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‘There’s no way back with space travel’

On 4 October 2007, it will be exactly fifty years since the USSR launched the first satellite, the Sputnik. Since then we’ve had people landing on the moon, there are more satellites than ever orbiting the world and there is a permanently manned space station. According to Peter Barthel, professor of astrophysics at the University of Groningen, space travel plays such an important role in our lives that there’s no way back. ‘Space travel has taught us to think in three dimensions.’

Each year, the Netherlands spends about EUR 100 million on space travel – EUR 90 million is given to the European space organization ESA and EUR 10 million is for our own national research institute SRON. For that amount – a few euros per person per year – we get a lot back, in Barthel’s opinion. This includes knowledge about our solar system and the universe. ‘From the earth you can examine the night sky or receive radio signals. Astronomical objects, however, emit all kinds of infrared, X-ray and gamma rays. They are blocked by our atmosphere. By placing observation satellites in orbit around the earth we can pick up the rays emitted by these objects.’ With the help of all kinds of unmanned vehicles, we are able to investigate planets far away. ‘That provides us with a better understanding of how our solar system was created.’

Climate change

But space travel has not only ensured that we are better able to look upwards. ‘Satellites help us to observe the earth better, for example for research into climate change.’ Currently there is also disaster monitoring. ‘This means that forest fires and volcanic eruptions can be located from space and then tracked.’ In addition, satellites play an important role in telecommunications, weather forecasts and navigation. ‘In thinly populated areas where there is no telephone network, people can thus still make phone calls. And we’d never be able to do without GPS now.’


Although experiments in space with people result in lots of information about the physiology of the human body, Barthel is critical about manned space travel. ‘It costs such a lot of money. Often it’s more a question of the prestige of politicians. They really like sending people into space whereas scientists would actually rather send a vehicle or a robot.’ Space travel can contribute to political stability, however. ‘The projects are often so expensive and special that they can only be realised through global cooperation agreements. NASA, for example, is cooperating closely with ESA in realising the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.’

Public property

The interest in space travel is not as great as it was during the moon landings in the 1960s, for example. Barthel: ‘Space travel has become public property. We’ve got used to it. Nevertheless, it still has something magical about it. People are still fascinated by space. Our task as scientists is to make clear that it can be understood.’

We’re all crew members

According to Barthel we have started to think in three dimensions rather than in two as a result of space travel. ‘In the 1960s there were still people who thought that the earth was flat. Thanks to space travel, the last vestiges of the flat-earth theory have vanished because people could see that the earth is actually round.’ Space travel has changed our view of the earth in the twentieth century, just as the invention of the telescope did in the seventeenth. In Barthel’s view, one of the most important matters resulting from space travel is the idea that the earth is something relatively small and vulnerable, and that we should therefore take care of it: ‘Spaceship Earth doesn’t have any passengers, we’re all crew members.’

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Barthel studied physics at the VU University followed by PhD research into quasars at Leiden Observatory. From 1984-1988 he was in Pasadena as a researcher for Caltech. In 1988 he joined the Kapteyn Institute at the University of Groningen, first as a researcher and lecturer, and since March 2004 as Professor of the Astrophysics of Active Star Systems. Barthel is interested in the teaching and popularization of astronomy. He is also involved in ESA’s Herschel mission.

Studium Generale in Groningen is organizing a lecture series from 2-23 October with the title ‘An evaluation of 50 years of space travel’. Peter Barthel is one of the speakers. Wubbo Ockels, Kees de Jager, Niek de Kort and Andrey Barychev will also give lectures.

For further information please contact: Peter Barthel, tel. 050-363 4064 or (050) 363 4073 (secr), e-mail:

Last modified:30 November 2017 3.51 p.m.
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