OK, so I confess I am a space geek. Aged 10 I could tell you every technical difference between a Vostok, a Soyuz, a Gemini and an Apollo. I even had a soft spot for the Shuttle, that ugly and unreliable beast that ended up a sort of Austin Allegro of space.
But today, even non-space geeks can join me in a moment of awe.
It is 50 years since, at the height of the cold war, Yuri Gagarin secretly blasted off (his first words on the mission “Off we go”) from Baikonur and into history.
As Tom Wolfe said of the early space heroes, what did it take for a man to be willing to sit on top of a giant roman candle and let a hundred scientists stand below him and light it? Well, in my mind what it took was for Gagarin, Shepherd Glenn et al to all be heroes.
But heroes too were those scientists who were lighting the candle.
It took remarkable courage to push technical boundaries, to be willing to try new ways of doing things that hadn’t been tried before. Just think about the incredible scientific achievement of firing a space craft into orbit, and returning it safely to earth with its healthy living cargo intact. Then remember the scientists in question created the Vostok rocket with about as much computer power as exists in my kitchen fridge.
So today, as well as saluting the heroism of Yuri Gagarin and all who followed him, let’s also salute the brainpower of the engineers and mission controllers, the designers and propulsion specialists, to food technicians and environmental managers who contribute to a space mission.
Let’s look back at the pioneers, and remember that even in Britain at the time we had heroes. While we didn’t challenge the boundaries of space, we were challenging the sound barrier and the technical edge of aviation.
If you haven’t read James Hamilton-Patterson’s absolutely brilliant book Empire of the Clouds then it is a must for your next birthday wish list. Nothing makes the mind soar, and the heart sink, as much as reading his account of Britain’s aviation engineer lions, being led to a gentle decline and death at the hands of postwar bureaucrats and manager donkeys…
Does the technical and pioneer heroism of the early days of space still live today? I think it does, albeit today not so much applied to space as to new technology in healthcare, communications, energy and transport (on the ground).
We should use today to salute the engineers behind all of today’s technology we take for granted. But maybe we communication experts can help them to capture a little more of the magic and mystique that makes so many little boys even today dream that one day, they would walk in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps.