It’s not just about the Science

Astrophysicist Giovanni Bignami reflects on the importance of thinking big for the benefit of science’s future in space.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it was à la mode in Europe to join US scientists in shouting that the planned station was robbing us of precious space science. I joined in wholeheartedly — but in the late 1980s began to have doubts. My misgivings were triggered by the advice of a learned friend, whom I won’t name in deference to his modesty.

This man was my mentor when I started working as an adviser for the European Space Agency in 1984. He instilled in me the idea that governments — of all stripes — will never part with the huge sums space demands for just ‘doing science’. He helped me grasp that the funding of space science, such as the building of satellites for astronomy, happens because projects such as the station and its astronauts are easy for politicians to understand, and hugely attractive to industry. So if the whole lumbering station-plus-astronauts machine was kept rolling, then space science could ride smoothly on its back, more or less unnoticed. And it did so very well for two decades.

As the millennium turned, I saw that the already ageing International Space Station was not enough. You can’t sell the future, especially in a time of crisis, on something that is decades old. You need a new mission to spark enthusiasm — such as sending people to Mars.

Which brings us to today. The Alpini captain was right: it is just ordinary people doing science that drive progress. Occhialini was wrong to pit science against astronauts. Forty years after the first Moon landing, it is clear that only a great new programme of space exploration, robotic and manned, will carry us forwards. It is the only way to keep improving on the beautiful technologies we’ve swiftly turned into services, from telecommunications to Global Positioning System navigation satellites.