5, 4, 3, 2, 1… A whistle-stop tour through the infinite vacuum of space
In the Douglas Adams masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, there exists a form of extreme psychological torture known as the Total Perspective Vortex.
The Vortex, the story goes, shows its victims just a momentary glimpse of the unimaginable infinity of the cosmos, rendering them immediately, irreparably insane.
This, in a very large nutshell, sums up mankind’s problem with space. There are so many things about it that we simply cannot comprehend.
There’s the scale of it – our mortal minds boggle at the size of the Sahara, let alone the mileage to the furthest stars. Weightlessness and absence of oxygen run counter to our terrestrial instincts, but most of all, it’s the fundamental concept we can’t get our heads round: Space is, well, nothing.
Space: A mystery
Get ready for a severe conceptual headache, because the idea of ‘nothing’ has long exhausted the brains of anyone foolish enough to properly consider it. Aristotle claimed it was impossible – ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ – and that it was a truth so self-evident that it needed no justification.
For two millennia his assertion held sway – backed up by theists who thought it heretical to claim that God would create ‘nothing’ – and there would seem a certain logic to the idea that there’s no such thing as no thing.
Outer space has proven otherwise. Isaac Newton threw the first spanner in the works when he discovered gravity. If gravity is always attractive, then surely in a finite universe all the objects should attract each other, collapsing it in on itself?
In 1929, Edwin Hubble went further: He discovered that galaxies were actually moving away from each other, and the universe was expanding, raising the fundamental question of what it could be expanding into? The answer, short yet incalculably complex, is nothing.
Nothing about nothing is ever simple, however, and scientists now believe that even in nothing, there is something. But down that road lies quantum mechanics, and, in the words of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.”
Space: A brief history
So, let’s go, if not quite back down to Earth, at least back to the realms of tangible fact. Empty voids don’t have much history of their own, but the way humankind has interacted with space has changed enormously over the years.
It is often assumed that our ancestors were superstitious flat-Earthers, who viewed the cosmos through nonsensical mythology. Not so: Without the light pollution and atmospheric contaminants that cloud our modern skies, medieval civilisations had a rather clearer picture than we do.
Greek philosopher Aristarchus of Samos first theorised that Earth orbited the sun during the third century BC, some 18 centuries before Copernicus and then Galileo. Fellow Greek Hipparchus worked out how to deduce time and latitude from the arrangement of the sky – the word ‘planet’ comes from the Greek for ‘wanderer’ – while Roman mathematician Ptolemy used his work to publish a catalogue of 48 constellations.
Astronomy played a key role in a range of historic civilisations – the ancient Maya, for instance, calculated the solar year with extraordinary accuracy. And it was advances in technology, more than philosophy, that furthered our interstellar awareness.
In an unfortunate twist, the immediate impetus came from Nazi military scientists, and it was a 1944 German V2 rocket that first crossed the Karman Line – a somewhat arbitrary boundary marking where the atmosphere ends and space begins. After the war, the US and USSR set up their own missile programmes, marking the start of the Space Race; a 30-year period of petulance and one-upmanship, often said to be a clear proxy for the Cold War.
Space: A political football
Cynics might say politicians have been fighting over nothing for centuries, but it was only in the 1950s that the battle began in earnest.
The Soviets nicked round one, firing the first ever satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in 1957, nearly four months before the launch of American rival Explorer 1. They also edged round two, blasting first ever cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and back, a mere month before American counterpart Alan Shepard.
But the Soviets would fly no higher: In 1961, American president John F. Kennedy announced before congress that America would reach the moon within the decade – and 50 years ago this year, the world watched live as Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on lunar soil.
With the proxy war won, America began exploring ways to weaponise space militarily as well as politically. President Reagan’s infamous ‘Star Wars’ project promised particle beams, lasers and an interstellar missile network, but had greater consequences for headline writers and American taxpayers than it did for international security. Amid reports of extravagant overspending, the project slowly faded from view.
Five international treaties have laid out a cosmic code of behaviour. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is still the foundation of international space law – stating that space must be free for exploration and use by all nations, and that the moon and other celestial bodies be used for peaceful activities only. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by the opening of the International Space Station in 2000, heralding a new era of co-operation.
Unfortunately, 2019 has seen space resume its role as political football. “It is not enough to have American presence in space,” said President Trump at a recent news conference, “we must have American dominance in space.” He floated the prospect of a sixth wing of the military known as the ‘space force’ – hardly a new idea, and previous incarnations have struggled to make it off the ground.
Space: A tourist destination
It is now widely accepted that if 20th century space travel was the preserve of the nation state, 21st century space travel will be dominated by commercial companies. Could we really soon see paying customers flocking to catch the 10.35 flight to the void?
Well, actually, it’s already happened. In 2001, despite furious protests from NASA, US businessman Dennis Tito was transported to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, and spent eight days aboard. Six more commercial passengers followed, each reported to have paid a cool $20 million for the privilege.
But even Tito and chums were still travelling under the wing of a national space agency. Now, private companies are developing their own programmes, affordable for any common or garden multi-millionaire. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are all looking to make 2019 the year ordinary people can witness the power of the cosmos – for a ball-park figure of $250,000 each.
If that seems like a lot, it really isn’t – in fact, each trip will operate at a cataclysmic loss. Companies seem to be following in the footsteps of government by forgoing finance in favour of prestige and technological accomplishment – every rocket launch will cost tens of millions of dollars.
Yes, there is big a difference between commercial space travel, and commercially viable space travel. And when it does happen, expect a whole range of unforeseen administrative problems – your hand luggage allowance may be the least of your problems, compared to the complexities of interstellar travel insurance.
No one knows exactly where these endeavours will end up, but the jet engines are sparking into life, and regularly taking non-astronauts into orbit is at the forefront of some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful minds.
The Press Association
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