Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Among the rewards for being out in the mountains, is the night sky, occasionally clear enough to reveal a zillion stars.

Beyond one or two, I can’t identify the constellations. I like more, the immensity of Earth’s ceiling.

Sometimes I feel, the best news these days relate to that vast expanse above us – space.

Space attracts in a way different from before.

There is first the immediate reason – Indian endeavours in space have been generally rewarding in recent times. At a global level, the Rosetta mission’s landing on a comet was reported as the premier scientific achievement of 2014. Then there is the ` other’ reason, less spoken of but major hook for admiring space – space contrasts terrestrial life. Space exceeds measurement while the planet is real estate ruining imagination. Space engages body and soul. If you have no appetite for the trends shaping life on Earth, the stars are fine refuge.

It took a while for space to regain the limelight; and differently so. In the decades following the July 1969 moon-landing, the accomplishment of the Apollo 11 mission was never matched. Scientists and engineers may disagree. They may cite other achievements of equal or greater importance. But like the first ascent of Everest despite the many that followed, our fascination rests with Neil Armstrong & Co (as indeed Yuri Gagarin in 1961). I can recall only two other perspectives from exploration, triggering comparable imagination – the picture of Earth as seen from far (subsequently called Earthrise) and the many fantastic images science obtained for us by gazing into deep space. Home from far and ` the far’ from home. It put Earth and humanity in context. Much of what happened in space exploration since the first human footprint on the moon can be termed as consolidation. Far seeing telescopes, reusable vehicles and space stations were the dominant themes. As we consolidated our efforts in space, as we tested our capabilities in orbit around Earth for journeys longer than Apollo 11, the planet below steadily drifted into a morass, a sort of manmade social gravity and a terrible one at that. The closest I can describe its effect on the imagination is compare it to sticky glue; its main ingredient – insecurity.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

In a mere 100 years or less from the first decade of the 20th century, human population increased seven fold. That is old news as is India’s eminence as the deep end of population. The danger is – it stayed news we refused to acknowledge adequately, triggering the bizarre tragedy of continued self inflicted damage. Consequently, in a case of bloated human predicament overshadowing the universe, nature remains multidimensional but our sense of self worth and happiness has shrunk to few dimensions, courtesy the pressure to survive. To compound matters, even as we notice the danger in our numbers, we still enshrine fertility, family, property ownership, success and such as proof of life well lived. It vitiates the rat race born from numbers. Add to this competition, violence, terrorist attacks, regressive religions, conservative communities and rampant consumerism taking its toll as pollution and climate change. It is a crisis of the imagination. Neither do we concede that our habits and social structures were born in less pressured times and hence likely unsuited now, nor do we wish to recalibrate our ways to changed environment. Isn’t zooming from one billion people to seven billion plus in a hundred years with all the corresponding social noise alongside, sufficient change in our environment to deem it fundamentally altered? And if it is fundamentally altered why are we still navigating it with old traditions? The problem in our approach is that our continued indifference to population and what population does, merely adds to the planet’s and this country’s collective insecurity. Our talent for seeing the obvious, for reasoning – are all increasingly countered by the insecurity and unreasonableness spawned by our numbers. What next?

That’s why it is important to tell people that more of us mean trouble for all in terms of a sense of life. Not hearing a word uttered so by anyone in a leadership role, I have given up hoping for a renaissance of the imagination. My world is awash in concerns of survival and money. Looked at as a product of human numbers, in 1969, we were around halfway to this situation. Even 1977, the year Voyager-1 left the planet, was some distance from where we find ourselves in. In direct proportion to how beleaguered terrestrial life seems, space appears the stuff of a freedom denied on Earth (I speak metaphorically). If you are a seeker, then you dream of freeing one’s imagination from humanity’s collective insecurity. Get rid of this manmade gravity, like a rocket breaking free from the Earth’s pull.

Slowly but steadily, there has been news of the post-Apollo 11 consolidation in space, giving way to hints of similar journeys and perhaps, longer ones. There is a pattern emerging. The established big players are pushing farther; new entrants are following where the pioneers went and the easier tasks are fetching interest from commercial players. At the still lower terrestrial level of popularizing science and science fiction, the media gave radical edge to its legacy baked by ` 2001 – A Space Odyssey,’ `Cosmos,’ `Star Trek’ and `Star Wars.’ Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 film `Gravity’ was gutsy enough to depict space as it is. At $ 716 million earned (as of late January 2015, source: Wikipedia), Gravity is some distance still from the list of the world’s top 50 box office hits led by `Avatar,’ itself a story from another planet. The Star Wars franchise has three films in the list, including the oldest from 1977, incidentally the year Voyager-1 was launched.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In 1990, Voyager-1 took Earthrise leagues ahead by giving us the ` pale blue dot,’ an image of Earth from six billion kilometres away. Our farthest probe, Voyager-1 is now in interstellar space. That is a long way off. Wikipedia’s page for the probe fascinates with its estimation of where it may be 300 years from now. Sample this sentence: “ Voyager-1 will reach the Oort Cloud in about 300 years and take about 30,000 years to pass through it.’’ Thirty thousand years is older than human civilization; our earliest cave paintings are 35,000 years old. Imagining Voyager is a nice way to escape the troubles and insularity of terrestrial existence.

Perhaps the resurgent space exploration we are witnessing now (even the popularity of India’s Mars mission) is apt, for never before have we felt as pressing a need to question the human situation, maybe even escape it, as we do now. Ironically it is also true, decades spent worshiping the stomach probably makes the pursuit of the beyond possible. As the frontier of exploration, space technology stands on the shoulders of more mundane developments within the human rat race, to reach that far. Much like the heart; although located lower down, it is what supplies blood to the brain. Either way, we seem closer to appreciating the vastness above us for what it is.

1969 to now has been long enough time in the terrestrial pressure cooker.

Reading about what lay beyond the cooker’s lid or glimpsing it, is relief these days.

Latch on in your imagination, to a space craft and be borne out.

Seeing ourselves from far and the far from where we are, help restore humility and context.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly)

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