Space travel has been experiencing a slight nadir in recent years. The space shuttle program was wound up in 2011, and ever since, NASA has been forced to crawl to the Russians for assistance in getting to the International Space Station. Arguably this is the whole idea of the ISS embodied – countries helping each other and all that – but come on, this is NASA, the people who got us to the Moon and back!
I’ve always had a very romanticised idea of space travel. In year one, we spent our third term with “Space” as our theme, and that’s not the mathematical concept either. No indeed, the overarching subject of our studies was the endless vacuum just 100km above our heads. In 1999, the BBC released The Planets, which remains to this day my favourite documentary series ever made, despite the fact that it’s a bit out of date now. And of course, that same year saw the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. The fate of my tiny six year old brain was sealed that day – aside from a brief obsession with politics and sideburns during high school and the early years of my university studies, I’ve always been fascinated and excited about space exploration and the potential it holds for our future.
The human race at large has benefited in many ways from developments made during the Space Race in the 1960s, and the work done beyond. For one thing, we learned that an obsession writing in pen can sometimes be a foolish mistake, especially when it turns out it would have been much easier to use a pencil.
Cracked.com published a useful little feature a couple of years ago about mind-blowingly goofy uses of amazing NASA technology, and here’s another slightly more serious one from the Discovery Channel – push up bras, hair care products, orthodontic braces, memory foam (used in sofas I sell every day), and satellite communications have been directly influenced by aerospace and rocketry research. Now how’s that for science?!
The history of space exploration is littered with huge successes and heartbreaking failures, but it has always been characterised by a perseverance and desire to get further, and aim higher. The cabin fire which claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 crew in 1967 led to a steely resolve from NASA to revise massively the safety precautions in the Apollo modules and a desire to make sure such an accident could never happen again. More recently, following the tragic explosion of a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo and the lost of its test pilot and serious injury of its co-pilot this year, company founder Sir Richard Branson spoke on behalf of his whole team, saying that “the community is stronger than ever and is continuing to grow.” When faced with huge challenges such as these, you can mourn your lost friends and honour them by learning from the mistakes which led to their sacrifice, or you can back away in fear and lose all that you were working towards.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar contains a scene in which a teacher attempts to school a former astronaut on the ‘fact’ that the space missions of the 20th century were all faked by the USA to scare other superpowers. The audience of course is expected to react with outrage, but I went one better and was flabbergasted. I hate to think that there could possibly be a future in which that kind of guff becomes accepted fact! What I liked about Interstellar is Nolan took this kind of hideous dystopia, and raised from it a positive and hopeful vision for humanity’s future (hamfisted ponderings about love and spirituality aside). The suggestion that we perhaps spend too much time in the gutter and not enough looking at the stars goes back to Oscar Wilde, and here Nolan uses the hope attached to space exploration, and of course actual space exploration itself, to drive a whole species (us) to look upward to escape extinction.
It’s this kind of optimism and excitement which seems to have reinvigorated our interest in space. This year, the US Government signed agreements with Boeing and a company named SpaceX, who will team up to begin NASA astronaut transport to the International Space Station in 2017. It’s great to see some of the expense of space travel outsourced to private enterprise – that’s where the future of the industry lies, and it’s where the dollars are; plus it allows NASA to focus on other fun stuff. In the past week, NASA made history again by launching the first test orbit of the new Orion space module. This module will be used to take astronauts to an asteroid, and then hopefully on a mission to Mars!
It was a success, and I look forward to seeing where they take the program next. We’re living in a new Space Age! I’m looking forward to passing on the favour my teachers did me all those years ago and sharing the excitement of space travel with my students.