We’re in a space race – again!

January 2023

In the context of the current war in Ukraine, remembering the space race of the 1960s seems to take me back to an age of innocence. I know there were crises and that most of us felt the threat of nuclear war looming over us at one time or another before Reagan and Gorbachev went for their little walk together, but, with hindsight, it’s almost as if the two great world powers had elected to play a ‘friendly’ game instead of going to war, like two kids seeing who could make a paper plane fly furthest. Perhaps it also epitomised the brief Kennedy dream, and I recently came across an interview with Neil Armstrong on YouTube, recorded in 2011, in which the quintessential astronaut seemed imbued with that same sixties spirit of dreaming big and rising to challenges. I must send the link to the kids next time they raise doubts about whether it was all faked!

Since I’m in the middle of writing a story set on Mars, it’s hardly surprising I was a little disappointed when I read an article (Why not Mars) laying out the reasons why we should not send human beings to the Red Planet in the near future. Damn! For me, one of the most convincing arguments was that by overcoming the problems of sending people into space you mostly learn how to do just that, which is only really useful for sending more people into space. It echoes my own confusion about the apparently contradicting claims that going to the moon brought great technological advances but that it was achieved using incredibly unsophisticated equipment. I think even NASA points to more subtle, general benefits when promoting the space program these days.

The other point I liked in the article involved the danger of contamination by human beings, tremendous bearers of bacteria that we are. The author suggests that once astronauts reached Mars, they would have to use robots to investigate any likely spots for the identification of previous or current life, to avoid the risk of muddying the waters, which would make sending robots in the first place a much more sensible option. Isn’t the problem that, like Kennedy before and Musk and his still-rich-enough-to-dream-big competitors today, we all tend to find manned space exploration a lot more exciting? Perhaps Bill Nelson from NASA had that in mind when he insisted recently that, once again, ‘we’re in a space race’. China, of course, is providing the competition for NASA this time, and I get the impression it’s more about access to potential resources and even ‘ownership’ than some grand concept of the advancement of humankind, which seems to neatly encapsulate the difference between the spirit of the sixties and what too many people seem to value today.

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