If I could go back in time and witness any event of the 20th Century, I think the moon landing would be top of the list. Maybe it’s my inner geek, but the whole idea of looking up and seeing the moon, that big ball of rock that’s been Earth’s companion for billions of years, and knowing that human beings have actually been up there, knowing that technical ingenuity is capable of getting people over 300,000km from home and back again, with less computer processing power than most household gizmos (probably including my microwave)… It’s kinda awe-inspiring.
Earlier today, the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time, marking the end of NASA’s shuttle programme. It’s poignant – while the private sector seem to be picking up the reins of the getting-humans-into-space industry, the shuttle always seemed, to me, to be part of a lineage that included the Mercury and Apollo programmes. Somehow, with the end of the shuttle project, it feels even less likely that I’ll see a human being land on Mars in my lifetime. And sure, the shuttle was never going to get us there, but these things have a symbolic value…
But I’m biased. I want to see us go back into space. I know what people are saying – it costs too much, there are problems to be solved here on Earth. Well, yeah, but we haven’t gone beyond our galactic back garden for 37 years and you know what? Those problems still need fixing.
That said, the challenges of the 21st century seem more inward looking than concerned with heading further into space. The internet and social media seem to be rewiring society at the moment, not excitement over space travel. It’s the role of Twitter and Facebook in things like the Arab Spring and the collapse of the News of the World that generate column inches at the moment, and while that’s all fascinating, I don’t really think it counts as awe-inspiring.
“Space travel costs too much” is the refrain we always hear, but I want to know why it’s always staged as a choice between space exploration (and the resulting scientific advances) and, say, eradicating AIDS. Why is it never a choice between space exploration and dropping bombs on people? Why is it never a choice between space exploration and the money used to deal with the greed of bankers and dodgy MP expense claims and media giants, and any other instance of corruption you can think of? Why can’t we do something good at the expense of something bad?
I found it unsettling when I read in the book Moondust that only nine of the twelve men who walked on the moon are still alive. I think it’s because, as the book mentions, the moon landings are often seen as the last optimistic act of the twentieth century; well, we’re eleven years into the 21st and that optimism is still lacking. In a world that’s currently dealing with everything from revolutions to horrifying natural disasters, the idea of a major act of optimism is highly attractive. Part of me wants to see humans walk on Mars, simply because it would be a great historical act that doesn’t involve people killing each other.
Besides, I’m not sure my generation has had it’s moment to gather around – maybe Live Aid – and there’s another couple of generations below me that are in the same boat. Much as I think the Internet is hugely significant, in 40 years time I really hope I’m not sitting in front of a TV documentary celebrating Facebook. What’s our big moment going to be? I’d love it if it was putting a man or woman on Mars, but you know, I’d also love it if we cured cancer or wiped out Third World debt or pioneered a clean energy source that no-one’s even thought of yet. There’s got to be something more that can unite us beyond death and Simon Cowell.
We’re a clever species when we put our minds to it, but we seem to get locked into cycles of destruction. We seize on anything, be it religion, or politics, or race, or land to perpetuate the darker angels of our natures. Fundamentalisms that have forgetten the fundamentals add fuel to the fire, and while knowledge increases exponentially, I’m not so convinced about wisdom – to paraphrase Smashmouth, our brains get smart but our hearts get dumb.
Atlantis is due home in twelve days, and then the shuttles will be retired to museums. We’ll see what that means for space exploration in general, but it raises the question of where humanity goes from here – the role of the internet in society is major, but there have to be greater horizons to shoot for; the future shouldn’t be limited to 140 characters, and lifting off will always be more of an adventure than logging on.