PARIS â€" No country has yet decided to send anyone to Mars. But private-sector initiatives reported by the media â€" and the global film industry â€" suggest that things could change within the next decade.
If nothing else, such efforts are proof of our collective impatience to see a new stage of space exploration and demonstrate that it remains a current and media-friendly topic. It's true that after the magnificent Apollo adventures of nearly 50 years ago, manned spaceflight has been limited to orbiting our cradle, the Earth. So what about this space yearning?
Despite sci-fi's unrestrained imagination, the number of destinations accessible to us in the next 50 years appears very limited. We can already exclude our solar system"s big planets, which are too far away, too gaseous and have gravitational forces that are too strong. Mercury and Venus are also off limits, too hot and inhospitable. As for trips outside of the solar system, it's not worth even thinking about. It would take us 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, the closest star. That leaves us with the subject of hundreds of years of fantasy, Mars, or alternatively its satellites, a few asteroids, maybe even a return to the Moon.
There are many different reasons for space travel, among them the desire to rise to the technological and human challenge. But we're also seeking answers to the same eternal questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone in the universe
The first goal of space exploration, therefore, is to improve our knowledge. That goes for both manned and unmanned missions. But there are big differences between the two. In the case of space probes, the financial investment is relatively moderate and acceptable for the economies of the biggest nations. Once humans are included in the equation, the costs change dramatically. We're no longer talking about hundreds of million of dollars or euros, but about hundreds of billions. Keep in mind that Apollo cost more than $200 billion. For Mars, the figure would likely be at least twice as big.
Mars Society crew members training on Devon Island, Canada â€" Photo: Mars Society
Space travel is also driven by the pure and simple impulse to explore, and by the wonder inspired by the sight of the Earth as seen from beyond â€" beautiful and fragile. And in the case of the Apollo missions, there was another motivating force involved: the political confrontation between capitalism and communism whereby both sides used space as a means of power and prestige.
But what reasons could there be for sending people specifically to Mars? In terms of improving our knowledge, human exploration would likely be useless given ongoing advances in probe technology. And unlike at the time of the lunar missions, the political conditions favoring a new space race just aren't there â€" despite the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China.
There's still, of course, the pure and simple desire to explore. But given the current state of the world economy, it's hard to imagine that any country would spend several hundred billion dollars just to satisfy that urge, or for the sole amazement of a few privileged astronauts.
New priorities, in the meantime, are also emerging on Earth, such as environmental protection and the fight against climate change, which will require dedicated budgets and large amounts of energy. As for establishing settlements on the Red Planet, we should probably delay that until the 22nd century or later, seeing how difficult and utopian it would be to make Mars habitable.
NASA, which published a recent document on the subject of Mars, avoids the issue of cost, focusing solely on the technological and human challenge the trip would represent, not to mention the scientific progress. But rushing headlong into the Martian adventure without having a long-term vision for the next 50 to 100 years would be unreasonable.
An artist's rendering of a human Mars base â€" Source: NASA Ames Research Center
Considering the considerable initial investment required, deciding whether to go to Mars depends on the existence of a clearly defined goal, and one that would be profitable to us, if possible. And we have to admit that space agencies around the world, and especially NASA, have so far failed to deliver on that point. In the past, triumphant promises by a few U.S. presidents (all of them Republicans) haven't translated into action.
As exploration history shows, the prospect of viable economic and industrial activity is an essential motivating factor. It won't be any different for Mars. The goal would be to exploit the planet's resources, provided there are any and that the prospect is realistic. But as things stand, we just don't know if that's a possibility.
Private companies are trying to take the reins, both for manned flights around the Earth and to Mars. But a crucial question arises: Is a world where any entrepreneurial action has to be justified by returns on investments compatible to space travel? A space program can take as long as several decades. And even if there were a return on investment, which is far from certain, can a company afford to wait that long?
That's why, except for a few private initiatives, human spaceflights will probably remain a government domain, countries being the only entities capable of raising sufficient funds for the required investments.
Other considerable technical challenges can be added to these considerations. There is no precedent, for example, for such a long flight â€" one that would take about three years. The crew would also need to be protected from radiation. We don't know how to land a spaceship on Mars. We'd need a large quantity of fuel to take off from Mars. And the mission's success would essentially rely on the crew members getting along in a confined area for three years.
But at the same time, isn't it also true that the particularity of space travel has always been to overcome difficulties that were previously thought to be insurmountable. So, will we go to Mars one day? The answer is probably yes, but it won't happen in the near future. A trip to Mars will be a considerable challenge. But the initiative's difficulty and its cost mean that the adventure would probably be limited to one single trip and that, like the Moon, we'd turn away from Mars once the feat is accomplished.
Seeing humans in space is a millenary dream, and dreams often shade the difficulties of their fulfillment. There is, on the other hand, no fulfillment without a dream, though it must also be noted that many dreams remain just that: dreams.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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