Reflections on the Space Race
I have been following with interest the space “mission” of British astronaut Tim Peake. Yesterday, he became the first Brit to do a space walk. That, and an article in last week’s Sunday Times, reminded me that more than half a century has passed since we humans first sent one of our fellow humans into space – a young Russian called Yuri Gagarin. It is also something over 40 years since we sent a manned mission beyond the Earth’s orbit, going boldly where no one (or nearly no one) had gone before.
When, back in 1969, we sat glued to our television screens as Armstrong took that first gigantic step, we dreamed of a different future. Even distinguished scientists were predicting that before the century was over, human beings would set foot on Mars and perhaps begin colonising it. As one of the millions of all races and ages who watched that momentous Moon landing, I was already geared up to believe that, within my lifetime, travel agents would be running trips into space:
“Two weeks on a Space Station – Only £2,000 a head, all meals provided – See the Earth as you’ve never seen it before!”
“Experience life in a vacuum. Visit the Moon – Full bed and board exclusive holidays from only £5,000!”
“Get away from the rat-race! Experience Mars in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Special rates for gap year students.”
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. However, though manned space exploration has stagnated for so long, it has been a period of enormous strides in science and engineering – in physics, computing and communications for example. Our knowledge of the Solar System and what lies beyond has advanced almost exponentially. Whilst we have not managed to send people to the planets, we have succeeded in sending our human inventions. And the information they have sent back to us is more astonishing than we could ever have imagined.
There are certainly no ‘Martians’ out there, and – Dr Frank Drake’s equation notwithstanding – there are probably no Klingons or Romulans either (though I wouldn’t bet on it). But the odds on there being life of one sort or another are pretty good, I think.
Only last week, NASA celebrated the anniversary of the discovery of the 1,000th exoplanet to be identified by the Kepler space telescope – see http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/discoveries/ – and now, at the beginning of a new year of discovery, already around 2,000 of these other worlds have been confirmed. Much closer to home, Scientists are already re-assessing the chances of finding ‘life’ within the Solar System itself; the moons of the gas giants could be possible candidates.
Last week too. I began reading James Lovelock’s latest book A Rough Ride to the Future. ^^ Lovelock is one of those intuitive scientists, an inventor who throws out ideas to left and right, sometimes crazy ideas, yet when one begins to think seriously about them they don’t seem so crazy after all. This is not a book about space travel or about alien life forms. However, in a chapter entitled How Invention Accelerated Evolution, the Professor theorises on what forms ‘life‘ might take here on Earth when the Sun’s ‘radiant heat may be more than our wet, carbon-based organic life can cope with.’ This leads to a discussion of robotic systems worthy of Isaac Asimov.
Perhaps, as Lovelock speculates, ‘we are about to join in union with the electro-mechanical and intelligent life we are now constructing . . . Could this be a felicitous route to a new endosymbiotic life-form?’
One thing is clear. No one knows just where our evolution is heading. How can we possibly know to what evolution might have led elsewhere in that 14-billion-year void out there? Maybe, if we cannot explore the cosmos Star Trek style ourselves, our inventions might come back and tell us.
^^ Review in a few days time