One sunny Sunday in 1969 I was participating in a leapfrog competition when my mother popped out of the house and made her way across to us bouncing children. I was instructed to come inside – which I was reluctant to do – and made to sit in front of the television. With the curtains drawn against the sun, we watched the Apollo moon landing. My mum was quite emotional, “This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.”, she whispered, voice breaking. Being a child of the lunar age, for me it was less of a surprise. After the bulletin was over I was allowed to go back outside to play.
That small step of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s was undoubtedly a giant leap for mankind. Of the twelve men who set foot on the Moon, six remain with us. One of them, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, is still very actively involved in promoting space exploration. I follow his antics on Twitter and it seems his mission is to boldly jet around the world trying to drum up interest in another celestial body with his ‘Get your ass to Mars’ initiative.
Buzz is not the only one with one with a keen interest in exploring Earth’s (sometimes) nearest planet neighbour. Billionaire engineer and inventor Elon Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of colonising Mars. Even in the Island’s own Medina Theatre, I heard veteran British actor Brian Blessed bellow his desire to be launched to the Red Planet. He’s even completed 800 hours of space training at Star City in Russia in the hope he’ll be selected.
But why? What’s the attraction of going to Mars? From this distance it looks like an inhospitable dust bowl, and we have plenty of those on earth so why go all that way? Some say it’s necessary for humanity’s survival, others offer the equally flimsy ‘because it’s there’.
I was at Whitecliff Bay last weekend, on an unexpectedly hot October afternoon. The tide was out enough to expose those long fingers of rock which stem from the vertical geological formations. Standing at the top of the cliff I read a Gift to Nature plaque which told me that below my feet was evidence of millions of years of life on Earth. Prior to the appearance of we pesky humans, invertebrates were busying themselves forming relationships with plants; long before dinosaurs – and for the millions of years after.
Down on the shore, as the sea trickled round my feet, I thought of all the life within it and wondered why some people are so driven to find life on other planets when there is so much to wonder at here on the Isle of Wight.
This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 20 October 2017.