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On top of the world

(Photograph) - Who'd be an astronaut? Sure, the scenery's nice, but would you really want to be catapulted in a hermetically-sealed capsule at 17,000 miles per hour into an environment whose temperatures, radiation levels and lack of oxygen are instantly lethal? Not to mention the dodgy toilet arrangements. Astronaut Mark Lee obviously felt it worth the trouble when he took a walk in 1994 outside the Space Shuttle Discovery. As he hovers 130 miles above Earth, you can see the forward cargo bay reflected in his visor.

Since the launch of Russia's first Sputnik in 1957, the US-Soviet space race has involved 288 manned flights, including 12 moonwalks, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In human terms, it has also cost 14 lives. And there are those who argue that those billions would have been better spent on feeding our own world rather than seeking new ones. But Earth's exploitation of space now looks likely to unite the former Cold War rivals, along with the 13-member European Space Agency, Japan and Canada as multinational colonisers of the Moon and Mars in years to come - global economy permitting.

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