Rarely are newsmagazines brilliantly written and filled with breathtakingly innovative ideas. For all I know, this excerpt from this week’s The Economist doesn’t break with that rule—I’m not well versed in the philosophy of space. Regardless, something in the magazine’s analysis of the legacy of Sputnik—which was launched on October 4, 1957—really struck a chord, so I’m sharing it on today’s “Other People’s Words.” The full story is here; weird/British spelling were intentionally left in tact.
Today almost 900 of the things are in orbit around Earth, operated by more than 40 countries. Some are old-fashioned martial spy satellites, but many more are Venusian—watching the weather, the oceans, the changing climate and the use of land. Others broadcast television programmes, relay telephone calls, or send out the signals that tell people exactly where they are on the Earth’s surface. Such satellites have enabled scientists and engineers to treat the planet as a single thing in a way that they previously did not.
More subtle—and just as far-reaching—was the message epitomised during the next leg of the space race when the crew of Apollo 8 photographed Earth-rise over a lunar horizon on Christmas Day, 1968. Earth is a fragile pocket of life in a very large and lonely universe. Looking back at a small, blue-green planet from outer space and seeing its unity and its vulnerability also changed perspectives. It was a force behind the environmental movement, which began at about that time. Rather as a foreign country helps a traveller understand his home, so it has taken space flight to understand Earth.
Some insist that humanity must hurry on with the Martian vision, to explore and ultimately to colonise other planets to secure the species’s future. That may be necessary one day and many countries, and some companies, still pursue this vision of space. America’s government wants a moon base, the Chinese are interested in going there, too. There might be a rekindling of the kind of nationalistic fervour of yesteryear.
The lesson of the past 50 years, however, is that the more humanity discovers about space, the rarer and more precious life on Earth seems. For the moment Venusian voyages to understand mankind’s home planet are better than Martian ones to understand how to abandon the mother ship.
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