Discovery: Outer space holds endless possibilities

International Space Station (ISS) crew of NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Luca Parmitano of European Space Agency leave for a pre-launch preparation at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan yesterday. Global interest in space exploration is intense, 50 years after the first landing on the moon. [Reuters]
We need to revive some traditions like showing visitors your old photo albums. We loved that as undergraduates, which gave one a glimpse into one’s past and personality. Instagram is more about your present only. 

Recently I was going through my old photos which I have never had time to digitise. One photo caught my attention, taken on the penultimate year to my graduation. Standing next to a group of my classmates and I was a mzungu, taller and more confident than all of us. His name was Charles Duke. Why would the photo matter now? 

Duke was no ordinary mzungu. Eighty-three years old now, he was one of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon. He was also the youngest. He had come to Kenya to preach. As a physics student, it was for me a fascinating  encounter with someone who had experienced zero gravity and the escape velocity, the speed a body needs to attain to escape from the gravity of planet Earth or any other planet or object. Incidentally, that was a question in my high school physics final exam.

Meeting an astronaut a quarter of a century ago is a good link to the 50th anniversary of man’s landing on the moon, the climax of a space race between USA and former Soviet Union. Landing on the moon, our nearest celestial body, on July 20, 1969 was a significant achievement for mankind. It was not just about human spirit but scientific progress. We pushed the frontiers of possibility. The Americans code-named the project that took us to the moon Apollo, after a Greek goddess. 

Think of the spillovers from the Apollo project, from design of the rockets, their propulsion, human safety, survival on airless moon, shielding astronauts from radiation, electronic navigation and communication and, most importantly, overcoming fear of the unknown. Think of coordination needed by different professionals  and the level of accuracy in every step. The Apollo project had a lesson for every academic discipline from mathematics to biology and even psychology. Even law comes - who owns space and its contents? Can I sell plots on Mars or the moon?

Also, what politicians can achieve if they have the will. Without political backing, America would not have landed on the moon. They also needed competition, the reason we need opposition in Kenya. 

In all, 12 astronauts have had the honour of walking on the moon. The last two on December 11, 1972. Lack of enthusiasm and a cut in funding changed the focus to earthly matters like the Vietnam war and oil crisis. At one time NASA got five per cent of the US federal budget; today it’s less than one per cent. Furthermore, once you have visited a place, curiosity dies. 

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Since 1972, there have been dreams of visiting our next exciting neighbour, planet Mars . President George Bush alluded to that and so did Donald Trump. That has  not created as much excitement as  landing on the moon. One reason could be lack of international competition. Maybe China and USA should compete on who will be first to land on another planet instead of earthly trade wars.

To give credit where it’s due, the landing on the moon did not end our fascination with space. We have been exploring it with unmanned spacecraft like the Voyager, which has just left the solar system. Many other spacecraft including the retired space shuttle  and international space centre are exploring the endless universe. The Hubble space telescope has been exploring the universe without atmospheric interference. From Earth, radio telescopes have been doing their part in unveiling secrets of the universe.

Our most fascinating discovery so far is exoplanets, outside our solar system. So far, none has life. It is unlikely that the expansive universe has only planet earth with life. I would not be surprised if we got another planet with life, in whatever form. Of interest would be the religious implication.

Lately, there has been a surge in interest in space with China, India, Japan and Israel focusing their attention on the moon and beyond. Several countries boast of owning satellites in space, including Kenya. 

The greatest interest in space is coming from the private sector. Who has not heard of SpaceX and Elon Musk? Other firms like Blue Origin are in the race to make space industry the next  frontier with tourists and even mining asteroids. The recent landing of a Japanese spacecraft Habayasu on an asteroid points to the limitless possibilities.

Vast and endless

Fifty years after landing on the moon, we have barely started exploring the universe. It’s vast and endless. Exploring space is likely to generate more interest once we see the possibility of making money. Some could argue there are enough basic problems like hunger and jiggers to bother with space. But we must whet the human curiosity and possibilities thereof. Africa Kenya should not be left behind in the new space age.

The possibilities are alluring. By the year 2100, we could start boasting of having relatives in different planets, not continents. Television channels could be based on different planets. Our holidays and businesses and schools could be in different planets. Who thought one day we would have  satellites or internet?  We could also start bringing minerals from space.

Who will be the new space pioneers? Who will take a photo with my great grandchildren? Aliens? Or will they be the pioneers? Landing on the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969 and subsequent space exploration teaches us one lesson; there is no limit to human curiosity and possibilities. We can’t afford to be left behind in this unfolding human endeavour.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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