Space is sexy again. So say leading scientists who’ve seen a resurgence in interest following recent blockbusters like Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian. That’s led to renewed interest in real-life astronauts and inspired thousands to engage in space-related activities.
Jean-François Clervoy, of the European Space Agency, is one of the world’s most experienced astronauts. A veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle missions and 28 days in space, the 57-year-old was advocating the importance of space exploration for science centres and STEM education at the Ecsite Annual Conference in June.
“Space programmes motivate engineers and scientists to find solutions to problems that can be spun off on Earth,” Clervoy told Attractions Management. “The lessons we are learning in space, we’re then teaching to the next generation via our science centres and planetariums.”
Clervoy, who carried out his first space mission in 1994, says he used part of his time in space to inspire those thinking about following in his footsteps.
“The ISS [International Space Station] airs live links with astronauts to schools, science museums and planetariums,” says Clervoy. “Tim Peake is a recent example. Every astronaut does this several times within the course of a six-month mission.”
Clervoy believes the success of NASA has a direct effect on the number of students who pursue science and engineering.
“The NASA budget correlates with the number of PHDs earned in STEM subjects,” he says. “The inspiration for young people to take up science is clearly demonstrated. When you have an attractive programme and good promotion, it can get a lot of people invested in science.”
A 2015 report by NASA highlighted the fact that it creates the demand for aeronautic research and development which persuades graduates to choose these subjects. “As the funding for aeronautics has decreased by more than half over the last decade, the number of younger faculty and graduate students decreased,” it says.
Much has been touted about the rise of space tourism. Clervoy, however, says the costs of such a trip will continue to limit the experience to a select few. “We will see more space tourism in the coming years, and by the 2020s, we’ll also see some kind of outpost for space tourists.”
While space tourism is unobtainable for most, Clervoy proffers cheaper alternatives.
“If you want to experience the feeling of being in space, sub-orbital flight is an option,” he says. “It’s far less energetic than orbital flight and far less expensive. It costs a few hundred thousand euros – and the market says there are thousands of people ready to pay for that.”
If several hundred thousand is still outside your space budget, Clervoy suggests the best alternative on Earth.
“If you cannot go to space yourself, watch IMAX movies made by astronauts,” he says. “Space Station 3D and Hubble 3D are great options. And I think thanks to new entertainment technology like VR we will soon be able to give people a sensation that feels close to the real thing.”