Remember Neil Armstrong with space exploration that actually matters

Don't put someone on Mars just for the sake of it. Build a space elevator and democratise the final frontier.

On Saturday afternoon, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died in Ohio of heart problems that came following bypass surgery. He was 82.

His death has struck home the failure of mankind to build on the legacy of exploration that his generation left us. Just 24 men have travelled beyond low Earth orbit, and just 12 have set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. Of those 12, eight remain, and none were born after 1935. Space travel is an old man's game, it seems.

Coming so soon after the success of the Mars Science Laboratory's mission – when NASA landed a nuclear-powered, laser-armed, one-tonne rover on the red planet – all eyes have naturally turned to the only other planet in the solar system which humans could realistically walk on. (Mercury and Venus would kill you in seconds, the gas giants are, well, gas, and Pluto is so cold oxygen freezes.)

Martin Robbins, for instance, writes in the Guardian:

Curiosity made us what we are: the instinct that makes us click an interesting link on Twitter is the same force that built our cities and hospitals and carried us on rocket ships to the moon. It may not be rational, but we didn't get where we are by being an entirely rational species – we did it by trying things, and failing pretty much most of the time. It's time for someone to step up and show us all that we still have that drive, that when we have the guts to unleash that curiosity – and the guts to fail – we can still achieve greatness. Neil Armstrong's death is a wake-up call, a challenge to our generation. We can go to Mars, and it doesn't need a miracle: we just need to decide to go.

But no matter how impressive the trip to the Moon was, we mustn't forget that it was as much a product of imperialistic showmanship as an urge for exploration. America went, not to indulge their, and our, curiosity, but to shove a big, lunar, stars and stripes in the face of the Russians.

That doesn't lessen the magnitude of the achievement, but it does put a question mark over the idea of repeating it.

We know we can put people on Mars. The technical aspects are tricky, but not much more so than putting an SUV-sized rover there. Almost more difficult are the social aspects; the crew would be in near-isolation for around two years, with only each other and low-bandwidth links to Earth for company. Probably best to keep sharp objects safely stowed away.

And there's not actually a huge amount of curiosity which would be sated. We've sent four science labs to Mars, of increasing complexity. We've got hi-def photography, 3D scenes, panoramas; we've got chemical analysis of the rocks, satellite pics of geographic features and left miles of wheel grooves from exploration. In short, we've got everything other than a photo of a person standing on the planet.

If we are to use the death of the old generation of explorers to spur on a revival in the idea for this generation, let's also learn from their mistakes. Don't follow a paradigm which results in 0.0000003 per cent of the planet making it out of orbit; create a new one, which lets this massive achievement change the lives of many, rather than a lucky (or foolhardy) few.

In short, we need to build a space elevator.

Forbes' Bruce Dorminey explains:

The basic concept involves carbon nanotube ribbon stretching from sea level to 100,000 km up; well beyond the altitude of geosynchronous orbit (35,800 km). Earth’s gravity at the lower end of the ribbon, and a counterweight and outward centripetal acceleration at the high end of the ribbon, would keep the elevator’s “cable” taut and stationary over a single, fixed ground-based position. Robotic climbers would ascend the ribbon to various earth orbits and potentially enable the launch of spacecraft to destinations throughout the solar system.

There are a few problems to overcome, the main one being that we don't yet have any material which is strong enough to stop the cable from snapping due to the stress. But if you had told someone in 1954, the year Sputnik began development, that by 1969 there would be two people on the moon, they would likely have had the same objections.

And a space elevator frees us from the wasteful excesses of space flight. You would no longer have to strap yourself to the top of a bomb to get out of the earth's gravity well (the carbon emissions alone ought to give pause for thought – each launch of the space shuttle produces 28 tons of CO2 just from the engines, equivalent to driving a car for just under five years. And that's not counting all the rest of the operations involved in running the space centre). The cost of getting things into low-earth orbit would plummet. And if you did still want to go to Mars, it's a heck of a lot easier to do so in a rocket which is already in space by the time it sets off.

If we want to remember the pioneers of the 20th century, lets not do so with vanity projects of dying empires, but with exploration which really makes a difference. Let's build a space elevator.

A concept of a space elevator. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.