Monday, 17 March 2014

Live In Space

"At 600km above planet Earth the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible." (Opening title card of Gravity)

I am not necessarily proud to admit this, but my favourite piece of music as a child was The Astronauts, a tune by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that features on the B side of the Doctor Who theme (the record that has Peter Davison on the cover). WHY were none of the gymnasts in the Moscow or Los Angeles Olympics using it as their floor routine music, I wondered? It has the best tumbling section EVER. (42 seconds in.) I used to do headstands to it.

Anyway, space is almost definitely a place I will never go. I don’t care if Stephen Hawking thinks some of us will be living by Mars at the end of the century. (What would we eat? Mars bars?) And I’ve had enough bad experiences on Virgin Trains (no luggage space, no functioning toilet, no buffet car, unforgiveable delays) to even begin to consider a space tour on Virgin Galactic, even if I had the money and Richard Branson actually manages to get it off the ground. Because it’s just too bloody dangerous up there. Aged 10, standing in my front garden, I saw the Space Shuttle Enterprise take off from Stansted Airport on the back of a jumbo jet. This was exciting. But two years later aged 12, I watched its sister ship Challenger being blown to smithereens, which is an image I will never forget. Then came Columbia. And I recently saw Gravity. Now that there is no longer a Space Shuttle in operation, the Soyuz rockets the Russians send everybody up in just look slightly rickety to me, for all their might. There is no escape if it all goes wrong.

Husband in space!
Soyuz simulator, Space Expo. Noordwijk, The Netherlands

But I’ve always had a thing about space, and stargazing. It’s just so humbling. Whilst all the American astronauts interviewed during Channel 4’s space week seemed to have an evangelical approach to their missions to the heavens, believing that God was definitely out there, for me, it’s proof, as we cross more and more scientific frontiers with our jaw-dropping astrophysics technology, that He simply isn’t. I am definitely with Stephen Hawking on this one. But it is overwhelming to look up at the universe, and so very lonely. With all those millions of stars and galaxies above us, all an unfathomable distance away, is it really, like, just us?

So I was straight onto Channel 4’s Live From Space week, broadcast from Mission Control Houston and the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth. This was far better than Gravity, even if the pictures weren’t as sharp or three-dimensional, simply because it was real. The astronauts were all so terribly nice, and so very jolly, despite being in what is essentially a rather claustrophobic solar-powered tin can, with their only personal “space” being a vertical (or horizontal, or upside down) cubby hole no larger than a phone booth with a sleeping bag fixed to the wall. The universe literally on their doorstep, and the ability to float through the air all day long with nothing to tether them to anything, but such physical restriction at the same time! With just one window.  And the only opportunity for a walk involving being either strapped to a running machine or outside in the void, wearing a monstrous life support suit (but with an admittedly astonishing view). Maybe I’d just about manage a couple of days. But six whole months, or longer? With the same two or three people, day in or day out? What if you didn't get on? It was strange to consider that the International Space Station has been there for fifteen years, and was literally pieced together up in space, but the technology for astronauts to Skype their families and loved ones is so much more recent.

I guess they have to see their work as a privilege since they are living a million kids’ dreams. But they definitely deserved someone with a little more gravitas interviewing them in their micro-gravity. Big kid Dermot O’Leary, utterly distracted and wanting to show off, and without a sensible question in his body, definitely didn’t belong there. (But that said, space stuff does bring out the big kid in all of us – the blatantly more intelligent (Physics degrees versus Media Studies – just sayin’...) Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain were similarly in awe of the ISS in the BBC2 Stargazing Live series.) The live orbit of the Earth broadcast on Sunday night was rather frustrating, with satellite delays and reliance on the camera work of the astronauts, zooming in on clouds that we hoped were the Galapagos. The ISS is actually either a bit too far away or a bit too close to give us a really exciting view – too far to show any detail of the countries below us but too close to show us the true curvature of the planet. Dermot just said “Wow” to it all though.

Cupola on board the ISS...
at Space Expo, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

1 comment:

  1. I think *everyone* who watched that programme said "Dermot?? Really? I mean he's nice, but... Dermot??"