Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

Earthrise, 45 years on….

Forty five years ago this week the roar of the enormous Saturn V rocket filled the Florida air, a huge structure carried high on a pillar of fire, raw power and ingenuity overcoming gravity, a technology pioneered as a dreadful new weapon of war harnessed now for a voyage into the final frontier, boldly going where no one had gone before. Apollo 8 took flight for the Moon in December of 1968; Neil and Buzz Armstrong’s historic first walk on the Moon was still a year away, but this too was a tremendously historic flight and a major milestone in the long, long history of human voyages of exploration – this saw human beings, for the first time, leave the orbit of their own, small world and travel beyond, circling right around our Moon. As Christmas 1968 approached those three astronauts were the furthest from home any human being has ever been in the history of the world – as their tiny craft’s orbit took them around the dark side of the Moon even the slender thread of radio connecting them tenuously to home was broken for a brief spell. On the dark side no contact with home, just three explorers in a piece of 1960s tech, circling another planetary body.

And then on one Lunar orbit… On one glorious moment, largely by accident, as the ship was being rotated they saw something out of the small windows on their little craft. The Moon’s surface filled the viewport and there, in the distance, on the Moon’s horizon, the planet Earth rose above the Lunar vista. Earthrise. A cosmic ballet of interleaving gravity wells and orbits that have been taking place for billions of years almost like the beautiful clockwork orrery models of the solar system. But unseen, always unseen. Until December 1968 when three men saw it for the first time – in all the ages of the world a sight no-one had beheld, a view of our entire globe slowly rising above the Moon, the sky deep black, the Earth a magnificent, shining blue, an oasis of life and warmth in the cold distances of space. And they rushed to take a photo, one of the greatest images from the history of exploration, shared with the entire world, our first view of our whole world, not just a part of it seen from low orbit, but the entire Earth seen hanging in space.

earthrise

On Christmas Eve, all alone and so distant in their small vessel the astronauts read out a passage from Genesis about the mythical creation of the world and, looking back at their distant home in a way no-one before them ever could, they concluded “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was born in 1967, a child of the space age, grew up with my little astronaut play suit and my passion for reading took in books of astronomy and space exploration as well as daring tales of science fiction; it’s been in my blood since as long as I can recall, I still get shivers at the image of a Saturn V roaring into the heavens, watching Gravity last month, taking in that spectacular opening scene of the astronauts floating above a glowing Earth I still ached to travel there myself, as I have always dreamt of since I was a very small boy.

For me the Apollo 8 mission has always summed up both the majestic awe and the terrifying dangers of manned space exploration – an environment we never evolved for, but through a mixture of invention and courage we’ve created ways for us to venture into it, to dip our toes “into the cosmic ocean” as dear old Carl put it. So dangerous, a tiny impact on that fragile vessel and it’s all over, no great protective shields like they have on the Enterprise, no transporters and emergency shuttles if anything goes wrong, no chance of coming back if your complex calculations – carried out on primitive computers that couldn’t match a cell phone from today, or on slide rules, if you please – there isn’t enough power, air or fuel, no mighty impulse and warp engines to carry you where you want, just enough thrust and fuel to match a complicated figure of eight orbit around Earth and the Moon, get it wrong and you will drift for ever through the heavens. And yet people still dared to do it. It reminds us of how magnificent our species can be when it turns from our damned destructive impulses and towards something wonderful.

To celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of that historic voyage NASA has created a new visualisation of it, taking in the original images and crew recordings mixed with the very latest research and findings from far more advanced unmanned Lunar probes.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

The World Outside My Window

This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…

The World Outside My Window – Time-Lapses of Earth from the ISS from David Peterson on Vimeo.

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

gravity movie poster

I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

GRAVITY

What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

gravity movie 02

And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

gravity movie 04

I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

gravity movie 03

And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

You Are Here…

An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.

the earth from Saturn Cassini

Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.

The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.

The Pale Blue Dot

During the epic Voyager missions, after one of those innovative little mechanical explorers had finished with its primary mission to give us our most astonishing close up encounters with the most distant worlds in our solar system in a detail that Galileo and Copernicus could never have dreamed possible, it was re-tasked and reprogrammed to turn around to look back into our solar system from the cold, dark edge of our own little stellar neighbourhood. The late, great Carl Sagan was one of those who campaigned for this to happen – no small feat given the codes to reprogramme the distant probe would take hours to reach it even travelling at the light speed of radio waves, so far was it from home now, and there was no true scientific knowledge to be gained from this move.

Sagan, however, always understood that science has to appeal to both the heart as well as the head, emotion and intellect, and be able to make everyone grasp why it was important to us. The spacecraft was turned and took what is now known as the family portrait, a view of most of the planets in our solar system, a perspective no-one in the entire history of humanity had ever beheld before, a real “going where no-one had gone before” moment. In that family portrait is a pale, blue dot, not even an entire pixel in size – our world, the Earth. As Sagan put it, everything any of us has ever known, every person we have read of, every person who built a monument we’ve gazed at, everyone we have ever loved and all those who came before them, right back to the emergence of our ancestors out of ancient Africa’s cradle to start out human journey, every one of them, peasant and king alike, lived on that tiny dot. Joel Somerfield’s animation is very short but celebrates that moment, using the words of Sagan, a moment when emotion and science, heart and intellect, gave our species a new perspective on the majesty of creation and our own place in it, just a tiny mote floating in the glow of the sun, miniscule in astronomical terms, fragile, but never, ever unimportant, but a wonder in a sea of wonders, a haven of spectacularly diverse life. Our home.

Pale Blue Dot from ORDER on Vimeo.

Overview

Overview is a stunning short film from the Planetary Collective, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph (taken by Apollo 17, see above) by talking with astronauts about the ‘overview effect’ – the change in perspective many of them experience when they get to do something that all the thousands of years of humans before the 1960s could never do: see the world from space. I’ve been a space geek since I was a very young boy, happy with a NASA costume and toy helmet, box for a ‘spaceship’ and imagination, and I’ve heard a number of astronauts and cosmonauts talk about this experience, about how viewing the world from above the clouds changes their perspective forever on how astonishing our world is, how remarkably beautiful yet fragile, how everything and everyone is interconnected… The imagery is beautiful…

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Big E over the Big Apple

With the shuttle programme – and NASA’s ability, for the moment, to send manned missions into space – now grounded and the surviving spacecraft being sent to various museums around America today there was a very special moment as a modified 747 carried a very special shuttle flying low over New York City for everyone to watch. The spacecraft was the Enterprise. The ending of the shuttle programme is much like the ending of Concorde for many of us – when we were kids they were the future, now they are history and that would be fine, it would be natural, if they were retired to make way for the next generation of craft to replace them, but they’re not. We’ve stepped backwards, it feels, become smaller. But for a final hurrah this was a remarkable one, the Enterprise, her very name resonates for many of us, flying over New York, captured here with Lady Liberty and the Empire State in the frame by Bill Ingalls:

Shuttle Enterprise Flight To New York (201204270017HQ)

What a remarkable shot, a couple of the great world landmarks with a piece of flying space exploration history. Enterprise was named after NASA called for a public vote to name the first spaceship; the geek community, of course, got together and made sure to vote en masse that she would be called the Enterprise, because she was the first of a series that would boldly go… Enterprise herself never brushed against the hard vacuum of space though, she started her career at NASA riding piggyback just like she was today – she was designed to test aerodynamics, a bit of a new area for spacecraft design at the time because most were odd shaped objects on the end of a rocket but the shuttle, she was meant to fly back down from orbit through the atmosphere like a conventional plane, hence the tests. As a boy I followed the emerging shuttle programme and remember well watching news reports of the Enterprise’s flights paving the way for the first full shuttle launch.

Shuttle Enterprise Flight To New York (201204270019HQ)

Shuttle Enterprise Flight to New York (201204270024HQ)

As a wee boy raised on repeats of the classic Star Trek it made me happy to see a real spacecraft being named Enterprise and, Americans being rather good at marking big occasions, when she was first revealed to the public Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and many of the original cast were there to wish her good skies, way back in 1976 (pic below and following borrowed from Space.com):

And here three and a half decades or so on is one of those illustrious crewmembers of the fictional USS Enterprise giving the Vulcan salute – live long and prosper – to his old friend, the shuttle Enterprise, as she heads for the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Musuem in New York. Rather fitting she will be near the USS Intrepid, which any old Star Trek hand knows was the name of one of the other Constitution class starships in the original Trek, the same class of vessel as Jim Kirk’s Enterprise (Intrepid being crewed entirely by Vulcans, if my memory serves):

 

 

As I said, like with Concorde, it feels wrong to know that the shuttle are gone, that something that promised the exciting future of space exploration to a young boy is now a historical artefact in a museum and that we didn’t mothball them to make way for a new generation of faster, bigger, more efficient spacecraft. Still, one of these days there will be another Enterprise, I am sure. Larger, with a greater range, this Enterprise A, B or C ships will boldly go further… As Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself once noted when asked if they would ever build another Enterprise “plenty more letters in the alphabet”.

 

 

One day, another Enterprise, please, make it so…

(Enterprise comparison chart from Cygnus X-1 site)

Giant steps are what you take, walking on the Moon…

How can it really be forty years to the day since the first human beings walked on the surface of a celestial body that was not our own little world? How can it be that we’ve never surpassed that magnificent achievement after four decades? Oh don’t get me wrong, there have been other incredible, world changing endeavours – the Human Genome project springs to mind – but after four decades not to have striven beyond that Moon walk is dreadfully sad. Its like Concorde being retired without a next generation bigger, better, faster, more efficient replacement coming in, or the Shuttle due to finish its flights next year. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards a bit, not a good thing as a species.

Yes, I know there are other important priorities needing world resources, not least feeding the hungry and controlling runaway populations. And some will say we shouldn’t ‘squander’ money on space when we have these problems to look at here. But as Bill Hicks used to say, if we didn’t spend so much on every more devious ways to kill one another we could spend the money we spend on weapons to feed the hungry and still have plenty left over to explore space. Hell, if we took what women collectively spend on make-up every year we could do that! But still I feel sad that those things which marked the wave of a bright future when I was a wee boy now turn out to have been the highwater mark and the tide of progress has receded. Although I did really enjoy the image of all three of the Apollo 11 crew with Obama on the news. Three of my boyhood heroes. Still three of my heroes.

Two Sides of the Moon 2
my signed copy of Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, a memento of the day when an Apollo astronaut came into my bookstore and I got to shake his hand.

1969

Hard to believe that on this day forty years ago human beings, for the first time in all of recorded history, were on their way to the moon. July 16th, 1969, and the enormous Saturn V lifts from its pad, its gigantic bulk suddenly no longer earthbound, and it reaches into the sky… and then beyond the sky. Humans have made many great explorations of new lands, uncharted oceans, jungles, deserts, mountains, but this, this was something completely new. Less than a decade after Gagarin had become the first man in space (an event itself which came only a couple of decades after jets made their first appearance, those in turn coming only four decades after Orville and Wilbur’s historic first flight at Kittyhawk) humans were travelling to the Moon.

Its hung over every human culture there has ever been, since the days of hunter-gatherers, its been observed by the early priest-astronomers of the first civilisations in what we now call the Middle East, worshipped as a goddess by many cultures, observed by the first modern scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, its affected our weather and our tides for billions of years. But the idea of men on the Moon was a dream, a work of fantasy. Until July 1969. When it became something truly remarkable. An event that for one brief spell drew together all the peoples of our divided world into one species, dreaming the same dream, hoping the same hopes, willing Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to succeed in the daring, dangerous endeavour. A magnificent moment.


NASA’s restored video of Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap’ (link via Boing Boing)

Giant steps are what you take, walking on the Moon…

This afternoon at the Edinburgh Film Festival I caught the UK premiere of the documentary by David Sington, In the Shadow of the Moon, detailing the glories (and the tragedies) of one of the biggest undertakings humans ever launched themselves on, the Apollo programme. As soon as I saw this in the EIFF programme this year I knew I was going to see it. I was born at the height of the Space Race; Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s astonishing, history-making flight to the Moon on Apollo 11 was still a year and a half away. I grew up with an astronaut space suit costume to play in while Gagarin and Armstrong were on posters as my boyhood heroes (they still are, some things you never grow out of); the idea of space exploration has lived inside me my entire life and as I approach the big four-oh birthday on the last day of this year I get a little sad that those promises of holidays in space we were told the future would hold have never materialised and it looks less and less like that boyhood dream will ever come true.

But still it weaves a magical spell on me; as the footage of those enormous Saturn Vs ascending the heavens on a column of fire flickered across the screen I could feel the old excitement rising – the boy in me is never far from the surface and images and ideas like this always bring it out. Much of the footage has never been seen before and is literally out of this world. The story of our first tentative steps out of the cradle of the Earth to our nearest neighbour is told in their own words by many of the NASA astronauts who made those epic journeys, voyages of discovery that stand in a long line of human endeavours such as the explorations of James Cook, Magellan or those unknown Polynesian sailors who crossed vast oceans on small boats made of reeds.

One of those men featured was David Scott, an Apollo commander – a man I actually met a few years back when his publicist came in to my old bookstore to say he was across the road in the Balmoral Hotel doing interviews with the Scottish press and would we like him to come across and sign some copies of the book he had co-authored with his friend the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space; his friend Arthur C Clarke would name a spaceship in his honour in the sequel to 2001). An ordinary day at work and then suddenly there I am chatting to a former astronaut and shaking hands with a man who had walked on the Moon; a man who got to live that boyhood dream of mine. Naturally I got one of those signed copies for myself; I’ve many signed books in my collection but only one signed by an author who has traveled far enough into space to look back and see the entirety of our world hanging in the void. We’ve all seen the pictures, but it wasn’t until the crew of Apollo 8 voyaged around the dark side of the Moon that humans actually saw the entire Earth from space. They took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, our world rising in the dark above the surface of the Moon, the furthest humans have yet been from our world.

Only a tiny handful of humans have ever seen that sight with their own eyes to this day, all now old men – to look at them in this film you could easily mistake them for someone’s favourite uncle of grandfather. But in their prime these men dared death, road on a column of scientific dragon’s fire further than anyone in the entire history of the world and in the process changed the way we see our little, beautiful world. It’s so sad we’ve pulled back from those days; I’m not stupid, I’m well aware of my history and understand much of the colossal cost of the space programme was only met because of politics of the Cold War. And yet I can’t help but feel we let ourselves become that much smaller as a species when we stopped pushing at the final frontier. Yes, I know we can spend the money on problems right here on Earth, but if we weren’t so busy squabbling among ourselves we wouldn’t need to waste so much on creating weapons – then we could spend that money on feeding and taking care of people here on Earth and have enough to explore, to go where no-one has gone before.

I still want to go.

Saturn

JPL and the ESA have announced that the Cassini probe has found a small, previously unknown moon around the giant world Saturn the sixtieth so far discovered around the ringed world. It may be a tiny lump of rock and ice but I love the fact that almost 50 years after Gagarin’s first space flight our own solar system is still surprising us. Makes me wonder what we will discover when we finally get further out (and why haven’t we pushed further, we let ourselves get so small after the Apollo missions…)

Elsewhere on the ESA site there’s a function to listen to the Huygens probe which descended into the large moon Titan from Cassini. The sound files aren’t especially interesting as such, in fact is is just a rather dull sequence of white noise, but the fact the first one is a recording of sounds heard on an alien world is. Sounds from a world no human has walked on, beamed across millions of miles to be heard for the first time in human history. Now that is impressive.