The Space Race Is Over

Internet Histories

22.11.2010

The Space Race Is Over

I had a bit of a real-life Roberta Sparrow moment this morning, courtesy of picking this up for a dollar at a Steiner School gala (yes, that’s right). Enigmatic and awesome as the cover is, digging inside reveals that it was published in 1950, and that it’s the published transcripts of a series of ‘popular astronomy’ talks aired on the BBC in its wireless days. Because this is an English astronomer from 1950, imperial measurements abound triumphant, and cricket is used as an analogy for literally everything - but it’s also more than a little poignant:

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension…once let the possibility of outward motion become as clear to the average man at a football match as it is to the scientist in his laboratory, once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. And I think this not so distant development may well be for good, as it must increasingly have the effect of exposing the futility of nationalistic strife.”

and:
“It seems to me that the greatest lesson of adult life is that one’s own consciousness is not enough. What one of us would not like to share the consciousness of half a dozen chosen individuals? What writer would not like to share the consciousness of Shakespeare? What musician that of Beethoven or Mozart? What mathematician that of Gauss? What I would choose would be an evolution of life whereby the essence of each of us becomes welded together into some vastly larger and more potent structure. I think such a dynamic evolution would be more in keeping with the grandeur of the physical Universe than the static picture offered by formal religion.”

When “The Blue Marble” was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972, it swiftly became an emblem of the nascent environmental movement (embracing mainfold progressive causes, and becoming the first post-war grassroots alternative to nationalism). But it was absolutely the product of that strife - the culmination of $170 billion (in 2005 terms, and that’s just the US’s space programme alone) spent to assert dominion over an indifferent black void. That being asserted, we came back down to Earth, settling for the same territorial scraps, on and off, ever since.

As for the second part? It’s a lot more far out, sure, but it’s a more engaging slab of speculative fiction than Independence Day. A pretentious part of me wants to say the mysterious author of The Nature of The Universe was anticipating the Internet (in terms of individuals tapping in on a daily basis to some vastly larger and more influential structure). But then…well, that part of me clicks here and here and realises the futility of it all. Maybe looking outward, even on the nation-state dime, isn’t as bad an alternative?

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