Tag Archives: space exploration

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.

NASA Day of Remembrance

I think I remember the Challenger disaster. I was at my grandparents’ house, watching the launch – or maybe it was the news afterwards – and while I was too young to quite process what was happening, the image is indelible, the way the explosion split in two. It was one of those moments, as a child, when you realise the world isn’t as safe as you thought it was. This was just two years before the Lockerbie bombing, another event I remember vividly.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance for the crews of the Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1. It’s easy to forget, in these days of satellites and International Space Stations and sci-fi movies, that space exploration is dangerous – space is a hostile environment in its own right, and the fact that to get there means strapping people to a million pounds of rocket fuel and firing them out of our atmosphere. The space programme, so the common refrain goes, got boring, and in that moment of epic trivialisation, we forgot the heroism of those who travel into space in the name of exploration.

I’m a fan of the space programme. I hope, perhaps vainly, that one day a native of Earth will walk upon Mars. But let’s never forget, in that rush for adventure and discovery, that all this results in sacrifice – of time, of resources – and sometimes, tragically, of life.

We don’t really remember the names of those who sailed and died with Columbus or Cook as they made their voyages of discovery. We don’t have to make the same mistake with those who died as part of the space programme. So, tonight, I’ll take a moment to look out of my window at the stars and not take them, and all we know of them, for granted.

Zambia vs the Martians: The Strange Story of a Forgotten Space Programme

In celebration of Zambia’s Independence Day, here’s a post I wrote a while back about one of the strangest space programmes in history…


Ahh, thank you Library Angel. I was only thinking yesterday that I haven’t written a Historical Randomness post for ages; this morning I update my iPod’s news feeds (because I don’t do anything as predictable as listen to music on my iPod) and there, on Discovery’s feed is the most historically random story I’ve come across in a long time. Because, ladies and gentlemen, Zambia was once about to launch a manned mission to Mars.

Well, when I say “Zambia”, I mean “a Zambian science teacher”, and when I say “about to”, I mean “was never going to”. It seems a bit churlish to point this out, because it’s such a cool story, but this isn’t a story about a great, lost technological advancement buried in the West’s ignorance of African history, this is the story of an enthusiastic amateur, two cats and a bunch of horny potential astronauts.

The background: in 1962, African nationalist parties won Rhodesia’s elections and voted for the secession of Northern Rhodesia; two years later, on 24 October 1964, the Republic of Zambia was born. Cue much celebration, but all this partying was, for one new Zambian, a distraction from the country’s real priority – Edward Makuka Nkoloso was going to get a spacecraft to Mars by 1965, dammit. Even Time magazine noted this ambition in their coverage of the independence celebrations.

This was the sixties, of course, and space was the new frontier – Stephen King has written of a childhood memory of how the adults around him freaked out at the news that Russia had launched Sputnik, and Wernher von Braun was now using the technology used by the Nazis to bomb London in the service of America’s own Saturn programme. In 1962, JFK delivered a speech at Rice Stadium, Texas, pledging to carry out a successful round trip to the Moon by the end of the decade. It was the start of the Space Race between the USA and the Soviet Union, but in Nkoloso’s mind they were also rans, trying to steal his own secrets of space travel for their own ends. After all, they just wanted to carry out small potatoes projects like getting to the Moon by 1970; he had the far more ambitious target of landing a crew on Mars by 1965 (he outlined his aims in this editorial).

Nkoloso was a school science teacher in a country where just 0.002% of the population had a degree. Establishing a secret HQ outside the capital Lusaka, Nkoloso’s space pioneers were 11 men, one 16-year old girl, a Christian missionary and two cats. Trained by swinging off ropes, rolling down hills in oil drums and walking on their hands (and yes, footage of this has made it to Youtube, albeit complete with slappable presenters), the project was derailled by the fact that the men were more interested in copping off with the girl, and things kinda fell apart when she left the project after getting pregnant.

Despite the space programme still being in its relative post-war infancy, the idea of getting to Mars wasn’t all that out-there. The aforementioned von Braun had become the chief populiser of space exploration and in 1952 he published The Mars Project, outling his ideas for a manned mission to the red planet. Remember, this is Mars we’re talking about, and the idea that it might be inhabited has long maintained a hold on the imagination, at least since Percival Lowell popularised the idea in the 1890s that Mars was covered in artificial canals (an extension of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s view that the planet was covered in channels, as opposed to canals built by Martians – blame translation from the Italian). Science fiction also built on the idea that we could be invaded by our nearest astronomical neighbour – the variois tellings of The War of the Worlds is probably the best example of this.

Nkoloso went along with the life on Mars theory, believing it to be inhabited by a primative culture – hence the inclusion of a missionary in his crew, although they vowed not to force Christianity on the natives (it’s interesting to put this approach to First Contact in the context of a country that had only just emerged from colonial rule by Britain – the colonised looking to become the colonisers, maybe, whilst not making the mistakes of the past? It’s not like HG Wells didn’t draw a link between his Martian invasion and European imperialism).

At any rate, the Zambian space programme (which, I should add, wasn’t sanctioned by the government, unsurprisingly) never took off; UNESCO wasn’t keen to stump up the £7 million worth of funding Nkoloso requested from them (although it would have been a bargain compared to the Apollo programme’s $25.4 billion); they were more interested in setting up CERN (the organisation responsible for the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider) and moving the Abu Simbel temple to prevent it from being flooded by the Nile). The project, such as it was, died a death and Nkoloso went on to become president of the Ndola Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

It would be easy to laugh at the whole thing, and it is faintly farcical (although it would make a fantastic film, and someone should look into it – Film Zambia?), but perhaps it’s an example of the potency of two Big Ideas – this article links it to the power space exploration has over the human imagination, and I think there’s definitely something in that, but I guess there’s also something attractive about the opportunity for the little guy, however deluded, to stand up to the big dogs, even in the shadow of colonialism and Cold War superpower posturing. After all, the US may be the only country to have sent someone to a neighbouring celestial body, but Nkoloso shows us we don’t have to believe they’re the only ones who can do it.

So when the first Zambian makes it into space, he or she should spare a thought for Edward Nkoloso and his visions of Mars. The universe is vaster than we make it, and there’s always room for bigger dreams.

The Eagle and Atlantis


Forty-two years ago, a spacecraft armed with less processing power than my iPhone touched down on the lunar surface. Seven years after Kennedy fired the starting pistol on the Space Race, eight years after Gargarin became the first human in space, the Eagle had landed.

On 8 July, the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the final time, tasked with taking supplies to the crew of the International Space Station. The mission was carried out with a reduced crew of four, due to there being no back-up shuttle to help them should anything go wrong.

Forty-two years ago, on July 21, two men took a small step onto the Moon, the first human footprints to appear anywhere other than Earth. Blurred and grainy monochrome footage crackled onto screens around the world; this was history and everyone knew it.

Earlier today, the crew of Atlantis received the final shuttle wake-up call, ‘God Bless America’ dedicated to them and all previous crews.in a couple of hours, they’ll be able to come home.

Forty-two years ago, a presidential speech was prepared in the event of Armstrong and Aldrin being stranded; fortunately it was never used, thanks to Buzz’s pen; the crew splashed down in the Pacific a couple of days later, national heroes and now figures in history.

Later today, July 21 again, Atlantis will touch down in Florida for the last time, becoming a museum piece at the Kennedy Space Centre. The curtain will fall on the shuttle programme and the adventure of manned space flight will largely pass into the hands of the private sector. The timing of this is fitting and ironic and frustrating and elegiac all at the same time, memories of the moon landing sitting uncomfortably next to the fading away of the shuttle.

The question “where next?” doesn’t seem to have a simple answer, and I can’t help but think my hppe of seeing men and women go to Mars someday is now futile, certainly not in my lifetime. That’s sadder than I thought it would be.

Safe landing, Atlantis. Come home safely.