The azure sky beckoned to them as they sat, perched precariously at the zenith of a machine that rendered, in its very bolts and metal, the dreams of not just an entire nation, but all of mankind. The tinny voice scrambled and squawked into their headsets. Numbers counting down. A low sound rumbled in the beast’s loins as the liquid oxygen engines roared into being. The cramped capsule began to shudder. A seagull, oblivious to such a momentous hour in man’s journey on this Planet, tumbled off the tower in a flurry of feathers. A second later, a single number was called out – “ZERO!” – and the progress of our discovery, the defining mark on this epoch of our great existence, was mapped out in the smoky trail of the Saturn V’s boosters.
Apollo 11 – with its spidery Eagle, and Columbia, carrying her precious cargo – set a blazing trail that was the epitome of mankind’s tenacity to go beyond.
Ask any of my old-time friends, and they’ll tell you of my avid fascination with space travel. The Cosmos holds a special place in my heart; there’s something inherently intricate in the design of our Universe, and our forays into trying to understand this ancient architecture through our space programmes deeply intrigues me.
Recently, I’ve rekindled this spark of interest upon watching a brilliant documentary on BBC Knowledge. It’s called The Space Age: NASA’s Story. Using never-before-seen, original, re-mastered footage, the tale of how one of the world’s most powerful space agencies is weaved, with interviews from the legends of space travel.
Watching what space travel was, what it stood for, in the 50s and 60s, got me thinking about where we stand today. In the forty years that followed that momentous first step on the moon, our technology has improved significantly. Yet here we stand, at the precipice of a new era in discovery of our Cosmos, with a retired shuttle fleet, a cancelled continuation project (Constellation), and the continuing privatisation of space.
We desperately need innovators. We need people with the same tenacity as those Soviets and Americans who pioneered space travel, pushing the boundaries of our civilisation.
But we also need a keen, holistic enthusiasm from the people of this planet.
The Space Age: NASA’s Story aptly captures the excitement that human spaceflight created. There was indeed a sense of awe that prevailed through those years of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes. Has space become an expected norm today? Has the continuous ferrying to-and-from the International Space Station created a sense of routine? Perhaps.
But maybe it’s the other frontiers that have risen as the race for space died. Kennedy’s charged words are a reminder of that by-gone era when sending a man into space, and onto a distant, heavenly body that captured mankind’s soul for centuries, held an entire planet captivated:
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […]
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
–President John F. Kennedy, “Rice University Speech” (1962)
In our age, we have the technologies. We have the knowledge. We have the abilities to “do the other things” in science and technology that will push the human race forward. But what we require is the drive, the will to innovate; a delicate membrane that exists between the dream and the realisation, forever threatened to be swayed by the motions of bureaucracy.
A new era of discovery awaits a new generation. We now face the charge of respecting the path foraged by those that came before us, and plunging into the unknown depths of our Cosmos.