Yuri’s Night

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel in space. It seems remarkable to think that we’re now almost as far away in time from Gagarin’s flight as he was from the Wright Brothers making their first flight. I wasn’t born for Gagarin’s trip, though I do remember the day twenty years later when the Space Shuttle was launched for the first time, though what I mainly remember of that is being allowed to watch it at school, and spending a long time sitting around in front of the TV before being told the launch was delayed.

There’s obviously a lot of stuff around the web today about Gagarin’s flight, and one of the things I’ve found most fascinating is listening to this BBC Home Service report of the news:

What’s interesting about is the discussion about what might be next, now that man has gone into space, with the rather casual discussion about manned flights to Venus and Mars being in the near future. (However, the later discussion about how long it might take until a moon landing is pretty accurate)

One of the interesting things about the public perception of space flight is how fast we assume progress will be once we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps encouraged by the pace of progress in the 1960s. Whether we saw it in 2001 or somewhere else, my generation has lots of youthful memories of space hotels and holidays on Mars in the 21st century which have never quite come to fruition. (But never fear – Virgin Galactic are just two years away from launching their first space tourism flights, just as they were two years ago) Even if serious thinkers, planners and engineers didn’t think that, we got the impression that the conquest of space would be easy, with spaceports as common as airports. There’s probably someone out there still with a warehouse full of ‘my friend went to the Sea of Tranquility and all I got was this’ t-shirts, in anticipation of that imminent new market opportunity.

It’s tempting to speculate where we might have reached in fifty years time – and on a wider scale, whether anything we’ve created in that time will have travelled further than Voyager 1 – and what might have been achieved. Will we still be ten years away from Mars, or might Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction have come to life with the first Martian uprising? Or could things have gone bad up there and Kessler Syndrome forced us to drop our eyes down from space until the skies clear again? All I do know is that I’d like 88-year-old me to be here to see it.

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only 1 comment untill now

  1. It’s a stark illustration of Where Science Meets Economics. Early aviation was a bit of a joke, carried out by daredevils backed by spivs; hence, the kind of planes that existed at the start of WWI were noticeably similar to the kind of plane that Orville and Wilbur flew. Even WWI aviation was taken less than wholly seriously. WWII demonstrated the absolute necessity of military aviation, and the strong desirability of civilian aviation – but it was based on an industry that had had 50 years of development based on engineering progress and small change.

    Space, on the other hand, was an area where we got from the first rockets to men in space in 10 years and the moon in 25 (“it’s not my department, says Werner von Braun”), because it became something worth devoting statistically significant portions of superpower GDP to solving. You can completely see why, based on the time it took regular flight to go from military to ubiquitous, people thought the same about space – but it was always going to be false, just based on sheer cost.

    (the launch of commercial satellites has a loss rate that wouldn’t be tolerated even among post-Gagarin cosmonauts, and is still almost unimaginably expensive. Now add in the safety factor…)

    Basically, the fact that “if the military has an unlimited budget and all the best scientists that there are to do a thing, and they do it” doesn’t mean it’ll be scaleable. The only thing which allows Virgin Galactic to exist is the vast polarisation of wealth that has occurred in the last 35 years – in real 1975 dollars, the number of people who could afford a VG ticket would be too low to make a service that is still crazyexpensive viable.