Category Archives: Space

Yuri’s Night 2013

For as long as I’ve walked on this planet, space has worn humanity’s footprints – satellites, Voyager, the bits and pieces left behind on the Moon by the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong taking that small step has always existed in grainy black and white footage and we’ve always been a space-faring species, even if we’ve not quite passed the garden gate. It’s always been this way, at least for my generation and the generations since.

And so today it’s good that there are some many commemorations of Yuri Gagarin and his flight 52 years ago, a flight that lasted under two hours but which changed everything, opening up a whole new horizon as he became the first human being to go into space, the first to orbit the Earth.

It was a massive achievement – I think it’s been overshadowed by the moon landings, and certainly I remember mutterings that the series Enterprise, with its opening montage of historic moments in spaceflight, had somehow managed to omit Gagarin. Oversight? Probably, but it just goes to show how easily we forget.

(Back in the day though, the news was huge. One thing I didn’t know, and that came as a bit of a surprise, was that Gagarin visited Manchester on a post-orbit world tour. Thousands lined the streets in the rain, Gagarin insisting on riding with the top down so that he could wave to the crowds. It seems like the sort of thing that doesn’t happen any more, certainly not for those who still travel into space. Eventually the final frontier starts to feel like a trip to the shops. Heck, now we can film it and put it on Youtube – check out the fantastic First Orbit, which recreates Gagarin’s journey.)

Maybe that’s because it was a different world back then, two superpowers eyeing each other warily, everyone else seemingly stuck in the middle, nuclear spectres stalking history and secrets and fears spinning the globe. Everything’s changed now, and the space race now just feels like history, a bygone age of spies and empires, one of which is now dead, the other hanging on as everything changes around it.

But I’m having a bit of a personal response to this particular anniversary – I hadn’t realised how young Gagarin was when he flew into orbit. 27 is nothing, heck, nowadays it’s almost still adolesence. And yet there he was, changing the world in his mid-twenties. Seven years later he’d be dead, killed in a plane crash at 34, almost the same age I am now. It’s stupid I know, but it makes me look at my accomplishments, or lack of them. 34 still seems young to me, but by that age some people had already changed the world.

But that’s maudlin, and if you let it the idea of space exploration can do that to you, reminding you of your smallness and your fragility and your transitory nature. Instead I like to think of it was something liberating and empowering. Yes, the universe is big, but we can still look up and step out into it, sailing towards another destination, flinging peole out there and letting them poke around.

(Incidentally, that’s why you can send all the robots you want to Mars, you’re not going to really capture the public imagination until there are people heading there.)

So raise a glass to Yuri Gagarin, because 52 years ago he heralded the world in which we live. And look to the stars for they’re in reach, even when we tell ourselves they’re just too far away.

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Triumph of the Nerds

You want to know what people talk about the triumph of the nerds? It’s not because of geek culture becoming mainstream. It’s not even because NASA can land a huge robot on Mars. It’s because of the joyful-but-slightly uncomfortable hugging in this video.

It’s because of passion, dedication, hard work and excitement.

Nerds rule.

Humanity’s About to Go Interstellar…

Voyager I is on the verge of leaving the solar system.

This is awesome.

I mean, I’m a sucker for the space programme anyway, and I’d weep with joy if I ever watched mankind walking on Mars. But the idea that humanity is going interstellar is awe-inspiring, especially when you consider the vast distances involved, and once it leaves the heliosphere, well, we actually leave our backyard for the first time. Sure, we’ve got a good idea of what’s out there, from observations and calculations, but it’s not the same as actually having something out there, giving us a physical presence in the depths of space.

Vaya con Dios, Voyager.

Yuri’s Night 2012

For as long as I’ve walked on this planet, space has worn humanity’s footprints – satellites, Voyager, the bits and pieces left behind on the Moon by the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong taking that small step has always existed in grainy black and white footage and we’ve always been a space-faring species, even if we’ve not quite passed the garden gate. It’s always been this way, at least for my generation and the generations since.

And so today it’s good that there are some many commemorations of Yuri Gagarin and his flight 51 years ago, a flight that lasted under two hours but which changed everything, opening up a whole new horizon as he became the first human being to go into space, the first to orbit the Earth.

It was a massive achievement – I think it’s been overshadowed by the moon landings, and certainly I remember mutterings that the series Enterprise, with its opening montage of historic moments in spaceflight, had somehow managed to omit Gagarin. Oversight? Probably, but it just goes to show how easily we forget.

(Back in the day though, the news was huge. One thing I didn’t know, and that came as a bit of a surprise, was that Gagarin visited Manchester on a post-orbit world tour. Thousands lined the streets in the rain, Gagarin insisting on riding with the top down so that he could wave to the crowds. It seems like the sort of thing that doesn’t happen any more, certainly not for those who still travel into space. Eventually the final frontier starts to feel like a trip to the shops. Heck, now we can film it and put it on Youtube – check out the fantastic First Orbit, which recreates Gagarin’s journey.)

Maybe that’s because it was a different world back then, two superpowers eyeing each other warily, everyone else seemingly stuck in the middle, nuclear spectres stalking history and secrets and fears spinning the globe. Everything’s changed now, and the space race now just feels like history, a bygone age of spies and empires, one of which is now dead, the other hanging on as everything changes around it.

But I’m having a bit of a personal response to this particular anniversary – I hadn’t realised how young Gagarin was when he flew into orbit. 27 is nothing, heck, nowadays it’s almost still adolesence. And yet there he was, changing the world in his mid-twenties. Seven years later he’d be dead, killed in a plane crash at 34, almost the same age I am now. It’s stupid I know, but it makes me look at my accomplishments, or lack of them. 34 still seems young to me, but by that age some people had already changed the world.

But that’s maudlin, and if you let it the idea of space exploration can do that to you, reminding you of your smallness and your fragility and your transitory nature. Instead I like to think of it was something liberating and empowering. Yes, the universe is big, but we can still look up and step out into it, sailing towards another destination, flinging peole out there and letting them poke around.

(Incidentally, that’s why you can send all the robots you want to Mars, you’re not going to really capture the public imagination until there are people heading there.)

So raise a glass to Yuri Gagarin, because 51 years ago he heralded the world in which we live. And look to the stars for they’re in reach, even when we tell ourselves they’re just too far away.

Keep Watching The Skies! My brief encounter with astronomy

Some people, upon seeing unfamiliar lights in the skies, are moved to carry out detailled observations and, in doing so, contribute immeasurably to the science of astronomy.

Others, upon seeing the same lights, assume we’re being invaded by aliens and stockpile canned food and bullets.

Me? I see them and get stressed because I’ve realised that, when it comes to stargazing and astronomy, I actually need resources pitched at five year olds.

For a few nights I’ve noticed two bright stars in the west, stars that I don’t remember seeing before. This wouldn’t be a problem – never mind astral bodies, I’m capable of missing doorways – but they were particularly vivid and attracted my interest, and so I tried to find out what they were.

Now, I have a couple of star map apps on my phone, so I thought this would be an easy task. There I am, standing on my drive, holding an iPhone in the air, looking like I’m casing all my neighbours’ houses and I can’t see what these bright stars are because I’m an idiot and had the apps set to their greatest resolution. Therefore I’m trying to pick out two stars from the entire universe.

So eventually I realise I’m being an idiot and get the universe down to a more manageable level. Turns out those two ‘stars’ are Jupiter and Venus.

And strangely, learning this was quite moving, to the extent that it actually inspired a post over at my Bible Blog. I’ve written before about how I always miss astronomical events, so this was a fascinating experience – seeing two distant planets and realising that’s what I was looking at.

And so tonight I’ll be going for a walk to the highest point in town to see if I can also track down Mars and Mercury. And yes, I’m aware that walking around with binoculars at night is a recipe for arrest, but I don’t care. There are wonders out there.

But if anyone’s ebaying an Astronomy for Inquisitive Toddlers pop-up book, please let me know…