During World Space Week, we take a look back at one of FIA Connect’s panel sessions on the attraction of Mars and why both commercial space ventures and the influence of UK astronaut Tim Peake will help inspire young people to study STEM.

The panel session – Why Mars: the out of this world benefits of space exploration – was moderated by science and space journalist Richard Hollingham from Boffin Media, Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency and Will Whitehorn, President of Ukspace and Andrew Stanniland Chief Executive Officer at Thales Alenia Space in the UK.

Humankind “driven by curiousity”

Jan Wörner said there were three facets of the Red Planet which made it attractive to humans and space scientists alike. He said: “Mars has a system very close to the Earth, a better atmosphere, better temperature than now…so we can learn a lot from Mars. Number two is the technology development. Whatever we do for exploration, the technologies are used afterwards.”

He added: “The third thing, and for me the most important point, is that humankind is driven by curiosity, whether we like it or not, it is like that and therefore when people see what we are doing in space, they are fascinated.”

Space is a “big priority” for the UK government

This year saw a trio of Mars missions by NASA the UAE and China. UK Space Agency CEO Graham Turnock explained that the planetary alignment was responsible for the number of missions heading into space this year. He said that the alignment period was “fairly short and only exists for two years and that’s because Mars and the Earth have a rotational periods around the sun that don’t quite match, but they come together every two years so you want to make the jump to Mars when the two planets are closest together.”

Raising awareness of space missions and the possibilities and potential from exciting careers within space and aerospace is an important aspect of encouraging youngsters to study STEM subjects, according to Graham Turnock.

Tim Peake: mission to inspire youngsters to study STEM

Turnock added that he had “a very strong sense” that space was becoming a “big priority” for central government, reaping massive benefits for the UK both in terms of science and the economy.

He said: “If you look at the impact that Tim Peake’s flight had on school children, it’s just so amazing…we had it backed up with a big programme of experiments and communications, and just engaging the school children in Tim’s flight reached well over two million school children in the UK. Just imagine if everyone of those school children went on to study STEM at university? Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

He added: “I’m convinced that many of them will be studying STEM purely as a result of Tim’s mission.”

Andrew Stanniland added that, within the UK, “having your own astronaut is something that you cannot put a price on.”

As well as missions to Mars, Stanniland said he also saw further possibilities for future moon missions. “There’s a lot of debate whether the moon is a steppingstone; should we leapfrog the moon and go straight to Mars. I think there’s a lot of unfinished business with the moon.”

Commercial exploration changing the way we perceive space

Space exploration is beginning to change as is no longer the domain of state sponsored research and exploration with companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX venturing into orbit. Stanniland predicted more collaboration between state and commercial partners. He said: “I think you will see a lot more collaboration both within the industry, within countries and between national programmes and the commercial investors. I think what you see with Elon Musk sticking a Tesla on top of a rocket, it inspires people but it shows that he’s determined to change the way we think about space.

Will Whitehorn added that the activities of these new companies were making science more interesting to the wider public and the next generation. “The world is their oyster from the point of view of space… they’re seeing things like Virgin Galactic, they’re seeing SpaceX do amazing things. They’re seeing Elon Musk actually building rockets capable of taking humans to Mars.”

Societal and economic case for space exploration

Whitehorn said humans were slowly seeing that inhabitation of Mars by humans could be a possibility.

He said: “If you take the socioeconomic context of Mars, people are excited about it again and that’s why science missions there are in the public eye. That’s why I think there will be manned missions to Mars, and there will possibly be commercial missions to Mars.”

He said human beings were less interested in robots going into space and wanted to know more about what human beings were doing. “They want to dream about taking us somewhere else,” he said. “Humanity’s always had that.”

He added that environmental causes were inspired by the Apollo mission’s images of the blue planet and that there was a societal, as well as economic case for more space exploration. “If space tourism takes off,” he said, “It gives people an understanding of the planet around them.”


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