Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.
- Douglas Adams in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
We humans are, quite simply, united by staring into space in wonder. Even residents of light-polluted cities are exposed to the night sky at some point. The great unknown of space has led to several religions, plenty of art, and slightly too much Futurama. This insatiable curiosity about what’s out there has also inspired us to explore the cosmos, in our limited, gravity-bound way. I have previously written about the reassuring nature of the stars, which is especially noticeable when they are in the wrong places.
This evening, I was privileged enough through my work to attend an exclusive reception, co-hosted by the Diplomatic Club of Geneva and CERN at the Kempinski Hotel, in honour of the crew of STS-134, the final mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The astronauts are spending a week in Geneva, including a trip to Chamonix yesterday to mark 100 years of astroparticle research (there’s some big kit up there, not just a nice view…) and a visit to CERN itself tomorrow.
The reception this evening featured speeches by a member of the Conseil d’État of Geneva, CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer, and the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice as well as STS-134 Commander, Mark Kelly.
There were comparisons drawn between space exploration and the journeys of Captain Cook to the Pacific. Having seen the original ship Endeavour in Sydney, I can say that it is amazing that such a small ship ever made it any distance away from the UK, let alone half-way round the world. And so it is with we mere humans, somehow blagging* our way into orbit and beyond. This week is an appropriate time to think about such things, considering the recent anniversary of the fist ever moon landing.
Rolf Heuer, Director-General of CERN, in a typically charismatic speech, alluded to a certain recent discovery about a certain particle. It was almost the elephant in the room, given that this was one of the first events since the announcement at which the various ambassadors etc. were gathered in the context of celebrating science. Not one to steal NASA‘s thunder, however, the DG focussed on collaboration (which is at the heart of the CERN endeavour, after all), and the parallels between fundamental particle physics -which Heuer affectionately calls “underground research”- and astronomical research. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the STS-134 crew was to deliver and install the alpha magnetic spectrometer (AMS), an anti-matter particle detector (especially designed to look for anti-helium), which will hopefully shed more light on the mechanisms set off by the Big Bang.
US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice made a moving tribute to Sally Ride, the youngest ever American astronaut and first American woman in space, who helped inspire a generation of young women to get into science. Ride sadly passed away yesterday as a result of pancreatic cancer, aged only 61. The level of awareness in the audience was equally touching, as the applause spread from the moment Ride was mentioned.
After the speeches, the astronauts were kind enough to let me shower them with praise (amongst others – it’s not like I had any special access or anything). This they handled with grace and humility. In fact, the ones I talked to for any significant amount of time (Greg Johnson and Mike Fincke) seemed genuinely interested in what little I had to say. (I mean, what on Earth does one say to a spaceman?! It’s not like I could fall back on the weather as a topic of idle chatter! I was quite star-struck.) We briefly discussed the value of inspiration, public engagement, and Twitter rivalries. Having previously met a few of my heroes in other fields, most of whom are part-time celebrities (ie, commanding a high level of appeal within a specific, often quite niche, field), I can safely say that these guys were the most down-to-Earth of the lot.
When I introduced myself, I stumbled my way through words along the lines of
“Excuse, me, terribly sorry to bother you, I just want to shake your hand, because this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to space, I mean I’ll never get way up there.”
To which the unanimous, simultaneous reply was
“Oh, really, why not?”
They genuinely meant that, saying it as casually as I might do the same in response to someone who had said “There’s no way I could ever learn French“.
When I was very young, I remember having a book about space, which promised (in the classic style of many such books) full-blown colonies in moon bases by 2020. That’s obviously unlikely now, but I still remember memorising** endless facts about the planets of the solar system and beyond.
For a few brief moments in conversation with these inspirational figures, I believed I just might make it someday. And that’s the kind of thing that keeps me going.
* this particular flavour of blagging may, just possibly, have involved incredible amounts of coordination and hard work.
**yes, I see the tautology in there… did I get away with it?
Over to you: have you ever met a hero? Were they as inspirational as you had hoped? What experiences keep you motivated?