What would Gagarin think?

The BBC has today reported that a statue of Yuri Gagarin is to be erected in London. Exactly why that smoggy, overpopulated tinderbox of crime and debauchery has chosen to honour a man so intrinsically Russian is beyond me, but reading the story provoked my mind into reflection on the man and his achievements, and the state of contemporary space exploration in general.

As a lover of space and sci-fi, I of course greatly respect the achievements of Gagarin, the first man to actually go to space.  He went first where few have been, and where most will never go. His eyes beheld a view that the rest of us can only dream of, or find quite easily on Google Images.

Yuri Gagarin

Whilst many remember Gagarin as a popular and humble young Übermensch, uniquely suited to the daunting task appointed him, there are others who would claim he was effectively a showy figurehead, greedily mopping up the success that was borne on the aching backs of hardworking Russian scientists and technicians, too humble or too homely to enjoy the media spotlight themselves. That Gagarin later died piloting a plane that had not been subject to the thorough attention of those same experts was either a tragic accident or ironic comeuppance, depending on your point of view.

When Gagarin circled Planet Earth in 1961 the opportunities for space exploration must’ve seemed limitless to humankind, looking on enraptured from their crowded Brutalist council flats. His achievement was an injection of colour into their grey, drab lives, and it’s probable that Hope sprang up in their hearts like a newborn fawn.

Picture Isaac Asimov listening intensely to the wireless in some fusty tenement building, excitedly twisting the hairs of his marvellous mutton chops and imagining that, before long, much of what he’d written might actually come to pass.

Titan, as tantalisingly imaged by the Cassini spacecraft

Think of Gagarin himself staring out of the viewport of his spacecraft, envisioning celestial developments of the not-too-distant future – huge Martian colonies home to millions of intrepid humans garbed in futuristic space-attire; luxurious Cruise Liners traversing the surface of Titan; and intensive mining operations deep in the asteroid belt, far from the cloying protestations of malodorous hippies and dreadlocked trustifarians.

Certainly, to the typical Sixties mind, the Moon would soon be colonised. There was no question that personal spacecraft would be available by the 1990s. And in the new Millennium, a human would no longer be confined to his native solar system, catching a ride to pastures new on an intragalactic omnibus.

How wrong they all were.  How bloody wrong. Let us examine the reality of the situation.

A human being hasn’t walked on the moon since 1972. Close planetary neighbour Mars remains mysterious to us; certainly, we are still far from being able to send astronauts there. Space stations are cramped and uncomfortable, looking more like Mechano constructions than the roomy, hi-tech space-apartments that we expected. The majority of planets orbiting the sun have been photographed, but they have not been explored, physically or remotely. I will concede that the budgets of our space agencies have been slashed with the kind of maniacal rigour applied to the perfumed loins of Jack the Ripper’s victims, but they are still afforded generous spending mandates, with little to show for it.

What the hell is going on here? NASA and ESA pump billions into R&D and produce little more than cumbersome (and defective) golf buggies. 1972 since we were last on the moon! In those forty years an amateur space enthusiast could’ve built a rocket in his garage using components sourced at Maplins and gone to the moon himself!

Today we call it progress if Steve Jobs manages to shave a quarter millimetre off the dimensions of the iPhone. Instead of respected space architects constructing colossal artefacts in zero-g, we have James Dyson tossing off another “invention” to a group of salivating share-holders in some sweaty boardroom. The closest thing we have to civilian space-wear are those horrific Ugg Boots that clad the feet of berks the world over.

I despair. I know that Gagarin would be apoplectic at our lack of progress.

How can we fix it?

For starters, I suggest we fire everyone at NASA and ESA and begin again. The old-school are too set in their ways, and overly concerned with stuffy old concepts such as “feasibility” and “budget”. What we really need is to elevate respected sci-fi authors to positions of power – those whose imaginations run wild and free, and who understand humanity’s need to explore and to conquer; who have already formulated a plan for terraforming Mars or establishing a settlement in the Betelgeuse system, ensuring the settlers are sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with any possible hostilities, e.g. angry natives or ravening space-pumas.

I have personal experience of the ineptitude and lack of foresight endemic in our space agencies. I was the principal architect of “Operation Otis”, a coherent and ambitious space exploration strategy originally published in 1999, which included detailed plans for construction of a Space Elevator into Low Earth Orbit.  Several “big-hitters” in the field of sci-fi reveiwed my strategy, and I recall that their feedback was largely positive. My pencil drawings were singled out for particular praise (I recall that the phrase “unorthodox handling of scale” was used) managing as I had to fit not only detailed schematics of the space elevator infrastructure onto one page of A5 paper, but also the entire Earth.

I sealed the strategy in a brown envelope and posted it to the Head of the European Space Agency, but have yet to receive a reply. Alas, I fear that when his eyes feasted on the incredible contents of that brown envelope as he sat down to a continental breakfast, the shortcomings of his own organisation became all too apparent, and he buried my strategy deep in the vaults, much as an aspiring painter might commit an act of envious sabotage on beholding a glorious piece by one of the Old Masters.

But had a sci-fi aficionado sat at the helm of ESA (instead of some cappucino-swilling Frenchy) I would not have faced this problem. His ambition, his imagination and his foresight would’ve ensured that he acted swiftly to bring the ideas behind “Operation Otis” to fruition.

Wholesale replacement of space agency staff is just the first step in my solution, of course, but it is the most important.