Sunday, February 09, 2003

Watty knows he's been remiss, but:

*insert excuse of your choice here*

I met Gene Cernan - the slightly less well known "last man on the moon" - this afternoon. Well, OK, it wasn't really him, it was an actor. Actually, it was an Explainer - look, we were at the Science Museum. Bear with me. He was fun, and educational, and he was wearing an actual NASA space suit, complete with moon boots! But none of that is the point.

I was 6 going on 7 when Neil Armstrong may or may not have fluffed his lines on stepping onto the surface of the moon, and you can imagine just how exciting it was - pretty much the history of manned spacefight had taken place in my lifetime, and while I probably didn't have a grasp of the historical context of it all, I did have the Airfix models. I kept scrapbooks, was allowed to stay up late to watch things (I can still remember, and could probably recite, James Burke's description of the various layers of the spacesuit), and there was no other topic of conversation in the playground. Apollo 11 was launched on our school sports day, and one or two of us managed to convince ourselves that the contrail we saw high overhead that afternoon was the Saturn V thundering out of the atmosphere. It wasn't, but on some level, it really was.

So space flight has always been part of my life, and I'm probably at the younger end of those who can remember the moon landings. There's a deep fascination within me for all things space (hence the italics earlier), and some level of frustration that just when everything seemed possible, it all petered out. I don't think I ever actually wanted to be an astronaut, but I liked to think that people I knew could be, if they wanted to. And I suffer from an even deeper frustration at those damned inflexible laws of physics, which seem to put so many obstacles in the way.
And every now and then the laws of physics jump up and smack you in the face. That's what last Saturday felt like to me, child of the space race - a smack in the face. Another, far less innocent contrail, and a gut-wrenching reminder of just how dangerous this whole business is. But we take risks, and test the limits, and sometimes people die - that's the way it's always been, it's an inbuilt human trait.

Then I was struck by a curious parallel - it's my no means a good fit, but I do think there's merit in it. My paternal grandmother was born almost exactly as Wilbur and Orville Wright were proving that the differential air pressure on either side of a cunningly-shaped piece of wing could actually translate into lift. By the time she was my age, there were airliners and heavy bombers, fighters and troop carriers - the aircraft evolved staggeringly quickly. Along the way, there had been some dead-ends - airships in particular - as well as a couple of leaps of evolution which changed the whole way that aviation worked. Rotary-winged flight offered an alternative evolutionary path, and then the jet engine simply moved everything on to a different level - a colossal step-change in the way things worked. And I wonder if spaceflight isn't on a similar path. There was a rapid early evolution, followed by some intriguing later developments, some of which, I feel sure, will turn out to have been airships - and I wonder if the whole Shuttle concept isn't one of them - it does work, and pretty reliably, but it's fragile, and fraught with miniscule dangers. The effort - the energy, work and concentration - required to make it happen seem out of proportion to the reward, and perhaps we'll go back to more 'conventional' methods of space travel. Or perhaps there's a Frank Whittle out there somewhere, about to revolutionise space flight. Perhaps the whole idea that the only way to get anywhere outside the atmosphere is to apply ever-increasing amounts of brute force to the problem is about to be superceded. Maybe, among the dozens of alternative ideas and crackpot theories there's a real, workable solution to those infuriating laws of physics. I hope that there is, and I know that when the day comes for someone to test fly it, there will be no shortage of volunteers. Risk is part of the deal.

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