Jeff Hoffman - Christmas Lecture Series

Considering the number of us in the department that turned up for this, I thought it might be of interest to others!

Last night, former NASA Astronaut Jeff Hoffman graced Leicester with his presence. It is not the first time he has come to lecture here, but it is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see him speak. Naturally, it was enough to drag me out in the cold, dark wind of last evening!

The lecture hall was so packed, they were forced to change to the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre at the last moment, and even so, there weren’t many seats going spare! It was nice to see many young people in the audience. One sat in front of me, an adorable young boy, with his father, and was extremely well behaved the entire time. It turned out his father is an astrophysicist here and was eager to thank Hoffman for the work he and his team did to fix and upgrade the Hubble Telescope in the 1993.

It’s likely many of you have never heard of Jeff Hoffman. I was fascinated growing up by the US Space Program and so I kept a keen ear tuned to missions and astronauts. When I was ten I met Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first female astronaut in space) and decided I wanted to be an astronaut! Of course, reality soon set in and I ended up a Humanities student for my life instead, but there is something about that childhood fascination with space. Hoffman gave a compelling lecture on it last night.

I love to listen to people who are passionate about their work. Last night covered a range of topics about space flight, from a very good introduction to the US program back to before the Moon Landing and through the current state of affairs where NASA is dependent largely on Russia. There were more than a few interesting points brought up. Not the least of which was, in the early days when Russia started offering rides up to space to other countries, the going price was about $20-30 million a seat. Now they charge the US $65 million each! Hoffman made a valid point, however, well within the current economic climate, that even buying 5-6 of those seats a year is still a great deal less than the average £2 billion NASA was spending on the Shuttle Program every year.

He spoke in depth on the Constellation Program that has been, in North America, a point of issue. I was so pleased to hear Hoffman lay out the details and explanations in a very easy to follow way. When it comes down to it, there is simply not enough money to fund the idea, and this has lead to NASA’s reshuffling in recent years, and the last shuttle launch this autumn.

Much of Hoffman’s talk was on the future of space flight and the many, many private companies that are reaching for the stars. It is a mark of humanity that so many people are obsessed with the Heavens, but fascinating already to see how much work is being accomplished. Of course, the obvious companies were named: Space X and Virgin Galactic (which had its own groundbreaking announcement last night: There were many smaller companies, however, that are achieving some truly amazing things. One has already engineered the ability to lift off and land the same craft. It’s like watching a science fiction movie, except it’s real! The ability to reach space has already been achieved, and now companies are pushing towards reaching stable orbit. For now, NASA is hopeful that these US firms will be able to supple the craft to the International Space Station. By giving up the Shuttle Program, of course, the US is now entirely dependent on Russia for transportation. They are hopeful the private sector can provide that soon, at least to ferry supplies. The US’s own plan for the future of the Station does not pass 2020, but this will still have given researchers a good 10 years up there.

Hoffman, now an MIT Professor, is clearly intrigued by the future that is coming. Already, private citizens have been up in space and if Virgin or any of the others manage to achieve their technology, many more people will follow. A seat on Virgin Galactic’s craft retails for only $200,000! I’ll put it on my bucket list.

The lecture ended on a beautiful note, a question about when we might reach Mars. Hoffman was realistic in his answer, though slightly whimsical when he stated that he had always believed it would be in his lifetime, thought he reality had changed. He was very clear in his belief, however, that one day, we would. We landed on the mood 42 years ago. We can reach Mars one day too.

Today I feel hopeful. Following yesterday’s announcement that CERN may just have had a glimpse into the Higgs Boson particle (and might find it definitively by year’s end), there is no doubt the future will be full of fascinating discoveries and a much greater understanding of both ourselves and the universe we live in.


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