Yuri Gagarin, space operas and humanity’s ‘life insurance’

Tyagarajan S April 12, 2017

Some people are just mad. Take Yuri Gagarin, for instance. On this day (April 12, 1961) 56 years ago, the man put himself in a rocket, knowing fully well that the chance of his survival was no better than a coin toss, and hurtled into space — the first of his entire species to do so. Heck, the first of any life form that ever originated on earth to do so.

On this day (April 12) 56 years ago, Yuri Gagarin put himself in a rocket, knowing fully well that the chance of his survival was no better than a coin toss, and hurtled into space — the first of his entire species to do so  

Space makes people do crazy things.

Like these Americans, Neil Armstrong and that other guy. Buzz Aldrin, is it? They must have surely have watched the first human go into space with fascination, perhaps even secretly applauding it. A milestone for humanity and all that.

Then, in eight short years (1969), they not only went into space but also walked the pockmarked lunar surface while wistfully looking at the earth.

Here’s the crazy part though. If you thought, only the good ol’ Buzz got the short straw in terms of attention, you are wrong. Since these two, there’ve been 10 other astronauts who’ve stepped on the surface of the moon. I’ll bet that you haven’t even heard of them.

So essentially, in a span of three years between 1969 to 1972, the United States sent five missions carrying 12 people to the moon. I’ll repeat: 12 astronauts flew to the moon in a span of three years.

That’s an entire cricket team with one left over to carry the drinks. Today’s futurists would have gone all “exponential” about it.

The Crew of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins

Our space ambitions, and consequently dreams, were limitless. And dream we did. George Lucas cooked up a grand (and crazy by its very definition) “space opera”, which set off a series of movie and TV fantasies — from Flash Gordon and Star Trek to Dr Who and Battlestar Gallactica.

These fantasies led us to believe that wild adventures, strange creatures and impossible contraptions awaited us just a hop, skip, and jump away on other galaxies, star systems and planetary empires. Sure, there’re going to be a fair share of murderous alien races we have to deal with. But, in return, you find cosmic love and new fashion choices.

Then, sadly, the world realigned. Space was suddenly too big for us. In real life, we contracted back to earth, looking at space a little more critically. Our movies too got grittier and sober. Science fiction on screen retreated into its comfort zone of apocalypse, dystopia and morose darkness.

Avatar doesn’t count.

But, it would seem that our space dreams are back!

In Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, we have two entrepreneurs (incidentally, both would make for great onscreen evil space overlords fighting against each other) who’re leading a commercial space resurgence of sorts. A human trip to the Mars is likely in the lifetimes of many who are reading this. Countries are back to building humongous rockets that will take people far from our planet. We’re staring more into deep space and dreaming about living in systems like the Trappist-7 systems.

We’re even dreaming of reaching other stars. Last year, on this day, Stephen Hawking launched the Breakthrough Starshot project hoping to build an interstellar sailboat to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to ours, within a generation. If it comes to fruition, the sailboat will make the hop in a couple of decades, travelling at a fifth the speed of light. It’ll be the first imprint of humanity’s invention on a whole new star system.

And the space operas are back! From dreamy space musings like Interstellar to no-holds-barred thrill-a-minute swashbuckling ride of the Guardians of the Galaxy, space fantasies are coming back with a vengeance. And it promises to be just the beginning. From the remake of Star Wars to the Luc Besson’s acid-trip rendition of the French comic that ‘inspired’ Star Wars, we have another era of space dreaming and limitless exploration upon us.

Rocket Raccoon: Why would you want to save the galaxy?
Peter: Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!

Stephen Hawking believes space exploration is equivalent to “life insurance” for all of humanity. Even if you don’t want to concede to an inevitability that predicts the earth’s eventual demise, exploring space is a necessity for our self-preservation on earth itself.

Space is perspective. Space is the beginning.

And, here’s to all the cowboys and cowgirls who’ve braved their way into the fascinating void.

Also read:

Space is becoming big business, but ISRO is getting left behind

Meet the space-crazed teenagers at India’s first private space mission

Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira