In a recent assembly at school, I read out a post from a blog written by Luca Parmitano, an astronaut with the European Space Agency currently serving on the International Space Station. Entitled EVA 23: exploring the frontier, it can be found on the ESA website and recounts in gripping detail a spacewalk that did not go to plan, with near fatal consequences. It was a sobering experience for all of us to hear it, and worth reflecting for a moment on why, despite the dangers, we are drawn irresistibly to the notion of space exploration.
An estimated 600 million people watched the first moon landing on 20 July 1969 – a world record until 750 million people watched the (then) fairytale wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Landing on the moon was fraught with danger and was a first for humanity; both of these are compelling reasons for people to watch, entranced, just as millions watched Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from space last year – we knew that this latter event was a stunt and that it was of huge benefit to commercial sponsors, but we watched anyway, holding our breath. When the Virgin spaceship takes off sometime next year, having just passed the latest stages of its technical development, queues of people will be waiting to take up the opportunity.
We are fascinated by space: each year, blockbuster movies (the latest being Oblivion) make us ask the as yet unanswered questions about whether there is life beyond the bounds of earth. Space offers us the sense of the unknown, and potentially of the unknowable. As humans, we struggle with this; whether this be down to our pioneering spirit or our arrogance, we are affronted by the sense that we do not and may not be able to know what is ‘out there’. Luca Parmitano reminds us in his blog that space is harsh and unforgiving, and that we are minuscule dots in comparison to the vastness; this challenges us at a deep, almost primal level.
We are drawn as a race to the pushing of frontiers, and space represents an enormous frontier still for us. We should not allow it to distract us from the frontiers remaining here on earth – of poverty, of inequality, of conflict, of the environmental harm we are doing to our planet – but neither should we discount it. If nothing else, space reminds us that we are incredibly fortunate to be human, and we should not waste this great fortune. Perhaps we should remember, rather, that we owe it to ourselves and to the universe to make a positive difference with our lives …