On Space Exploration
This month has seen the 40th anniversary of the first human visit to the moon, and so discussions of Space Travel have been in the news. The one which caught my eye was the announcement of a 12-week consultation on giving the UK its own Space Agency, much like NASA. Space is an area of fascination, but beyond specific scientific benefits, is investment in space travel really a great thing.
I should begin by way of a declaration: I was once a massive space geek. I followed every launch and almost every mission on a daily basis. This might be a surprise to some, but I suppose it vaguely fits with many of my other interests. Admittedly, this was at a time when I actually envisaged doing a Physics degree, something I lost interest in about the point I realised my grades at A Level Physics would be dismal. But my interest waned much sooner, as I began to ask some pretty serious questions about the goals of a Space Program; questions very similar to those I have been considering over the two last weeks.
Perhaps because it is the force that impacts upon us more than almost any other, humans have been obsessed with defeating gravity. We become obsessed with going up. Going forwards and backwards and sideways are all relatively easy to the able-bodied human. To those old enough and with enough money, going forwards at 60mph is relatively easy (barring the hassle of a driving test!). But going upwards is something altogether different. And so building Ziggurats became an obsession, and from this we almost certainly get the story of The Tower of Babel.
Yes, the Tower of Babel taught us some important architectural lessons, which in today’s cramped world we can be thankful for. But in reality, much of this was about human vanity. And the same is definitely true about Space Travel. National Pride alone has fuelled much of the space race, and space is still largely the domain of nation states. Space Exploration has, thus far, largely been a peaceful and scientific frontline in today’s multifaceted warfare. America fought communism in Vietnam, it also fought communism to the moon. After this, there came a series of attempts to build space-based weaponry, with talk throughout the Bush administration of lasers and anti-missile rockets.
But in that sense, Space becomes a huge distraction. Its something so awe-inspiring one could potentially forget to eat for a couple of days whilst gawping at its wonder. Indeed, this seems to be a collective reaction; Space Travel is a brilliant way of distracting from “the real issues”; food, primary education, sanitation, health care, etc. It presents a goal, a tangible achievement, that can be sold as somehow a “success” for all of humanity, that does nothing to upset injustice. It cannot be doubted that reaching the moon was a significant step for humanity’s development, but it was a development that could only truly belong to a few people at the top of global society.
What inspired me about space travel as a child became an interesting struggle as a teenager; we could put someone on the moon and still have people dying of curable diseases. Both would require science and investment to solve, and yet one seemed more captivating that the other. Why? I’m still not really sure why, but the folly of the value judgement is now clear to me.
What benefits will the bottom of British society gain from space travel? What will Africa gain? These are hugely clichéd questions, but that doesn’t stop them being necessary questions. Yes, there needs to be millions invested in science in order to help Africa, but much of it is the boring stuff like cheaper, safer, more localised drug production, not the one-off big-bang news stories. Lets face it, treating Aids just isn’t as sexy as Space Travel; and no one ever said that every boy would want to cure Aids and every girl would want to marry the man who did (though who said that about space travel I can’t remember).
There was certainly a time where the idea of Britain having “our own NASA” would have held enormous appeal. Now I find myself shaking my head in disbelief at the pure vanity, and irresponsibility, of the whole project, and I wonder what this has to do with Climate Change. I’m not suggesting this is the escape route for richest, migrating to another planet (and doomed to destroy it). Could it be that part of this is a fantasy outlet for politicians wanting to dream of something scientific and exciting, rather than the nightmare of bringing carbon emissions back down to Earth?