Yesterday, almost by chance, I watched the take-off of the Russian spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan that took with it the European Space agency British astronaut Major Tim Peake to a rendezvous with the International Space Station.
I had been out shopping and, upon returning, had just switched on both the television (showing ITV’s morning show featuring Philip Schofield) and my computer. I had barely sat down at the latter when it was announced on the television that the rocket would be blasting off in twenty minutes.
Out of curiosity I then switched channels to Sky News, which naturally had already devoted its entire coverage to the subject at hand.
Half the trouble with 24-hour rolling news is what it says on the tin. The presenters go through the motions, re-reading the various ‘recorded’ news stories every quarter of an hour, hour after hour, until something spectacular or unusual happens, whereupon they switch to ‘breaking news’ mode – i.e. what such telly people live and breathe for – and a sense of all-pervading self-importance and ‘sense of occasion’ takes over.
They’re suddenly the viewers’ guide to some supposed earth-shattering moment, whether it’s a press conference coming from Number 10, the announcement of England’s soccer opponents at Euro 2016, a terrorist attack in Paris … or a cat stuck up a tree being rescued by the fire brigade in a distant flooded Cumbrian village.
For the ascent of Major Tim Peake, Sky News had the presenter in the studio filling time with a prolonged and trite discussion about what might (or might not) be going on in Kazakhstan as final preparations were made for the launch, spliced with ‘live’ reports from some school with which ‘our brave British spaceman’ was connected which at least had the plus of wide-eyed excitement on the part of the kids involved as this historic moment approached.
In the event of course, nothing unusual happened.
With less than a minute to go the first supporting stanchions came away from the vertical spacecraft, then the final one did with ten seconds to go, then we had ‘engines ignition!’ and ‘engines firing!’ … and soon the rocket took off, rising with the glow of millions of rocket fuel burning behind as it set off into the stratosphere. Then the first bits fell away and the second engine (or organ of thrust) took over and kept the capsule hurtling into the unknown.
On one level it was exciting, I confess that much. However, on another, it was a slight disappointment (if you see what I mean) because I was watching half in expectation that something might go wrong, rather like as I do when tuning in to the first three laps of a Formula One grand prix, viz. just in case there’s a spectacular pile-up as the contestants vie for early leading positions because (in Formula One’s case) that’s about the biggest chance of excitement and interest there’s going to be all afternoon.
I should stress here that in no way was I wishing a mishap upon Major Peake and his fellow crew members, but even with a modern supposedly-routine space launch part of the onlookers’ fascination is always their inner sense of awe that anything a human being can build is physically capable of blasting off into space at all.
I’m referring, of course, to all the things that go towards putting humans and human technology into space, i.e. the accumulated observations, research, mathematical calculations, scientific and chemical theories, hunches and – on top – the months and months of preparation, added to the sheer balls of the exceptional people who actually choose to put their lives on the line to advance our understanding of what is actually out there in the universe beyond this tiny speck of dust we call the Earth.
At any moment of any space flight there are probably fifty things that could go catastrophically wrong and jeopardise not only the mission at hand but also the people on board.
I suspect that every single space flight involving human beings prompts our sense of history and awe in this respect.
All that said, I still could not prevent myself feeling a slight sense of condescending anti-climax yesterday.
I genuinely ‘connected’ with those schoolkids who had been given the morning off lessons to watch their old boy do something momentous and memorable – and indeed with the hundreds of millions of my fellow television viewers also looking on, in a communal sense.
However, as a veteran viewer of the 1960s and 1970s US and Russian space programmes (the Mercury, Mariner and Apollo missions etc.) – a time, if you think about it, when computer and space technology was effectively in its infancy – looking back now, things seemed (or even were) so much more impressive, awe-inspiring, epoch-defining and historic then.
That much is indisputable.
Watching the guys in Apollo 11 blasting off into space was the equivalent of Columbus departing to sail across the Atlantic … and then quite possibly off the edge of the Earth; of Magellan setting off to sail around the world, whether he actually did it intentionally or just ended up achieving his circumnavigation by chance; and of those intrepid explorers who set off to find the much-fabled North West passage across the top of the world.
It was all bound up in the fact, of course, that – even as they set off – everyone knew, including the participants, that there was a very real chance they might not come back and/or might perish in the attempt.
Popping up to the International Space Station for six months – a trip that hundreds have done before – is scarcely a feat on the same level, even if you happen to be British and/or (is it?) the first Brit ‘officially’ ever in space.
These days I’m constantly wary of boring people by harping back to my youth – mention in the Rust has been made many times of oldies comparing modern pop music unfavourably with its equivalent of the past but, in doing so (arguably) failing to appreciate that, by definition, both popular music and human beings are always ‘of their own time’, thereby rendering such comparisons meaningless to the point of irrelevancy.
However, I would submit today that, when it comes to exploration of the universe beyond the Earth – and without seeking to detract from the amazing feats involved in sending Major Tim Peake off for his stint in space yesterday – for the next six months today’s children really will be observing something really rather ordinary – that is, at least in comparison to what my generation were watching in our heyday.