Space exploration has an exciting and challenging year ahead. As we begin the new year six astronauts are orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes aboard the International Space Station (ISS), travelling at over 27,000 kilometres per hour. These astronauts are Oleg Kononenko, Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoli Ivanishin, Don Pettit, Dan Burbank and André Kuipers. Where are these astronauts from? They are envoys of mankind from Earth, a place without boundaries.
The ISS is symbolic of what can be achieved by vision, political will and global science. It represents the best of humanity - humans from different parts of our home planet, with different mother tongues all co-operating to build a new outpost in space.
Earth’s exploration of space continues in 2012 with many exciting events. As the new year begins NASA’s GRAIL mission has placed two spacecraft into the Moon’s orbit. In February, SpaceX will undertake its first transportation of cargo to and from the ISS, taking over from the Space Shuttle that retired in 2011. Many other important events in the space exploration calendar are due to take place in 2012. In March, the European Space Agency (ESA) will despatch its third Automated Transfer Vehicle, named Edoardo Amaldi, to carry cargo to the ISS. This has been such an impressive vehicle that many are keen to see it adapted in the future to carry humans. Exploration of the Solar System will progress as NASA's Curiosity rover attempts its daring landing in Mars' Gale Crater in August by being lowered from Skycrane - literally a hovering crane in the sky. A month earlier, NASA's Dawn spaceprobe will say goodbye to asteroid Vesta after a year of circling it and head off to its larger relative Ceres. And meanwhile Cassini will continue its successful tour of Saturn's retinue of moons while the Juno and New Horizons probes speed silently on through space towards their own faraway destinations of Jupiter and Pluto respectively.
China has recently announced its plans for the next five years, including a space station and a manned lunar mission and we look forward to ever closer co-operation between China and space exploring nation states.
The ISS is a shining light for all on Earth to see what can be achieved through international co-operation. Humans inhabiting Earth and coming together to move the human race forward.
Space is for everyone, there are no boundaries and notions of state sovereignty do not extend to outer space. These fundamental principles are set out in the Outer Space Treaty 1967, Article 1 of which states:
"The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind"
These words begin a dream of exploring space as a planet rather than as individual nations or even as individuals. As well as the missions that continue and are being planned by nation states and international space agencies, a new dawn of commercial space activities is emerging. SpaceX’s first flight to the ISS this year will demonstrate how public and private can work in partnership to achieve our goals as a people. Virgin Galactic continues with its test flights this year and will get ever closer to being the first commercial operation to transport fee paying passengers into space. Many private organisations are competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, their inventiveness and creativity is to be admired and encouraged. As we explore space, as nation states, international agencies and commercial enterprise, let us forge a framework of co-operation as planet Earth, to regulate the activities of both governmental and commercial space exploration.
Space exploration is important and delivers direct benefits to those on Earth, providing great experiences for consumers and provide a better quality of life for millions of people each day - and they all stem from satellites orbiting the Earth. Its the space industry that has put them there and maintains them.
Space exploration is also important because of the indirect benefits it brings. The pursuit of knowledge is itself a motivational force that drives advances in science. The more we understand, the more we can achieve and the more we can all benefit from technologies that result.
Space also provides a different perspective of the planet. André Kuipers, currently aboard the ISS, recalls “I remember how thin Earth’s atmosphere looks like from space and how black the Universe is. It made me realize that billions of people live on a very fragile planet. We really should take care of it”
Look at all the water, let's dream of clean water for everyone on Earth. Look at the surface, there are no boundaries. Maybe walls and oceans but nothing that cannot be crossed. We believe the best of humanity will always triumph against the challenging path that lies ahead over many centuries. In the centuries to come we will establish an Earth government and stand united to explore space and look after our planet and all life on Earth. A few hundred humans have looked down on Earth from space and all comment on how fragile the Earth appears protected from the coldness of space and the solar winds only by a thin blue veil. Many thousands more will experience space travel in the coming decade and it is to be hoped that their perception can be energised back on the surface into a planetary voice of good intention for all on Earth. The reality of space changes everything - the way we govern ourselves, the way we should govern ourselves. We are one planet, but not one government.
The ISS is a demonstration of the power of co-operation among many different states, and shows what can be achieved. Let us be inspired by our friends orbiting Earth right now aboard the ISS, the result of so much vision, political will, science and economics. There is so much to do, let us set sights on the longer term, thinking of the centuries ahead.