On Space, the Next Frontier


A friend of mine emailed me last week to say that he’d been using the Astronomy Picture of the Day link on my site…and loved what he saw there.

This came as a real morale-boost to me, in my one-person crusade to persuade the world that space exploration and the colonisation of the solar system are exciting and thrilling things and not, er, dry, and boring, and stupid, and pointless, which I guess is how these topics are generally perceived. 

Also in my Blogroll is a link to the ISS Website – the log of the International Space Station, which I describe as ‘an anti-celebrity reality show’.  This is, let’s face it, a really boring site. The style of the entries is dry as Martian dust. There’s an interview with some of the astronauts, including the loveable baldie Clay from Expedition 15, which has all the slick professionalism of early episodes of Blue Peter.  A female astronaut (Barbara Morgan, who is also a teacher) has hair that sticks up as if she’s been electrocuted, the astronauts have fixed cheerful grins and stilted delivery, and Clay juggles with ping pong balls (which float in microgravity!) looking like a rabbit caught in headlights.  It’s refreshing to see such total absence of PR skills and media spin in today’s glossy, glitzy world; but it’s still dull dull dull. And the truth of the matter is, a lot of the work those guys do up there is mind-numbingly tedious. 

But!!!!   They’re still heroes!  And the very notion of a space station with American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts working in unity is extraordinary.  By any criteria, the existence of the ISS is one of the marvels of the modern age. 

But this continues to be is a media non-story; you never get news bulletins about the latest exciting space walk outside the ISS; no one knows the names of these people, or the details of the scientific work they’ve achieved; and no one much cares. 

And maybe this is a good thing…it shows that space exploration is becoming an accepted and normal thing.  But to me it’s a shame that no one gets excited about space exploration until there’s a disaster and people die, and politicians clamour to stop scientists spending so much money on stupid rockets. 

The wonder of it is that it’s happening, and happening now.

My own daily hit of the Astronomy Picture of the Day has become a source of genuine compulsion and excitement. Today’s photo shows the Mars Rover Opportunity about to enter Victoria Crater – and the image is amazing.  Click the links and you’ll see an even more amazing photo of a robot shadow on Martian ‘soil’.  Opportunity and its sister robot rover Spirit have been on Mars for more than 1000 Sols (a Sol is a Martian day).  They’ve survived dust devils, they’ve discovered clear evidence of the existence of water, and they have pluckily if robotically trudged from crater to crater on a rare voyage of discovery. 

Yesterday’s space photo of the day is even more amazing – it shows an American astronaut floating free above the Earth. There’s no tether, he’s using a backpack with nitrogen thrusters – and it’s the most beautiful image of man in space I have ever seen. To find it, go to APOTD in the Blogroll, click Archive, and click September 16; or just click here. 

A few days ago the Japanese launched a lunar probe called Selene (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) which consists of several satellites which will orbit the Moon using stereo cameras and x-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust.

Last week, also, Google launched a prize worth $30 M to the first private company which manages to land a robotic rover on the Moon and send back a gigabyte of video and images.  To be honest, this feels like a terrible deal, since you have to land your robot on the Moon first in order to be eligible (and if the camera doesn’t work, you’re $30 M out of pocket). But in principle, this is another indication of the imminence of the moment when space is no longer boring and nerdish, but is sexy and glamorous once again. 

Until that moment comes, I will continue to bang away about my neekish space obsession, and I’ll continue to look at the Astronomy Photo of the Day, and I’ll continue to read the ISS Website as Expedition 16 and Expedition 17 and Expedition 18 come, and inevitably go. 

At some point, I predict, the imagination of the world will be captured by space.  But what will it take? The first mission to put men and women on Mars? The first space tourist flight? The first Moon Colony?  The first multi-billion mission to mine an asteroid? 

It’s probably the latter; if there’s money in space, the world will start to pay attention. But in my view, the real reason to be excited about space is that it’s a new horizon, a new frontier.  The human spirit needs those, from time to time; such things feed our souls.  But of course, colonising space and harvesting the energy and mineral resources of space don’t help us solve our current and pressing problems – political corruption, wars of imperialist expansion, environmental degredation, and grotesque divide between rich and poor.  The exploration of space doesn’t make the human race any nicer.

But it is, in my view, a worthy and a glorious cause, one of the better things that human beings can do. 

Photograph of sunset on earth as seen from space reproduced by kind permission of NASA.

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