And Man Reached for the Stars

Whatever your understanding of the origins of man, few can argue that for time immemorial mankind has gazed up at the stars in the sky above with awe and wonder. We have looked at the vastness above us and wondered; wondered what these slow-dancing lights could be; wondered what it would be like to reach out and touch them.

At first these lights were gods or spirits, or pinpricks in the firmament revealing the light of another realm. Then, as observation and curiosity led to increased understanding, they became celestial spheres engaged in an intricate dance through a vastness of nothingness that few minds could begin to comprehend. Mankind became aware of his smallness and insignificance, in the face of a distant and hostile sky. Yet, rather than being disheartened and lowering his gaze, his sense of curiosity and wonder only increased. And man desired even more to reach out and touch the stars.

The greater our understanding of the material nature of reality, the harder that dream became to realise. The enormity of the challenge of rising out of the gravity well; the hostile nature of the environment (or lack of it) beyond the comforting embrace of our atmosphere; the vastness of the distances between even the smallest and closest of celestial bodies. And yet try we did.

For a great part of the last century, amid the warmongering and petty argument, the death of the last empires and the casual, callous subjugation of the environment, some of the best and the brightest of men (and women) worked to reach up and touch the stars. Weapons of war were bent and twisted to a new end as deadly explosive force was harnessed (often spectacularly unsuccessfully) in an attempt to lift a few mad, brave fools off this mortal coil and into the heavens.

Fifty years ago today, the first man to ever leave this earth was lifted into orbit on the top of a Russian Vostok rocket; little more than a glorified firecracker. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, tied securely in a tiny capsule, orbited the earth once, experiencing weightlessness and looking down on the sphere of the earth below. As no one, except perhaps the gods, had ever done before.

The American Alan Shepard followed less than a month later, and since then more than 500 men and women have been lifted into orbit and sometimes beyond. Not one of them has touched the stars, but they have all been lifted into the firmament and achieved the nearest possible reality of a dream of man that is so old it is primal.

I don’t think I could describe to you quite how proud I am of this Russian, of his countrymen who strived to send him into the heavens, and of their compatriots in the United States. There are many ends of the race of man that trouble my heart and fill me with shame. This is not one of them. I cannot tell you enough that I think this aim, to dream, to question, to reach beyond our bounds to fight against the shackles of our mortal nature is of vital importance. Reaching to the stars – dreaming that we can and giving our all to achieve that dream – is what makes us human.

Yuri Gagarin is a cypher, who represents the best of what it is to be human. To be made only ‘a little lower than the angels’. He represents the questing drive that has taken us from African campfires to the very ends of this earth, and is beginning to see us look beyond. This is definitely an anniversary to celebrate.

Update: Kester Brewin has some thoughts on this anniversary which I think are wonderfully complimentary. He goes further, saying that this day marks the birthday of ‘Planet Earth’ as a cultural concept. Have a read if you liked this and want more!

Challenger

[I'm a day late on this. Apologies - no time to blog.]

25 years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 73 seconds into take-off. A symbol of national pride, an archetype of technology and progress and a source of inspiration to millions worldwide was decimated in an instant, live on TV. The resulting images, and the existential horror that they conjured  in the minds of those watching, had a profound affect on many. They certainly did on me.

In January 1986 I was a 6-year-old, space-obsessed young boy. I dreamt of being an astronaut and journeying among the stars. I could tell you all about the Saturn V, the rocket that took men to the moon, and the names of all the planets. I had more books about space than anything else, and it was an obsession that was rivalled only, years later, by my baby brother’s obsession with dinosaurs. Nothing made me more excited or hopeful than Space, and there was no greater symbol of that interest, excitement and hope than the Space Shuttle.

25 years ago we still believed in the redemptive power of technological progress. We still believed that, however messy and scary life was here on earth, we could survive and build a new, better life in the stars. The American Dream, the dream of building a better world out beyond the frontier, still persisted, and it captured the imagination of people all over the world. Space may not have been the Final Frontier, but it was certainly the next frontier. And together, through the brave efforts of a select few Americans, we were collectively reaching forward into a hope-filled future.

The Space Shuttle was not the pinnacle of Modernity; Apollo and the Saturn V was. But the Space Shuttle showed that the great achievements of mankind were not single, isolated events, and that Progress really did march on. Not only did we reach beyond the confines of the great Gravity Well and conquer the forces that contain us, but we could make a vessel that would transcend those barriers again and again and again, until such actions became mundane.

But of course they never became mundane. So many of us, small children and romantic adults alike, watched in awe as millions of kilos of high explosive propelled a few intrepid voyagers up where the rest of us could never go. And we were awestruck every single time. How could we be otherwise, for the act was so bold, so brazen, and the achievement so great. We marvelled at the power of Technology and human Ingenuity. We were proud. Proud of our collective accomplishment.

On the 28th January 1986 we were shown the limits of our achievements. We were shown what we knew all along: that we are mortals, that we are fallible, and that sitting on top of a giant firework is bloody dangerous.

On the 28th January 1986 Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, and five brave men and two brave women died. And the myth of progress and the American Space Programme died with them.

NASA still exists, and President after President makes promises about continuing the reach to the stars. But the drive, the hope, has gone out of the US Space Programme, because now we all know that our heroes can die, and that our expensive symbols of our magnificence can be brought to ground and shattered.

We have all become a little more depressed, a little less hopeful since 1986. We are more aware of our confinement here on this blue-green pebble, alone in a vast, great nothingness. Humanity has become more internalised on our problems and struggles and conflicts. It is probably no bad thing, but I cannot help but feel that we are poorer as a result.

For me, I remember the destruction of Challenger and the loss of STS-51-L keenly. There isn’t much I remember about being 6 years old, but the image of that spacecraft breaking apart so spectacularly and unexpectedly is imprinted on my consciousness, even now 25 years later. Even as a 6-year-old boy I knew that something terrible had happened, and that the world of my hopes and dreams would never be the same again. I was devastated.

The great, great hero of space travel Buzz Aldrin believes (or at least hopes) that we can use the memory of these events to galvanise ourselves forward, and spur the space programme on to new acts of greatness. I only wish that I could believe that to be true. No, it seems to me that the West has become tired and cynical of Progress and fails to see the benefit of great acts of risk and heroism. It seems like it will be left to nations such as India and China to reach hopefully for the stars; nations young(?) enough and optimistic enough to not be cowed by the thought of losing a hero or two along the way.

On Monday Discovery will roll out to the launch-pad again, ready for the last ever Space Shuttle flight. The STS platform is being retired, and the Americans stepping back from human spaceflight. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. American astronauts will still journey to the International Space Station, but they will do so inside Russian Soyuz capsules, a technology that has remained essentially unchanged since its conception in the 1960s.

America has neither the hope nor the imagination to reach further than the ISS, nor the resolve to do it on their own terms. So they will borrow another nation’s technology, and one that the Space Shuttle made look obsolete over 30 years ago. That is the legacy of Challenger. And that is why we should mourn her memory, and that of those who flew on her.

Moon

Moon2

40 years ago this week, men walked on the surface of another world for the first time. You may have heard about it. It’s been in the news a bit.

A friend Facebooked this morning: “L doesn’t get all the fuss about the moon landings, am I missing something?

Yes. Yes, you’re missing something.

The moon landings are, in all likelihood, the greatest single achievement of mankind, to date. We’ve done some pretty amazing things as a species: we have invented tools and used our ingenuity and resourcefulness to successfully colonise just about every corner of the Earth, living in conditions way beyond what we naturally find habitable. We have discovered means of communication that enable the interchange of knowledge and ideas, the recording and passing on of the discoveries of individuals and nations. We have found ways to harness the natural forces of the world, ‘tame’ the wind and the waves, and use them to our benefit. We have discovered the electron and made it our slave. We have slowly pulled ourselves from subsistence to an abundance of wealth, meaning that to those living in the West today, starvation and destitution are alien concepts.

All of those achievements and more are amazing, and a testament to the amazing human capacities of creativity and resourcefulness. But they all pale, if not to insignificance then at least in inferiority, before the events of 40 years ago.

For those of us who grew up post 1969, it is perhaps easy to dismiss the achievement, to misunderstand the immense mountain that had to be climbed to achieve the moon landings. It was done in the 60’s, when we didn’t have personal computers, or the internet, or mobile phones, or any of the amazing technological advances that we now take for granted. So, surely it can’t have been that big a deal, right? Wrong.

Wonderful quote from the BBC’s Evan Davis:

If the journey to the moon is equivalent to the distance from London to New York, going to the ISS is like a voyage from Westminster to Chelsea. It is a thousandth of the number of kilometres.

That journey to the International Space Station is the most difficult technical achievement we get up to these days, and it’s not one to be dismissed. The Space Shuttle is an amazing piece of kit, costs millions to launch, and thousands of people to run. Y’see, it’s a big deal, climbing out of the gravity well; it takes a phenomenal amount of effort. But, compared to the journey to the moon, it’s small fry.

By sheer force of will, the determination of thousands of individuals, and a cost of 4.5% of America’s GDP for ten years, mankind broke free of the confines of our world, and sent twelve men to walk upon the surface of another. Human beings existed in an environment (if it can be called that) that is entirely hostile to them. They looked back down on us, and saw the earth as it was, and is: a single, small world, alone in the vast darkness of space.

Earthrise

Earthrise

Before Apollo, the understanding of us as a single world, all of us ‘in it together’, was alien to almost everyone. The idea of a single human race, that transcends national boundaries and political ideologies. The foundations of the environmental movement. In terms of popular consciousness, these were birthed by the space race; by the world seeing pictures of ourself, smaller than a thumbprint, from the horizon of a different world.

This isn’t my most coherent post ever, and I apologise. I don’t have the hours to research the technological marvel that Apollo was, nor do I have the words to fittingly describe the wonder. So, along with the images here, I’m going to leave you with a grainy bit of footage, broadcast live from a spacecraft orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. Try and imagine what it was like, to hear this, from the voices of three men who had just travelled 1000 times further than any other men before them. The first people to escape the gravitational pull of our own world, and see with their own eyes the surface of another.

50 Years of Space

Sputnik

Fifty years ago today the world changed. Sputnik 1 was the first man-made object to circle the earth. The 4th October 1957 saw the birth of the space race, a change in political dynamic across the world, and a whole new generation of engineers beginning to dream. It was the beginning of a 15 year period that saw us send men to the moon. Pretty significant, don’tcha think?

Kudos to the Russians for getting there first.

Lots of coverage, including a Google logo. Have a read…