The Greatest Adventure by Colin Burgess Magazine – A History of Human Space Exploration | Science and nature books
An late July, the world’s second richest man, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, plans to fly into space, a project that has sparked a satirical global petition asking him to stay there. If the story of the exploration of human space ended at this point, with the phallic self-launch of a narcissistic tax evader, it would be the end point of a remarkable story that began with the Nazi weapons and has arguably encompassed the greatest achievement to date of human civilization.
It has been almost 50 years since people walked on the surface of the moon – the moon! – in an age without the internet or smartphones, pushed out there in rattling cans at speeds unimaginable by huge controlled explosions. Proponents of the modern app economy like to say that today the pace of technological change is the fastest it has ever been, but they are sort of forgetting the period between 1957 when the ‘USSR put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, and 1969, when three men flew to the moon and two of them got off in a separate spacecraft, walked around collecting rocks, then took off again, docking with the original spacecraft, before returning to Earth and splashing safely in the ocean.
The vehicle that had pushed them laboriously out of Earth’s gravity was the Saturn V, still the largest rocket ever built, a 36-story monster designed under the direction of Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. The inventor of the V2 rocket, which terrorized London from late 1944, Von Braun surrendered to the Americans at the end of the war, was thankfully transported to safety in the United States and charged with design rockets for ballistic missiles with which the Soviets.
But Von Braun always dreamed of less obnoxious ways to use his rocket science. Between 1952 and 1954 he wrote a series of articles for Collier’s Magazine under the heading “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” Then came Sputnik and, in 1961, the first human being in space: Yuri Gagarin. The US military was alarmed. A month later, President Kennedy announced that the Americans would put someone on the moon by the end of the decade, and the space race was on.
It is this era that forms the narrative core of Australian space historian Colin Burgess’ book, with every NASA mission to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs described in detail with enough love to thrill nerds. space of all ages. But it also pays homage to the remarkable achievements of the Soviets, who for much of the duration of the Space Race still won it, until suddenly they weren’t. Which he attributes to the untimely death in 1966 of Russian genius Sergei Korolev, an engineer who had survived two years in the Gulag after one of Stalin’s purges, worked on rockets during the war, and became the designer in head of the Soviet space program. .
It was Korolev who, in the mid-1950s, began shooting dogs into the high layers of the atmosphere without asking them, to verify the biological effects of flying at very high altitudes. In November 1957, just a month after Sputnik 1, Korolev launched the much larger Sputnik 2, the last abode of the brave cosmodog Laika, the first life form on the planet to experience space flight, sent there with biosensors to send data back but not considering taking it home. Dog lovers around the world have protested the cruelty of leaving her up there to tour the planet until her air runs out. The well-connected Burgess, however, claims, based on two Russian sources, that Laika likely expired from heat exhaustion just hours after the flight began, which might have been relative pity.
As the USSR launched the first object, the first animal, then the first human into space – Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – the Americans rushed to catch up, ultimately propelling a group of apes into the upper atmosphere. In 1958, Nasa was formed and the term “astronaut” (in Greek meaning “star sailor”) was officially adopted, the first American astronaut being a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker, who performed a short ballistic flight in the space in 1959.
Burgess tells the subsequent stories of crewed space flights on both sides of the Iron Curtain with great verve and a suspenseful narrative of unannounced near-disasters. Gagarin’s spaceship, for example, narrowly avoided being consumed in re-entry, as did John Glenn’s Friendship 7 ship during a first Mercury mission. There is a biting story of a cosmonaut whose costume swelled and almost prevented him from returning through the airlock. During the Apollo 10 mission, the lunar lander nearly crashed because its radar locked onto the actual moon instead of the command module it was supposed to surrender with. And Apollo 11 only landed safely because crack pilot Neil Armstrong canceled the automatic systems that attempted to land on dangerous rocks and flew to a better landing zone with seconds of fuel. remaining.
There are also sober analyzes of actual disasters, including the fatal fire of the command capsule of the first Apollo mission during a ground test, which later turned out to be in part due to cost cutting. by an entrepreneur (in addition it changes), and the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, due to a frozen O-ring in a rocket thruster. (“That’s silly isn’t it? / When a rocket explodes / And everyone still wants to fly,” Prince sang a year later.)
NASA now plans, however, to put people back on the moon by the middle of this decade, which instead begs the question: why did the moon stop almost half a century ago? The answer seems to be, surprisingly in retrospect, that we are just fed up. “The sight of astronauts bouncing happily in a sixth of gravity had become boring to many,” Burgess notes, “and public support for the space agency’s lunar missions had collapsed.”
So what has changed? Well, China landed a robot on the moon last year and recently announced plans to build a joint moon base with Russia. So some of Donald Trump’s “space forces” might also want to be there to position themselves. But more generally, space looks cool again, in part thanks to the antics of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, who builds rockets for NASA and used one of them. to blast a red Tesla into orbit. (In the driver’s seat is a dummy called “Starman,” in homage to the song by David Bowie.) Musk’s authentic rocket exhaust flashes the minnows of space companies, such as Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. by Richard Branson, who is most notable for the fact that he promised his first tourist flights into space have been imminent for more than a decade.
But does space exploration really matter as something more than a cock contest for plutocrats? “Space exploration is a human imperative,” Burgess writes, and “traveling further into space is our undeniable destiny,” but it might have offered a more fierce defense. Some argue that space exploration is a waste of money when we still have problems to solve on our own planet, but it was never a proposition, just as it was not a binary choice for the Kingdom. -Une between staying in the EU or spending more money on the NHS. The rationale for pure science alone is strong, given the cosmological discoveries that have emerged from the Hubble Telescope, and will do so from its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch later this year.
But perhaps the best reason is that, even if we decide to act as better stewards of the Earth, it could be made uninhabitable through no fault of our own. Perhaps a large asteroid, or a burst of gamma rays from a nearby star collapsing into a black hole, destroying the atmosphere. In that case, it might be nice to have a spare planet, and we might be grateful to the pioneers of space travel who helped make the evacuation possible.