There is something magical about lying under an open night sky and staring at the stars. To share the sense of awe with our ancestors, who saw the same constellations and comets, to come to terms with our cosmic insignificance, to feel a sense of wonder, and to imagine what lies so far away.
Space has intrigued and fascinated us through the ages. The Babylonians charted the paths of the planet’s way back in 700 BCE. The ancient Incas and Aztecs built astronomical observatories, the Chinese kept meticulous records, the Mayans traced the complex motions of the stars, and our very own Aryabhata made precise celestial calculations, all in the hope of getting to know what lies beyond, and how and why. Curiosity pushes us to explore the unknown, and so we wander.
Last week, Richard Branson was floating about 80 km above us, propelled by a fiery cloud of burning laughing gas and solid rubber fuel, that allowed him to break through the bonds of gravity, and get a glimpse of the blue curve of our planet. He will be followed by Jeff Bezos, who is planning to push ahead on his sub-orbital rocket, and go even further.
There has been much fuss around these expeditions. On one hand, it has been labeled a ‘space race’ between billionaires, but on the other, it does mark a milestone. It opens possibilities, both of advancement and exploitation. Mining asteroids, warehouses on the moon, transitioning to an interplanetary species, new markets, tourism…there is an explosion of interest. However, a sense of celebration is also marked by trepidation. Is this worth it? Where is it going to lead us?
Branson himself has no misgivings. He called it the ‘experience of a lifetime. I have no doubt it was one. But the phrase does not quite capture the essence of exploration, and what it truly means for the human race. The implications are not going to be limited to rich men following one another to the edge of the atmosphere, and more. We are all going to be impacted, in ways much beyond one lifetime. Generation after generation, innovation, and bravado push the limits of science, opening new vistas of truth. And we try to keep up.
The need to explore and be the first to discover new places is deeply ingrained in us. Our ancestors migrated through vast unknown lands and jumped from one continent to another. Ancient voyagers sailed the deep oceans to see what lay beyond. After land and water, we then looked at the skies. Galileo invented the telescope, two french brothers flew the first hot air balloon. Aviation pioneers over the years built flying machines that grew larger flew faster and climbed higher. In 1957 USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. And then the astronauts followed.
Yuri Gagarin was the first, but by now there have been close to 600 people who have been up there. And if the space entrepreneurs have their way, that number will dramatically rise over the next few years.
The thought of being able to break out of earth’s gravity and float around the universe is exciting. At one time it was possible only by those with an intrepid imagination, which then found a way into our stories. Fiction then became real but was driven by governments, far from our reach, sealed in top-secret files. But things have changed with the entry of well-funded and ambitious private players. The table is not reserved anymore.
At the moment it is only the super-rich who are tying their seat belts, but soon the gates will open for the common man and woman. The very thought of space travel is thrilling, but a few years from now - will the laws of attraction still hold?
The unattainable has a certain ‘wild allure’. We desire, and reach out for what is beyond our grasp. The thrill of the chase and the seductive promise of the unknown have been well documented. But when space trips become joy rides, and business propositions, when there are birthday balloons on the moon and honeymoon suites on Mars, will it still have its mysterious pull over our collective psyche.
The stars speak to me, sometimes. But when I look up now, I am not sure. I’ve been told there are thousands of shiny satellites and space trash colliding with each other, vying for my attention. What about magic then. Would it be more exciting to book a ticket to the moon, or are we were better off staring at the sky, and not knowing what lies beyond?
(The author writes on current affairs, human rights and social trends. She is a Chartered Accountant and has an MBA from IIM Calcutta. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)