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John Glenn Tuesday, 20 October, 1998, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Astronomical costs
Man gets to the Moon - the grand finale to the Cold War space race
When Homo Sapiens first looked up to see the stars, he or she must have wondered who or what might be up there. And countless ancient civilisations have tried to explain away the mysteries of the universe by creating gods with the power to make the sun rise and the moon glow.

Now, in the 20th century, human knowledge has reached such dizzy heights as to propel people out into the sky and beyond to find out what really is out there.

But is such curiosity enough to justify spending thousands of billions of dollars on large peices of hi-tech hardware that are going - nowhere?

After all, one could argue that the money could be better spent on humanitarian needs down here on Earth - feeding the starving, finding a cure for cancer and Aids, saving the planet from mass destruction of natural resources.

Quest for knowlege

Those involved in space projects are quick to defend their work. "It's all about gaining a better knowledge of our surroundings," said Jean-Paul Paille from the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris.

The quest to discover the secrets of the solar system reached fever pitch in the 17th century with the invention of the telescope.

But it was only in the last 60 years that rocket science really took off, thanks to the Cold War. Space became the new arena where the States and the Soviet Union stunned the world with ever more fantastical achievements in the race for military supremacy - the first man in space - a Russian, the first man on the Moon - an American.

Immense national pride seemed to have blinded the two nations to the huge costs of space missions in the 1950s and 1960s. Politicians were over the moon, so to speak.

Lasting impression

Whatever the moral argument against spending so much on reaching for stars - driven by the desire for knowledge or a struggle between superpowers - the benefits of sending satellites into orbit are all around us in the form of a communications revolution.

Live television transmissions, mobile phones, more accurate weather forecasts, Global Positioning Systems that make being lost a thing of the past - all these would never have happened without the space race.

Outer space connecting the globe
You would not be able to read this page without the aid of a satellite.

All very well, but these satellites are unmanned so what is the point of sending famous astronauts like John Glenn back into space? Isn't it all just a publicity stunt for Nasa to spark up interest among cynical US taxpayers?

The US space industry has been hit by severe cuts imposed by successive US administrations in an effort to reduce the public sector deficit. News of possible life on Mars, water on the Moon and now John Glenn's imminent return to space has put Nasa back in the headlines. But even Nasa realises that space exploration is too expensive for one country alone.

Alpha: stopover to Mars
Enter the 20bn International Space Station, aka Alpha. Next month Americans and Russians will work together to build the largest ever orbiting space base designed to house working scientists and, in future, act as a stopover for manned missions to Mars.

We may be about to witness yet another explosion in human space exploration.

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