Thunderbird One

To boldly go[1]

I love the suspense, the excitement and the exhilaration of rocket launches so July 2020 was particularly special. There was a lot of space-bound activity, especially Mars missions, due to the fact that our Earth and the Red Planet were closer together than usual, an orientation that happens every 26 months.  China, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA took the opportunity to send space-ships to Mars.  In case you missed them, here are the key blast-offs!:

  • Hope is the United Arab Emirates Space Agency mission to Mars, and the first ever by an Arab nation. The probe is being deployed to gain a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere.  Their mission is also very Earth focussed, as they want this mission i.a. to encourage global collaboration in Mars exploration, improve the quality of life on Earth and inspire future Arab generations to pursue space science[2].  Its name is well chosen, particularly because of its intended wider social and political impacts;
  • Tianwen-1 – which translates as Questions for Heaven – is the Chinese mission due to reach Mars in February 2020. Its Long March 5 rocket will deliver a combined orbiter, lander and rover to the Martian surface, and this marks China’s leap forward to join Russia and the USA as a major spacefaring nation[3]. The Tianwen-1 takes its name from a poem by Qu Yuan ( 3 – 4 C BC) which brings tradition and culture to another kind of inspired and creative work;
  • Perseverence is NASA’s ninth – and most expensive – Mars mission, and its fifth rover vehicle. Launched on an Atlas V rocket, the rover’s aim is to find out if there was past life on Mars, and this time it will be aided by Ingenuity, a drone-like helicopter carried in the rover’s belly which NASA also plans to be the first human propelled flight on another world [4]  Perserverence, which is also a strong human value, has been nick-named Percy, bringing a human aspect to an innovative bit of space-tech.

And last but not least:

  • Progress MS-15, launched by the Russian State Space Corporation, will deliver more than 2.5 tonnes of cargo to the International Space Station[5], helping to continue a wonderful experiment. This does not have the glamour of a Mars exploration, but it underlines our persistence (ISS has been continuously inhabited since 2000) and co-operative instincts (ISS builds on previous Russian experience, particularly on Mir).

Space exploration is, by its very nature expansive, both physically as the vessel or probe sweeps across huge distances, and intellectually, where science fiction becomes science fact, and very clever people develop mind-blowing ideas into ingenious applications.   Spacefaring is (mostly) positive and very values driven, as these and other missions bring out the best in us: our curiosity and hunger to learn; our capacity for cooperation and mutual support;  courage and coolness;  intelligence and innovative flair; the capacity to dream.  This makes space-exploration a perfect forge for a consideration of values and the impulses that make us go so boldly.

Play among the stars[6]

Being human, though, as we all know too well, has a dark side that festers in suspicion, ignorance and fear, and like in the most dystopian science-fiction, makes us our own victims.

As a child of the Sixties I grew up with the Space Race, which was built on big visions with heroic astro- and cosmonauts blasting into the unknown[7].  What I was unaware of was the political power play of two ideologies – the free-market, capitalist democracy that had made the USA a super-power in the 20th century, and the centrally controlled people’s republic embodied by the USSR, a rivalry that had brought our precious world very close to nuclear annihilation.  Fifty years on and this conflict is still stupidly simmering, this time in space. Russia has been accused by the US and the UK of using a satellite to launch a second vessel, Kosmos 2543, which is then supposed to have launched a projectile into space potentially for destroying another space-craft[8].  The Kremlin retorted that their intentions were entirely peaceful, but the tension remains.  Add to this the fact that the Chinese mission outlined above was made under intense secrecy (transparency does not rule here), and you cannot help but worry that we are entering an era of Star Wars (good and bad in conflict) instead of Star Trek (exploration and understanding).

One of the most moving images from the early, pioneering period of space exploration, shows the Earthrise, a picture of our moon-shadowed planet suspended above the Moon’s horizon and framed by the inky blackness of space (Apollo 8, 1968).  This small blue planet, our jewel of life, is bursting with potential but is being threatened by our selfish development, both in terms of our greed (consumption) and in terms of our political machinations (power).  Our Climate Emergency, although caused primarily by our own actions, is something that we are grappling with and there is a solution, if not agreement.  Our extreme ideologies (political and religious) repeatedly, monstrously and sadly drive us to ruin, and we seem unable to learn from history that all empires built at terrible cost eventually crumble and disappear.  At the moment, each of the main powers currently aiming for Mars is led by a narcissistic man who dangerously has no Personal Responsibility[9] and manipulates through bullying[10], force and fear (especially xenophobia and repression) to further his own arrogant, exclusive and dictatorial agenda – although these guys would use the word “destiny.”

My starry-eyed idealism is still intact, though, and I have huge belief in our human spirit.  We need and deserve a world that is truly of United Nations, led by properly elected individuals who have the purpose to take us to the stars (physically and metaphorically) and who have the qualities to be open, wise, and ethical.  Many of you would regard this as a deluded and utopian pipe-dream but would nevertheless agree that it is an existential necessity.  The journey to a new world should start with inner space, where we use our values to drive positive actions:  a template for what this could mean for us all are our endeavours in space travel, where we can see opportunity, positivity and co-operation.  Here is the launch-pad for setting out a set of clear, inclusive, internationally agreed values that brings us together as a species.

The Emirati Mars mission is called Hope and this should be our watchword for building a United Earth if, to borrow Spock’s phrase from Star Trek, we are to live long and prosper.

Ivor Hopkins / Hastings

[1] Star Trek..need I say more?

[2] https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/science/mars-china-launch.html

[4] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/30/nasa-prepares-send-mini-helicopter-mars/ and  https://www.nasa.gov/perseverance

[5] https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/0723/1155226-russia-space-test/

[6] Lyrics from Bart Howard’s 1954 song that Frank Sinatra made famous as Fly me to the moon in 1964

[7] This enthusiasm was also fuelled by the small screen action of Fireball XL5 or Dr. Who, plus I have always been particularly fascinated by Mars,  thrilling to the graphic horror of the Mars Attacks (1962) trading cards, and losing myself in the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series. Jeff Wayne’s music War of the Worlds (1978), narrated by the richly-toned Richard Burton, I played until the records wore out, and I continue to enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990).  More recently, Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (2011), was filmed in 2015 with Matt Damon in the lead rôle, bringing the Red Planet alive, and underlining the courage of the astro/cosmonauts I had admired as a child.  The picture of Thunderbird 1 is one I made my favourite Thunderbirds vehicle, a Matchbox model made by the ITC Ent Grp in 1993.

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/23/britain-us-accuse-russia-launching-weapon-space-satellite-threat

[9] Personal responsibility is an individual’s open, wise and ethical engagement with the world, for the sustainable good of all.” © I. Hopkins / B. Skarstam 2012

[10] e.g. President Trump dismissingly referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea as “Rocket Man on a suicide mission.”