Today – January 31 – is an important date in the history of space exploration. In 1958, Explorer 1 was the first American satellite to be launched into orbit; though of course it was not the first satellite ever, as the Soviets had launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. In 1961, the satellite Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched and, for only a few minutes, carried Ham the Chimpanzee into weightlessness and space; he returned safely and died of natural causes in 1983. On this day in 1966, the Soviets launched the Luna 9 spacecraft, which was the first man-made device to achieve a soft landing on the moon (though unmanned). And staying with the moon, on this day in 1971 Apollo 14 was launched and became the third manned spacecraft to land on the moon.
Space exploration was something of a backdrop to my childhood. The launch of Sputnik 1 is one of my earliest memories – or rather, it is the first things I can remember that came in the news rather than in my own experience. Indeed it made such an impression on my very young friends and me at the time that one of our number, a particularly agile and fast kid, was from that day nicknamed Sputnik by us.
Today space exploration has lost some of that early glamour and excitement, maybe in part because it has become routine.But still there are occasionally voices that question its usefulness, and we should not listen to them. We enjoy the products of space travel constantly; we watch television programmes beamed from satellites in space, we use diagnostic and healthcare equipment developed in or discovered through space travel, computer chips used in diagnosis were produced through insights gained from the space programme, we rely on satellites for weather forecasting, and so forth. Even if we did not believe that exploration is part of human nature and is always a good thing, we should encourage the space programme for the many spin-offs it provides.
So whether it is conducted by NASA, or the European Space Agency, or the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Chinese or the Indians, we should welcome humanity’s ability to explore and develop, even out of this world.