April 12, 2011, will be the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned spaceflight. I have a very distant personal connection to it (despite not having been born), in that in July of 1961, Yuri Gagarin, being celebrated around the world on both sides of the Iron Curtain, was at a Pugwash Conference. He was whisked off to Pugwash from Halifax airport in a limousine with the traditional pair of fluttering flags, one of which blew off on the way and was picked up by the Spouse’s parents, who had pulled over to make way for the motorcade.
Since 1961, humans have been venturing into orbit fairly regularly. I did get to watch the first moon landing. Okay, I don’t remember the first moon landing, but my parents made sure I watched it anyway. We haven’t managed to get any farther than the moon, and in recent years we’ve given up on that. We’ve sent robots to Mars and probes out beyond the solar system; we have radio-telescopes reading the noise of the universe. Do we need to keep sending people up to circle the planet, or is it time to say, been there, done that, deal with problems on Earth?
A lot of people appear to think so. It seems to me, though, that we’re forgetting that going in circles around Earth is only the first step. If we do nothing but go in circles, forever, yes, the novelty will wear off. Really though, we’re just getting into shape, warming up. We’re figuring out the how; the why and wherefore should be pretty obvious. It was summed up by Terry Pratchett et al., rather nicely: “Eden and Camelot, the wondrous garden-worlds of myth and legend, are here now. This is about as good as it ever gets. And it won’t stay like this for very long” (The Science of Discworld, Ebury, 2000, p. 340). Or, to paraphrase what the wizards might have concluded, Whoops, here comes another big lump of rock and ice – whatever happened to those apes?
There may be life on other planets. There may not. “… there may be just a few hundred thousand years on one planet where a species worried about something other than sex, survival, and the next meal” (ibid. p. 342). Even in a universe teeming with life, do we want everything good and great we’ve ever done and might someday be able to do, to end with a big rock when that average five-million-year life for a species thing kicks in against us? And what about the dogs and cats and duck-billed platypuses (to misquote that other great satirist, Douglas Adams). Getting into space, not merely to go round and round but to (insert adverb here, you know you want to) go , is one way to ensure that we, and (hopefully) the best of what we have done and can do (our art, our stories, our capacity for Caritas, maybe even a whole cross-section of our planet’s ecology), will survive that. As I had Ari Graven put it in The Black Box,
“…if the human race is going to survive into the future, isn’t it a good idea to take some real steps into space? That’s what the Mars mission’s permanent unmanned base is supposed to be, a first step, followed by more, right? Manned missions. Scientific expeditions. A colony. What if a big rock came along and Earth went smuck? Don’t put all your eggs on one planet.” She trailed off. “Okay, I’m ranting. But I think it’s important…” (p. 85).
And that’s why tomorrow night, we’ll be toasting Yuri Gagarin’s flag.