be the first man in space.

What is our future in space? Will we ever put a human being on Mars? Will we ever put another person on the moon?

BBC News Online's science editor Dr David Whitehouse has answered a selection of your questions on 40 years in space.


Richard Hearn, Dorking, Surrey
It is remarkable that it is 40 years since Gagarin's flight. But what real progress has there been in the past 20 years? Can we really look forward to a man on Mars, tourists in space and establishing a moon base within the next 40 years?

David Whitehouse:
If we had the political will we could certainly establish a permanent base of the moon within a short time - say ten years. After all we have already been there.
As for going to Mars that would be more difficult(it's a year away and not three days like the moon) but we could get to Mars but who knows how much longer would the time scale be.

But your point is a good one. In the 40 years since man first ventured into space for only FOUR of them has man ventured away from Earth orbit - and he hasn't done that for 29 years!

Darren Robinson, Carlisle, England
Is it true that astronauts on a mission to Mars would die of radiation poisoning before they got half-way, and that there's currently no way to shield them from it?

David Whitehouse:
To a certain extent yes, a crew could not be completely protected. Radiation exposure in space is certainly a problem. Some believe that you can design a spacecraft with sufficient shielding from bulkheads and fuel tanks to protect a crew - but it would not protect them from a really big solar flare. Radiation damage may be an unavoidable occupational hazard of interplanetary travel.

Toby Kesterton, Farnham, UK
How long do you think it will take for man to go further than Mars?

David Whitehouse:
Definitely not for 25 years and who knows how much longer. At the current rate of disinterest in manned exploration of the solar system perhaps 100 years - perhaps longer.

Mrs Sarah-Jayne O'Kane, UK
Why has no one followed Armstrong et al onto the moon? Surely there must be something of interest there, rather that spending millions on doomed missions to Mars? The rumours that it was all a hoax sound all the more believable as no one else has been back.

David Whitehouse:
It was no hoax, twelve men did walk on the moon and many more astronauts were willing to follow. But the US government decided that after they had beaten the USSR to the moon they could better spend the money elsewhere. But we should go back - there are wonders awaiting us on the moon - we have just camped there for a few days - we hardly know the place. Personally I would like my children to witness a manned mission to the moon.

Ken Patterson, Bristol, UK
Do you feel that the lack of a major goal is hampering NASA? Whilst the ISS may provide some good science it does not exude the feelings of exploration and dangerous adventure as would, say, a manned mission to Mars. Also would you agree that there's no real rival to the US in space at this time, and so is dampening funding for space exploration?

David Whitehouse:
You are right. The space station is a base in space and not an end in itself. To get space exploration going again we need a goal - a destination. To me Mars is too far away and too expensive. I believe that we have to return to the moon first. Only a return to the moon will excite people about space again, I believe. Perhaps China's growing space programme, and the prospect of a Chinese astronaut will rekindle a kind of a 'space race.' Perhaps if China said it was sending a man to the moon the US would be stirred into action?

Frederic B., Belgium (living England)
The Americans seem superior in the area of space exploration. Could we expect that other nations will reduce the gap in the next 40 years? For the moment, the main objective for NASA seems to be to reach Mars. What about the aims of the others space agencies around the world? What about the ESA?

David Whitehouse:
Yes NASA is pre-eminent. Only if the cost of actually getting into space is reduced by using a new generation of rockets that perform more like aeroplanes will it be really opened to others. The European Space Agency (ESA) does some remarkable stuff but lacks the critical mass to have an effective manned program. Russia's space effort is in decline, for the time being but keep an eye on China.

Michael, Moscow, Russia
I think the Russian space program died with the destroying of the MIR space station. My country has no money to provide new space researches. Do you think the Russian Space Programme can be revived?

David Whitehouse:
Yes. The Russian passion for space will never be fully extinguished. Your space program will have to wait for your economy to rise but I believe that eventually you will be back. Without a strong Russian space exploration program we are not really exploring space for all mankind.

Stephen Forbes, Glasgow, Scotland
With the decline in world economics and the increasing costs of manned space flights, do you think that robotic scouts will become more popular in space missions, or will the ISS be the launch pad of more and more manned missions?

David Whitehouse:
We have to have both, robots and humans. If we design our unmanned probes properly we may all be able to go to the moon or mars or chase a comet. Data returned from these probes combined with virtual reality technology could allow us all to see what it is like.

Tim Blanton, Portsmouth, UK
Although I think technological developments in areas such as space propulsion systems (JPL's Deep Space 1 is a good example) is increasing rapidly and will mean space probes will be able to travel further and operate longer than ever before I do not think we will have the technology to send man to Mars within the next 40 years due to problems such as body mass depletion (both bone and muscle) in space, radiation exposure, disease control and the ability to carry enough food, water and oxygen to sustain human life for 3 years in space. What are your thoughts?

David Whitehouse:
Astronauts who do to Mars may suffer health problems when they return but there is no shortage of volunteers.

Richard K. McCardell, Rigby, Idaho USA
Do you think that manned space exploration has much of a future? Don't you agree that much more has been learned from unmanned space exploration and that such exploration is much less expensive.

David Whitehouse:
No question. Much has been learned from unmanned probes. They are cheaper and faster and can go further. But a robot scuttling around on the moon (or Mars) is not anywhere near as exciting or inspiring or indeed as meaningful as a man or woman actually being there. To my mind space exploration only really means something if people go there and come back and tell us about it.

Emmanuel Gyohannes, Vienna, Austria
In the last century, the Americans and the Russians have explored space. The Russians have built a space station (now demolished) and the Americans are just doing the same at present and each of them spent billions of Dollars. What has space exploration ever given us?

David Whitehouse:
Mankind has benefited enormously from space travel. You cannot put a price on the spirit of discovery and the thrill of exploration and our participation in history. For the bits you can put a price tag on space has yielded a profit; Communication and weather satellites make money. Remember money spent on space exploration is spent on Earth, as salaries, in communities and to develop high technology. President Bush (the old one) once said that project Apollo (the moonlandings) was the best return on an investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought a sketchpad.

Catherine Newham, Manitoba, Canada
It is truly amazing the developments that have occurred in the last 40 years. Given the fact that most informed people on the planet are concerned about humanity and ecology, do you think that space exploration can be of great benefit? We are in the process of destroying one planet, do you think we should perfect our own habitat before we go beyond it?

David Whitehouse:
I think we can do both. While we learn to be good stewards of our home world we should explore other worlds. In learning about other worlds we actually learn how to take better care of our own planet. One of the great lessons of the space age is that we can only appreciate our planet by looking at it from the outside and see what a rare and precious place it is. In a way we had to go into space to find our place on Earth.

Benjamin Bearpark, London, England
A new theory for the origin of the Universe is intriguing astronomers with the idea that a "Big Splat" preceded the Big Bang, (the 'M' theory). Do you think that, as well as exploration of our own universe, we would, be able to find the door to parallel universes and explore those also?

David Whitehouse:
Who knows what the future will bring? Perhaps one day human explorers will not just reach out to the nearby planets and stars but set sail on voyages of exploration into other dimensions, other times and perhaps voyage to other universes.

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