Dogged science

Nov 5th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Yesterday’s return to Earth after 520 days of the Mars simulation came fifty four years and a day after the end of the first space expedition involving a living being.  The living being in question was a terrier called Laika meaning ‘barker’ and the poor old thing didn’t get much time to bark.  The Sputnik 2 spacecraft had no re-entry vehicle and it was projected that after ten days, Laika would be put to sleep with poisoned food.  In 2002 the Russians admitted that poor Laika had died after a few hours of the mission, from stress and overheating.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the excitement that the Space Race created through the 1960s.  The first manned missions, the first spacecraft to orbit the moon, the first moon landings, each moment memorable in the mind of a small boy. I remember the Moon map that came free with the daily paper, so that we could identify the spot where Apollo 11 astronauts would land and I remember being called from my sleep to see Neil Armstrong step from the lunar module and make his giant step.

There was huge optimism, Neil Armstrong expressing the belief that he would return to space as part of a regular tourist industry.  There were even cards of spacecraft inside packets of tea that could be collected and stuck in albums.  The names of the craft were household words.

Then the space powers, the United States and the USSR, seemed almost to lose interest in the project.  They had done all they could do and there was nothing more to be achieved with the technology that humanity possessed.  The Hubble space telescope and the long journeys of unmanned probes have told us more about our solar system and about our little corner of the universe, but human beings have remained very firmly Earthbound.

Since the demise of the poor barker, we haven’t made much progress.  Trips to moon are like going out of the back door to a shed in the backyard, we haven’t even got the technical capacity to go to the house next door, to the red dust of Mars – the Mars simulation that ended yesterday went no further than a Russian yard.

I once read that there is more computer technology in the average home PC than there was at the entire mission control at Houston in 1969, but one reads many things, and it may not be true.  True or not, when we have the technology to do endless pointless things, like creating extraordinary computer games and filling the internet with fifty million pointless blogs, you would think that someone might have invented a propulsion system good enough to get people next door and back in a half reasonable time. You would think that it would have been technologically possible for humans to travel further in 520 days than the grounds of a Moscow institute.

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  1. I guess it’s a matter of priority, interest and cost. I’m rather torn between space exploration and investing in getting it right on our own planet.

  2. I’m also torn like Helen.
    The story of Laika is a poignant one.

  3. I don’t think it’s either/or – if we didn’t waste so much money on defence budgets that only make us feel more insecure, the resources and technology could make it a matter of both/and.

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