PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 2018
David Bowie famously asked, “Is there life on Mars?” We may soon be finding out…if you have the money, that is.
Billionaire space-pioneer Elon Musk used the Bowie classic to mark this week’s launch of Falcon Heavy, last seen heading in the general direction of Mars. The biggest rocket to take-off in 45 years, it’s a major stage in SpaceX’s plans for travel to the moon, the Red Planet and – who knows? – maybe even further. A number of other companies, and state agencies, are working on projects to get us into orbit, some with Irish involvement.
Almost half a century after mankind last visited the moon, are we entering a second Golden Age of space exploration? And why, exactly, do we persist in this Icarus-like fight against the binds of gravity? Why do we find space travel so exciting?
Because you’d have to admit that nothing ever results from it, really (kudos on those Teflon frying pans, though). On an objective i.e. boring level, there probably isn’t much point to going into space.
We’re never actually going to colonise the cosmos; the place is just too damn big. And as Arthur C Clarke pointed out, even if we did, the folks at home would never know about it, simply because information travels too slowly. They call them “light years” for a reason.
But still… The thought of it, the promise of something massive, out there, beyond us, greater than us: it’s irresistible. It’s fascinating, awe-inspiring. It appeals to our inner wonderstruck child.
I’d like to think it all stems from that innate curiosity, the sense of some incipient mystery or enchantment to the universe, which first compelled our ancestors to leave Africa and colonise this planet. Or in this case, as the poet had it, to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and traverse the stars.
Of course, it might just be because dweebs like me absolutely love stuff such as zero gravity, warp drives, lasers, humanoid robot things, doors that open with a cool “zzhhuummm” noise… I think this may be a male thing, being honest.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore the cosmos? For one thing, it’d make up for the bitter disappointment suffered by us Generation Xers, who grew up with the lunar landings having just happened, our heads filled with fantastical expectations of what was next.
Simply because Neal Armstrong and chums managed to land their rust-bucket on the moon and successfully return to talk about it on The Johnny Carson Show, we assumed trips to Mars were the inevitable next step.
We’d soon be holidaying on Venus, sunbathing by the Sea of Tranquillity and opening up theme bars on the seventh ring of Saturn. Light-speed pods would ferry us across the galaxy. Deep space would be mined for uranium and plutonium and probably some other minerals we didn’t even know existed yet.
Stressed-out businessmen could float around in a time-warp bubble for several centuries, then return to earth, fully refreshed, the day before they left it. Extreme sports enthusiasts could bungee-jump into the sun’s fiery maw, or snowboard down Pluto’s glacial slopes in those ridiculous beanie caps they wear. Good wholesome fun for all the family.
Eventually, contact would be made with intelligent aliens who had huge blue foreheads and inexplicably spoke English despite coming from a quadrant eight billion miles away. Back then, the sky truly was the limit in our imagination.
As we’re now depressingly aware, none of this actually happened. Now, however, things are looking – ahem – up. An off-world trip would perfectly complete those annoying bucket-lists people make nowadays. In terms of bourgeois aspirational holidaying, it even beats wine-tasting in Tuscany or whittling your own snake-charmer basket in rural Pakistan.
But there’s a snag: you have to be surreally wealthy to afford it. Thus far there have been a mere seven space tourists: all were stinking rich. The cheapest flight cost $20million – and that was for a jaunt around our upper atmosphere, never-mind reaching the moon, Mars or, indeed, a quadrant eight billion miles away.
Space travel is a billionaire’s playground, and will likely remain so. But for promotional purposes, SpaceX et al will surely fire up a few celebrities too.
For renowned spacers like Shirley MacLaine, Uri Geller or Lady Gaga, it’ll be almost like returning home. Maybe Oprah could do a special broadcast, in which she “feels the pain” of an inscrutable alien intelligence, trapped in the infinite loneliness of a faraway asteroid belt.
Meanwhile, Bono has always given the impression that he considers himself at least a minor deity, so he could kill two birds with one intergalactic stone by combining a holiday with subtly angling for the big fella’s job. The possibilities, rather like the universe itself, are endless.