Jonathan Eastwood on the end of the shuttle era
29 July 2011
On Thursday 21 July 2011, a NASA shuttle returned from space for the 135th and very last time. Since the first shuttle launch in 1981, Atlantis and her sisters, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour have been symbolic of human scientific ambition and achievement: at once powerful, awe-inspiring and costly.
Simon Levey interviewed four researchers from Imperial College London’s Department of Physics and Department of Earth Science and Engineering, looking back at their memories of man’s space adventures, in particular the shuttle programme, and recalling how these have affected and inspired them.
Dr Jonathan Eastwood, Advanced Fellow of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in the Department of Physics
What is your earliest memory of space exploration?
Unforeseen major solar ejections that could wreak havoc with the fabric of everyday life
My earliest memories of space are of spacewalks that the astronauts performed from the shuttles, and of pictures of Saturn and the other outer planets taken by the Voyager 2 mission. These and others sparked my interest in science.
In particular I always hoped to see a rocket launch. In 2006 I was fortunate enough to be at Kennedy Space Center to watch the night-launch of NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission, which is one of the projects I work on. The STEREO mission is two spacecraft that orbit the Sun in such a way that we can take stereoscopic images of solar phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections.
How does research in space benefit us down here on Earth?
My research, for example, is concerned with the Sun and its invisible connection to the Earth, via magnetic fields and the solar wind. The practical impact of this is known as space weather. Solar flares and ‘Coronal Mass Ejections’ emitted by the Sun travel through space to Earth where they can disrupt technological systems in space and on the ground.
Given that we are increasingly relying on the infrastructure in space for telecommunications, direct TV broadcasting, weather monitoring, satellite navigation, climate and geoscientific research, risks to that infrastructure need to be understood and its elements need to be built resilient to threats from space, in particular unforeseen major solar ejections that could wreak havoc with the fabric of everyday life.
Space weather can also harm astronauts and affect astronaut operations in space. At Imperial we are trying to understand the basic physics of space weather, so that we can better understand (and mitigate) the risks; as society’s reliance on sophisticated technology becomes more complex, maintaining infrastructure resilience requires a firm understanding of the science of space weather.
What do you think we will see in the future of space science?
All of these diverse activities will require knowledge of the space weather conditions, so our work now is vital
The end of the shuttle program coincides with the rise of a new generation of private space companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. As such, in the next 20 years there will be a dramatic increase in the amount of space tourism using privately developed space-based leisure facilities.
In addition, ever more extensive development of a broad range of ever more capable infrastructure elements in space that include built-in mitigation of space weather effects; a more developed system of monitoring all aspects of the weather with the possibility of local (micro-) scale weather prediction; monitoring all aspects of the climate and the terrestrial environment with an integrated system for the implementation of environmental policies. Possibly some forms of solar power sources for terrestrial consumption. All of these diverse activities will require knowledge of the space weather conditions, so our work now is vital.
— Simon Levey, Communications and Development