LOST AND FOUND IN SPACE: To boldly split an infinitive

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LOST AND FOUND IN SPACE: To boldly split an infinitive

Some time in the mid-Seventies the late Alistair Cooke – in one of his patrician but always fascinating Letter From America programmes – spoke about an old editor he worked under. On a slow news day the editor would haul out a book of important events in history and scour the pages.

He’d usually return with a wonderful idea for a story and would be triumphant when the article appeared the following day and his paper beat all its competitors by covering some event as significant as the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Barossa.

Well, this isn’t quite like that – but the mundane looking date of April 12 2006 was a significant anniversary. And one which, unlike most anniversaries, might make you think.

Twenty five years ago on that day the space shuttle orbiter Columbia was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight.

The Columbia – which on take-off looked like an elongated Taj Mahal – circled the Earth 36 times in two days. Then, miraculously, it landed and was used again. And again. In all it undertook an astonishing 27 successful space missions.

However in January 2003 it broke up on re-entry killing the seven astronauts on board. On that flight it had been up 16 days and among the crew were the first Israeli astronaut and the first woman of Indian birth.

On previous missions the Columbia had carried the first Hispanic American astronaut and the first member of the US House of Representatives into space.

And Eileen Collins, one the great figures in space exploration, was the first woman to command a shuttle when she took her seat in the Columbia in 1995.

2004_0531ga2fla0047If you are ever lucky enough to go to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida someone is bound to tell you how shuttle pilots vie to be the closest to a particular landing spot on the massive runway which disappears into the distance between the low scrub and marshland.

Collins still holds the record by some margin. She could, as the Americans say, land that thing on a dime.

There are many people – like me, obviously – who can remember Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, but what is interesting now is just how much we take this space stuff for granted.

Ask around: how many men have walked on the moon?

A dozen in total – and they’ve driven around in buggies and camped out there too.

Once upon a time people dreamed of flight. These days kids can sign up for astronaut programmes. I guess they figure if that guy from NSYNCH can do it . . .

In 2004 I spent some time at the Kennedy Space Centre. Just looking, not training of course. I assume a drink driving conviction precludes you from taking hold of the joy stick on something which burns a thousand gallons of gasoline a second.

What impresses is the scale of everything. When you reach for the stars you are dreaming big, and having to think big to accomplish it.

We stood outside a building so high condensation clouds formed inside it some days. We drove alongside a runway that was the width of Eden Park (stands and everything) and gazed in awe at rocket engines in which we could have misplaced our house.

After the Challenger disaster in '86 there seemed to be a loss of will within the US administration to keep funding the space programme at the same level. The tragedy of the Columbia was been a further blow to space exploration.

2004_0531ga2fla0057There will always be debate about whether all this is a waste of money when there is poverty here on Earth. If one child is going hungry why would Man try to reach for the distant planets?

Well, there is no simple answer to that. You end up in a world of metaphors about dreams and human aspiration, a discussion about Man’s desire to reach into the beyond.

In that regard Man has come a long way.

My father had a crystal set when he was a boy and saw the maiden voyage of the airship R101 when it crashed in a field in France on its way to India. Later in life he was on a PanAm flight that took him halfway round the world, with cocktails and dinner.

In April 2006 it was 45 years since Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to go into space, and only 25 years ago since Man had gone up in vehicle that allowed a safe re-entry, and which you could use again. When you think about it, it makes most of the news today seem meagre and petty.

Look past the sad headlines of the moment and you have to concede, we’ve come a long way in some things.

Want to read more about space exploration? Then try here.

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