In space essay on "lessons learned" in the past 50 years, Claude Lafleur reflects on the the space program and what it might take to really inspire the public about space programs. He asks that when talking about spaceflight, space partisans remember the startling successes of robotic exploration.
Of course, what interests most of us is space exploration, mainly piloted flights and planetary exploration. But who is aware that one of those two is booming with plenty of activities while the other is arriving at a crossroad?
Never before in the history of humankind are we making so many discoveries about our neighboring universe. Never in the fifty years of space exploration have we seen so many probes exploring so many interesting places in our solar system.
Right now, a half-dozen robots are working on the surface of and in orbit around Mars, discovering what looks like traces of water. They even make us think about possibilities of some microbial or other early life forms on the Red Planet! Thanks to Cassini, we are discovering lakes on Titan, the only place outside Earth where liquid exists on the surface of a world. And what about the spectacular pictures this probe sends us of Saturn’s rings and of its strange orbiting worlds? We’re even contemplating the possibility of life in such exotic worlds as Europa and Titan. There have also been a number of lunar missions launched, or about to be launched, by Europe, Japan, China, the US, and India.
There are also many probes en route to interesting places. While Venus Express is studying our sister planet, MESSENGER will place itself into orbit around Mercury in 2011. From 2011 to 2015, Dawn will extensively explore the main belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres. For its part, Rosetta will orbit comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 and place a lander on it. Finally, New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015. In fact, 10% of all probes ever launched are right now busily exploring our solar system! But the public is rarely told about that.
Who knows what will ultimately happen to crewed flight beyond orbit - I'm a fan! - but given ongoing advances in miniaturization and emerging launch opportunities, there is certainly no reason to believe that smaller organizations like Kentucky Space won't find their place in the solar sun, doing research, delivering data and training a new generation in the space sciences as part of a commercial space sector.