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May 2006

May 2006: Space

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  • Reaching Out: The Continuing Quest for Space
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  • Movie: Silent Hill
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  • Reaching Out: The Continuing Quest for Space
    by Brandie B. Minchew

    For more than a century, science fiction writers have captured our imagination and fascinated us with all the possibilities that exist outside the fragile atmosphere of our home world. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Doris Lessing, Arthur C. Clark, and many others laid out for us the vast potential of the human race in all its imperfections. Their works often focused on posing speculative questions about the human condition and social theory, among other subjects; but space and space travel served as a vehicle for some of their most famous stories. That tradition continues today with modern science fiction writers such as Andre Norton, David Weber, and Louise McMasters Bujold, among others. The genre of science fiction has expanded from novels and comics to film, with myriad tales drawing the public eye to the wonders and possibilities that space travel brings.

    Popular science fiction often overshadows the very real efforts now in progress involving engineers and scientists all over the world, who are striving to realize the brilliant dreams that science fiction writers lay out in film and on the printed page. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and others work ceaselessly to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and beyond. In many cases, the forward momentum of a world reaching out into the stars is as strange and wonderful as the fiction of popular culture. Unmanned exploration using probes and telescopes has given us extensive knowledge of the universe, and the human reach into space has extended so that in the next decade exotic vacations to the moon or orbiting hotels no longer stand outside the realm of possibility.

    An artist or writer whose material centers on space and space exploration can enhance his or her vision and imagination by learning the history of space exploration. Keeping abreast of the current events of space exploration can firmly ground the science fiction writer in the knowledge he or she needs to realistically portray a space-faring society.

    We live in a technological age that gives us marvelous glimpses into the depths of space and allows us to examine our nearest neighbors of the solar system in great detail. Resources such as the Hubble Space Telescope galleries provide science fiction artists with an abundance of reference material. Writers can use the images to help them describe with greater accuracy what their characters see on the screens of their space craft or perhaps out the window of their berth on the space station.

    Not all science fiction dealing with space travel needs exact description or accurate history in order to remain compelling. In some cases, these elements are not desirable or are contrary to the worlds the artist or writer wishes to portray. However, learning about physics, the history of spaceflight, astronomy, astrophysics, and even chemistry and biology can become tools for those who work in the science fiction genre.

    With these things in mind, what, you might ask, is happening in the current quest for space? The media often skips over the many accomplishments of space programs around the world, unless something catastrophic or phenomenal occurs. A quick overview of current events will give you a starting point for further research into the many exciting projects underway around the world.

    Looking at the mission statements of the many international space agencies, a return to the moon seems to be high on everyone�s list. For scientists and engineers, a lunar mission presents an irresistible challenge. China, Japan, Russia, Italy, India, the European Space Agency, and the United States all have plans in motion to re-establish a lunar presence in some fashion. Though mission goals vary among these countries, one common goal remains constant: maintaining a permanent base of research on the moon.

    According to a report by the Agence France-Presse in January, Russia hopes to establish a helium-3 mine by the year 2015. Italy is preparing to establish a lunar telescope on the moon �to expand its knowledge of the universe� as reported by the United Press International and Italian News Agency ANSA. Plans have been made by the Japanese Space Agency to establish a permanent lunar base by 2025 (AFP). China�s successful manned launch in October 2003 has lain down hopes for a lunar mission within the next two decades.

    No matter what the plans or purposes, each mission poses significant challenges for engineers. Vehicle design, software, environmental systems, resource management, and many other elements must be integrated before even a short trip to the moon and back becomes possible. A lengthy stay in a hostile environment presents further challenges. Recycling air, providing medical care for astronauts and cosmonauts, and a method of replenishing supplies cover only a few of the concerns that will need to be addressed by mission planners.

    As scientists and engineers solve the problems of long-duration extraterrestrial missions, the door will open to many opportunities for further exploration of the solar system. Travel to Mars in the next quarter century is already within the sights of many international space programs. Journeys beyond Mars to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn will require more research and development in vehicle propulsion. Medical research must find solutions for the problems of long-duration spaceflight such as the loss of bone and muscle mass from long periods spent in micro-gravity.

    In addition to manned spaceflight, unmanned exploration has produced a wealth of information about neighboring worlds in the solar system and the makeup of the universe. The Hubble Space Telescope and its sister orbiting observatories have mined spectacular images and data from the depths of space. Perhaps one of the most unique and valuable qualities that the Hubble Telescope possesses in comparison with the other observatories is its ability to capture sharp, high resolution images in the visible spectrum. One such image is the Hubble Deep Field, a stunning snapshot of deep space revealing myriad galaxies of all shapes, sizes, and ages, all photographed when Hubble focused on one small square of empty space. This picture alone served as a sharp reminder of the vastness that surrounds the tiny planet Earth, and how far humankind has yet to reach out and explore.

    Closer to home, many nations have focused their attentions on the Earth�s near celestial neighbor, Mars. Russia, the United States, the European Space Agency (comprising many participating countries of the European Union) and Japan all have launched successful and unsuccessful unmanned missions to the red planet. The allure of Mars lies in the question: could this cold, inhospitable planet once have been a cradle of life, much like the Earth? Like the moon, Mars offers a tantalizing goal for exploration and research. The heightened perils of the journey to Mars as compared to a trip to the moon make it impossible to contemplate sending a mission with a human component to the red planet within the next two decades. Scientists and engineers must greatly narrow the margin of error before any space program attempts to land a human being on Mars.

    Most recently, NASA�s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived in March. The MRO will evaluate the surface of Mars and search for clues about Mars�s past. Did water ever flow freely over the surface of this arid desert planet? Could life have sustained itself at one time on Mars? The MRO will also evaluate possible landing sites for future NASA landers: the Phoenix and the Mars Science Laboratory, both of which will continue the observations of previous landers and possibly pave the way for the first human landing.

    Writers and artists have their part in this ongoing journey, rendering the far reaching dreams of humanity onto paper, into words and images, into films, novels, and paintings that can enkindle wonder or capture the achievements of a society reaching out into space. It is hard to say how much the works of early science fiction writers and artists influenced the scientists and engineers who made possible the initial forays into the frontier of outer space. Whatever its historical influence, science fiction continues to provide a lens through which we can see the many possibilities that lie in the near and distant futures. Knowing the history of spaceflight and the current advances of science and technology can strengthen the writer or artist in his or her work as they focus that lens to provide vision and direction as well as commentary. �Real� history and science may not always be relevant in the tales and scenes that writers and artists create, but an awareness of humanity�s past and present achievements is vital to those who wish to make comment on the final destination of humankind.

    For more information:
    SpaceDaily.com -- News on international space exploration efforts.
    European Space Agency
    NASA�s Vision for Space Exploration
    Hubble Space Telescope
    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    Brandie B. Minchew lives and writes in Houston, Texas, surrounded by cats who she swears sometimes eat her homework. No one believes her.
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