As you’ll know from all the coverage, yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic first orbit of the Earth by a human. Back in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, it was a demonstration of superiority by one superpower over another rather than any altruistic motive that sent him into space.
Regardless of how it was viewed then or now, I can’t help but feel we’ve let Yuri down. In the fifty years since then, human exploration has travelled no further than the moon and that was done in the immediate decades after his orbit. There’s no doubt that we extensively use space-based satellites for telecommunications, GPS and a myriad of other functions. And yes, the International Space Station is a remarkable achievement. But we haven’t really gone anywhere.
Let’s look at this another way. In December 1903, the Wright brothers made the first human flight. By the 1930s, there were commercial transatlantic flights and jet airliners took over the route in 1958. So in approximately 50 years, flight went from 850 feet in 1 minute to thousands of miles at hundreds of miles per hour.
The comparison with space travel doesn’t look so good.
I understand well the arguments between human and machine space travel. The latter does give better bang-for-buck and machines can go places that we could not. But has the “PlayStation generation” become so ingrained in our psyche that we have to travel by remote control? Is there still no imperative “to boldly go”?
George Mallory, the mountaineer was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there” was his reply. His journey wasn’t about the accumulation of scientific knowledge, it was about personal conquest and fighting against the odds. And it ultimately cost Mallory his life.
Physics fights against us. We like our explorers to come back and tourists want a return ticket, but this makes exploration twice as hard as the round trip isn’t always easy to achieve. But I bet you that if NASA offered one way tickets to Mars, there would be no shortage of volunteers.
I’m sure Yuri Gagarin would be disappointed with how little we have achieved now and how little we expect to achieve in the coming years for human space exploration. Regrettably we can’t ask him as he died in 1968 before we reached the moon. Yuri, thanks for freeing us from Earth back in 1961 and I’m sorry we let you down.