After 134 flights, the United States space shuttle programme is drawing to a close, leaving Swiss space experts hopeful about a new age of exploring the universe.
The space shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time on Wednesday, 18 years after astronaut Claude Nicollier joined its crew to become the first Swiss in space.
The head of the Swiss Space Office, Daniel Neuenschwander, says the American plan to focus more on deep-space travel and unmanned, robotic missions will provide new opportunities for Swiss scientists and their valuable expertise.
“The space shuttle was a marvellous vehicle, but now we are going into a new dimension, farther than before and in new directions,” Neuenschwander told swissinfo.ch.
“If we want to go beyond low-earth orbit and to have humans in deep space, for example, it’s a question of life support. Here, Switzerland has some key technologies.”
Swiss industry has already figured out ways to convert exhaled carbon dioxide back into breathable oxygen, a critical component for travelling for months or even longer into the vacuum of space. Hospitals at universities across the country have helped research the affects of zero gravity on muscles, bones and the body’s immune system.
And demand for precision parts, atomic clocks and data transmission systems should only grow as space exploration becomes more ambitious.
“The only way deep-space exploration is really sustainable is if it becomes more global,” he said. “The point is to have common views about key technologies.
“Who can do it best? Every country has to find its position in this global, common endeavour. For a small country like Switzerland it’s still important to focus on niches.”
But while some new doors may open, others are bound to close.
With the Atlantis now out of service, just two space shuttles remain, each with one scheduled flight left.
The last shuttle, the Endeavour, will take off in mid-November, nearly 30 years after the first fully operational space shuttle flight took place with Columbia in April 1981. (The Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts, forcing Nasa to weigh the costs of maintaining the ageing fleet).
Willy Benz, director of Bern University’s Physics Institute and trustee at the International Space Science Institute, says some Swiss scientists will have “tough times” with the shuttle programme’s end, since it greatly hampers ways of conducting biological experiments in space.
“It’s a limited number of scientists who are affected by this but those who are, are affected severely,” Benz said.
Such tests often need a human to oversee them and to make sure samples return safely to earth for closer study. The work can be done at the International Space Station, but Esa has no manned spacecraft, while the Russians and Chinese have limited capabilities for bringing much cargo back to Earth, he said.
Even here, though, Neuenschwander sees opportunity, especially for Swiss data-transmission experts.
With the right technologies, delicate experiments could be carried out robotically in space with results beamed back in detail for study on Earth. Either way, without better cooperation, any space programme faces the same perils that ultimately killed the shuttle: exorbitant costs.
“The space shuttle was a brilliant development, but per kilo, up and back, the costs are too high,” Neuenschwander said. “The space community is challenged. Either we find a way to bring costs down for deep-space exploration and transport or we have a problem. I’m a convinced of that.”
“It’s a matter of investment and return in investment,” he said. “It really boils down to, ‘Do we need humans in space or can we do everything with robots?’ I believe manned space flight will continue. It’s as much a matter of national pride as it is of science.”
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Switzerland was one the founders of the European Space Agency.
The Swiss space industry includes 28 research institutes and 54 companies.
They specialise mostly in ground equipment, optical apparatuses, telecommunications systems, clocks, robotic machinery, microgravity research and weather surveillance.
Switzerland's Claude Nicollier is an astrophysicist, test pilot and astronaut.
He was the first foreigner granted mission specialist status by Nasa and completed four missions on board the space shuttle. His first shuttle mission was with the Atlantis.
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