On the Joy Of Space

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I’ve just been reading Stephen Baxter’s Deep Future, a book of essays about the future and what it may bring.   It’s great stuff, and it has some excellent sections on the space race, and how and why we never landed humans on Mars (despite detailed and now yellowing documents planning every stage of that seemingly inevitable next venture.)

And the book contains a marvellous account by astronaut Charlie Duke of his experience of walking on the Moon:

You couldn’t feel the texture of the rock.  You couldn’t feel it under your feet either.  You sank into the dust.  In some areas you sank in half an inch, some were deeper than that.  There were no colours,  just shades of grey.  As you looked away from the sun, it was a very light grey.  The more you turned into the sun the darker the grey became.  The texture: if you’ve ever seen a freshly ploughed field, harrowed and very fine, and you know how when it it rains on it, it gives you that sort of pimply look…That was how it was. But it was dry as toast.

Duke also describes going on a space walk, on the journey home:

As I floated out, the Earth was off to the right, probably about a two-o’clock low, real low.  I could see it beyond the hatch, beyond the service Module.  And it was just a little thin sliver of blue and white.  and then I spun around this way and directly behind me there was this enormous full Moon, and it was, I mean it was overwhelming, that kind of feeling.  And you could see Descartes, you could see Tranquillity, all the major features, and it just felt you could reach out and touch ‘em.  No sensation of motion at all. The sun was up above my eye line but it’s so bright you don’t look at it. And everything else was just black.

There was more of a feeling of being in an audience as you were floating.  Here was this big panorama in front of you, below – I just sort of felt detached, I was just enjoying the view, as if I was enjoying the play.

These days, space has lost its glamour.  The nation is glued to the TV set when there’s a war in Iraq, or an eventful episode of Big Brother;  but no one pays too much attention to the launching of space stations and shuttles.  The exhilarating wonder of man’s reaching for the stars feels like yesterday’s news.

That will change, though.  In so many ways, the future is already upon us – we use mobile phones, we have a world wide web, we carry computers in our pockets and genetic engineering is a commonplace.  And thus it’s the safest of bets to believe than in another ten years, or twenty, or even thirty years, space exploration will start becoming extraordinary again.  We will have space tourism.  Men and women will inhabit the Moon and scientific alchemy will conjure water out rocks.  New forms of space travel will be pioneered. We will travel to the stars.  This is all the staple stuff of science fiction, but after the long lull years following the Moon landing,  it’s inevitable that space will start to be colonised.  There is money to be made out of space; there is energy out there (the Sun); there are minerals; and it’s crazy for us not to explore our own cosmic backyard. 

As space travel becomes more frequent, science fiction will become the coolest genre, as the people of the world start marvelling en masse at the wonders of science and the solar system.  My agent will become rich. And in twenty years time, I confidently predict, the Book Swede and I will be having one of our never-ending annual lunches in the best restaurant on Mars.

History shows that the pace of change can sometimes be slow, and at other times can be bewilderingly fast.  And space travel is, I believe, emerging from the doldrums, and is about to catch the wind.

I want to go into space.  I want to float on a tether and marvel at the sight of the Earth floating in front of me, blue and green amd miraculous.  I want to spin around and see the stars blur.  I want to catch an easyJet to Saturn. 

This is all possible, and it’s possible soon. 

I hope…

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Top photograph: Space Shuttle launching.

Bottom photograph: Space seen from space.

Photographs reproduced by kind permission of NASA.

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