Monday, April 11, 2011

Yuri's Day

We're coming up on a milestone. Tomorrow will mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight on April 12, 1961, the first time a human left the atmosphere of Earth. Thinking about it now, that was really a game-changing day, and Gagarin's flight the sort of event that some future calendar might be based around - the day life finally slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and so on. At the time, it was purely a demonstration of technological prowess; a rocket that could deliver a capsule and pilot into orbit could deliver a thermonuclear weapon to New York City equally well. Now, though...

Now, there's still the question of what we're going to do up there. It can be depressing sometimes, contrasting the heady speculations of where we were going to go with the dry record of where we went. No one has left low Earth orbit for nearly forty years, there have never been footprints on Mars, and soon enough the Space Shuttles will be museum pieces. When added together with the American government's indifference to NASA at the best of times, and the apparent unlikelihood that NASA will remain untouched by teabaggers looking to cut every bit of non-military spending they can, it's easy to think that we're standing still, or going backward.

Just because things didn't happen fast doesn't mean they won't happen. Just because there are no people living on the moon doesn't mean that will never be the case. For eleven years we've had an uninterrupted stretch of people living in space, the crew of the International Space Station - our first step toward the great beyond. At this point, it's possible that we've begun a streak here that won't end for a long, long time. With SpaceX working hard on the Falcon Heavy, a new rocket system more powerful than almost every other rocket ever built, and Bigelow Aerospace's continued work on new-generation space station construction, we may be on the edge of a revolution in how space works. Twenty years ago, the idea of a corporation building and launching rockets to orbit, or designing and launching space stations, was the province of science fiction. It's certainly not something you would find in the news - but I got my last update on the Falcon Heavy's development from the pages of the Globe and Mail. Twenty years from now...

Well, I suppose we'll have to wait twenty years to find out. But I've realized that a lot can happen in twenty years. The world is a very different place than it was in 1991. Perhaps between now and then we'll discover something that can be made in freefall that can't be made on Earth's surface, something valuable - and if that happens, nothing will stop us.

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