The launch of the Atlantis is nearer and nearer and here is Stuart Atkinson, the man from Cumbrian skies, to celebrate the occasion.
As always, Stu take us on a inspiring tour through Mankind's ages: Past, Present and Future and through centuries of the European adventure of Discovery
Here is Stu making the difference...
Don't forget! spacEurope counts with the presence of Ben Cooper back there at Kennedy Space Center, you can check his incoming words following this link.
On Thursday the COLUMBUS module will finally, after years of frustrating delay, begin its voyage to the International Space Station. The story of those delays is well known and documented elsewhere, so I’m not going to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that many of us space enthusiasts and advocates scattered across Europe were starting to believe the module would never actually make it into space, that instead of fulfilling its destiny as part of the ISS, its silvery hull reflecting the blue and white Earth, it would be beached in a hangar on Earth somewhere, forgotten and abandoned, gradually falling apart, like the poor Buran shuttle has done in Russia. Thankfully that Doomsday scenario has not come to pass, and by the weekend COLUMBUS should finally be docked to ISS. Phew!
But the launch of COLUMBUS, and its importance for both ESA and the ISS project as a whole, seems to have gone unnoticed by the very people who have paid for it – the citizens of the EU, who have, whether they knew it or not, handed over some of their precious weekly wage packets to the European Space Agency to pay for the module to be designed, built, launched, docked and then used. Okay, so Columbus’ launch is big news on the ESA website, and on blogs and news sites like this fine one here, and it’s mentioned on the “science and technology” web-pages of news broadcasters like the BBC and Sky, but for various reasons – a lack of public interest in science, ESA’s own poor Outreach efforts, etc etc - “out there”, in the everyday offline world, the world where single mothers struggle to carry bags of shopping home and control their kids at the same time, where pensioners face stark choices between paying for a hot meal or keeping their homes warm for another night, where children run and race around playgrounds pretending to be superheroes or villains or footballers or whatever, Columbus is not being talked about.
This is a great shame, of course, after so many dedicated and skilled people within ESA have worked so hard to see the module launched, but it shouldn’t be a surprise either, really. After all, ask people to name a spaceship or a space probe and the vast majority of them will talk about American missions. Let’s be honest, for most of the men and women in the street space is the reserve of the US. They know about Apollo, the Voyager probes and the space shuttle. They have seen the images returned by ‘the Mars rovers”, and marvelled at the portraits of the universe returned by the Hubble Space Telescope – which they usually think of as “NASA’s space telescope” even though it’s a joint NASA/ESA project…
Many people I talk to when I do my Outreach work, giving talks and lectures in school classrooms, drafty church halls or modern community centres, are unaware that Europe even HAS a busy and successful space program. They are blissfully unaware that the ROSETTA probe sent back beautiful images of Mars when it flew past the Red Planet last year. They have no idea that MARS EXPRESS is sending back breathtaking pictures of Mars’ canyons, craters and valleys. They don’t realise that the first images ever seen – ever seen! – of Titan’s surface were taken by a European space probe, HUYGENS. The name “EXO-MARS” means nothing to them, at all.
…and they don’t know that when they see coverage on the TV news on Thursday night of ATLANTIS thundering into space, two grinning, wide-eyed European astronauts will be seated inside her, fulfilling their lifelong dreams of going into space, but also realising perhaps that they are responsible for activating the 7m long, 5m wide piece of state of the art, multi-million Euro, European designed and built module stowed in the shuttle’s belly behind them.
Several days later, Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts will be able to float beside the windows of Atlantis and look out to see Columbus being moved to its docking port, its metal skin shining and flashing in the brutal sunlight. I can’t help wondering… how proud will they feel at the moment when the ISS shudders slightly, confirming Columbus has reached its destination after all these years? How proud will Schlegel feel when he ventures outside the ISS on the first of his two planned EVAs and sees the new module attached to the ISS, home at last, and bearing the name of perhaps the greatest European explorer of all time..? How will they feel after Atlantis lands and they stand on the ground again in Florida, look up at the night sky and see the ISS sailing overhead, and realise that they have just made most ambitious, most astonishingly complicated scientific project ever undertaken even more remarkable?
To say I envy them is an understatement, as is saying that the launch of Columbus really is a historic event for ESA and the people of Europe too. Columbus’ launch, some twenty two years after it was originally approved by ESA’s Board of Directors, essentially marks the “Coming of age” of the European manned space program, and will make us full and active partners in the ISS project. After floating into the cavernous interior of Columbus, the European ISS astronauts who follow Schlegel and Eyharts will be able to work with five of its ten racks of science payloads, and also control four payloads of instruments mounted on the module’s exterior, among them a solar telescope.
While it’s true to say that in this visual age, when everyone has immediate and free access to jaw dropping images of the rock-strewn plains of Mars, the icy moons of Saturn and the cratered crusts of comets, a metal barrel like Columbus might not be as glamorous or as sexy as a Mars rover, a planetary orbiter or a space telescope, it is a thing of beauty in its own right. And while it’s also true that Columbus should have been in space for years by now, but budget issues, space shuttle disasters and politics all conspired to keep her exiled on Earth until this week, that’s all water under the bridge. Let’s move on. What matters now is that Columbus launches and docks safely, and that people get to KNOW about it. It’s really not enough to just build and launch these enormously expensive pieces of kit and operate them from pastel-coloured, library-silent control rooms that resemble Ikea-decorated nuclear bunkers; people have to know about the benefits they will bring, and share in those benefits.
And so launch day approaches. Atlantis is standing on the launch pad, steaming quietly, breathing gently, readying herself for flight, and Columbus waits patiently in her payload bay, ready to fly at last. To quote a line from the much-maligned theme song of the “STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE” TV series… “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here…”
That road began, one might say, on the quayside at Palos de la Frontera in Spain, on the evening of August 3rd 1492, when Christopher Columbus stepped onto the creaking deck of the Santa Maria before setting off for the New World. Of course, there’s no way of knowing what the weather was like on that night – not even Google Earth can travel back in time (yet!) – but I like to think that it was a clear and starry evening, with just a few clouds glowing orange in the west with the last fading glow of sunset, and that in the last few moments before he strode up the gangplank and onto his ship, Columbus paused to look up at the sky, musing on the epic adventure ahead. If he did so, he would have seen the misty, airbrushed arch of the Milky Way passing overhead, a beautiful gibbous Moon hanging just above the southern horizon, embedded in the stars of Scorpio, and the glowing amber spark of Saturn rising above the eastern horizon, luring him towards his destination…
It’s fascinating to wonder what Columbus would make of the sky above him if he magically appeared on that same quayside in a week’s time. He would see the same Moon shining there of course, and golden Saturn too. He would also recognise the same stars that glittered in his own time’s sky, arranged in the same comfortingly familiar patterns. But he would be puzzled – perhaps even frightened – to see lights actually moving through those constellations, gliding silently through the heavens. Some would appear to flash or blink, red-green, red-green, and he would have no way of knowing – and if told would surely not believe! - that these were in fact winged machines carrying hundreds of people at a time through the air between foreign lands: airplanes. Impossible!
He might in fact be so dazzled and disarmed by the sight of these fireflies flitting across the sky that he might miss the other lights, the steady ones that crossed the dome of the heavens more slowly. His 15th century mind would surely be incapable of grasping the concept that these lights were actually machines spinning around the planet at an unbelievable height and speed, relaying messages between countries and continents. The word “satellite” would mean nothing to him.
What then might he think if, as he stood on the harbour side, he watched one exceptionally bright “flying star” climbing up from behind the western horizon, arcing upwards and then drifting overhead..? What would his reaction be if astronauts Schlegel and Eyharts took pity on him and told him “Don’t be afraid, that’s a space station… a ship that travels around the Earth again and again and again… and part of it bears your name…”
If the launch of Columbus means anything, it means continuity. Europe has always sent out explorers and adventurers. In days and years gone past those explorers sailed the oceans in ships of wood and iron, riding waves and surf to set foot on and claim “new” lands to allow European culture and civilisation to grow and expand. Today’s explorers leap into the sky inside pressurised capsules or spacecraft, atop pillars and columns of spitting, raging dragonfyre, and once high above the Earth they seek not new land but new knowledge. They study the planet beneath them and the universe around them with the same passion that Columbus and Magellan studied the lands they reached.
2008’s Columbus might not be conquering – or even taking pictures of – a “New World”, but it will, hopefully, in time, be pushing back scientific boundaries, its astronaut scientists seeking out the new and the extraordinary. From the wave-smashed western shores of Ireland to the serene eastern shores of Cyprus and the lands beyond, the people of Europe should know that, and should be celebrating the fact that from the weekend a little piece of Europe will orbit the Earth at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour, hopefully leading to scientific breakthroughs of benefit to us all.
Text and astronaut image credit: Stuart Atkinson 2008