Great Britain

‘A whole bunch of people will probably die’: The inevitable risks and rewards of space exploration

E

lon Musk, who has a talent for memorable sound bites, has gone on record as saying that his ambition for spaceflight is likely to involve killing a whole bunch of people. Some in his audience may have been shocked but spaceflight has always been risky and in some respects – thus far – we have been lucky. During the space shuttle programme, Nasa lost two crews of seven astronauts really abruptly and quite a few others lost their lives on the ground.

First and foremost, it’s nothing new. One could even argue that the modern era is simply unable to cope with the concept of loss. Our spoon fed, air-conditioned lives have become so comfortable that we cannot yet envisage the sort of attitude space exploration might soon require.

The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is usually cited as the first man to circumnavigate the world in a sailing ship. This isn’t quite true. He died before his mission could be completed and it was his first officer, Juan Sebastian Elcano who brought the ship home in 1522. Only 18 men survived the voyage.

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