Space is just next door, no longer an exotic idea

‘Space: the final frontier.' The opening line in the title sequence of the epic 1960s TV series, Star Trek, is self-explanatory. Humankind has explored and settled its own habitat, Earth. It will now turn to the stars. From that forward-looking – although many would say fanciful – perspective, India's moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, is very, very important.

Space travel, once the realm of science fiction, became science fact on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, while Jim Collins circled overhead. Mars is next, the asteroids will follow, then the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and finally, the stars. '

Exoplanets' – planets circling other stars - are now a part of the millennial vocabulary and new ones are discovered every day. Potentially habitable planets, in the 'goldilocks' zone of relatively nearby stars, beckon humankind to discover and explore new worlds.

Where governments go, private enterprise is never far behind. In the not-too distant future, the likes of Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) will make space travel accessible to all those who can afford it.

A hundred wannabe Martians – three Indians among them – were selected for a one-way ticket to the red planet under the Mars One programme, but alas, the company has gone bankrupt. The good news is that SpaceX is aiming for a manned mission to Mars in the next 5 to 8 years, followed by a colony.

At this stage of human civilization, it is hard to dismiss space travel as an exotic idea, or merely a by-product of the one-upmaship of the Cold War, or the stuff of Hollywood fantasies. It is possible, probable and inevitable. A cornucopia of worlds and resources is out there and some day soon, will be within humankind's grasp.

Humans have always traveled: in search of better living conditions, for trade or conquest, out of curiosity or for exploration, and sheer love of adventure. Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa some two hundred millennia ago and haven't stopped travelling since, adapting to their habitat as they go along.

Europeans set foot on North America and spread inexorably from East to West. Nothing describes the pioneering spirit of humankind as vividly as romantic tales of that western frontier, a genre of literature generally dubbed 'westerns'.

There's little doubt that the most successful nations of the future will be those who have an edge in space exploration. India, with its exemplary space programme, is determined not to be left behind.

It has already taken the lead in satellite technology and launched hundreds of birds for 28 different nations around the world. Chandrayaan-2 marks an important milestone in space exploration. Sending men to the moon is the logical next step.

Skeptics who dismiss the idea of a human settlements on other worlds as moonshine would do well to remember that many such crazy notions have come to pass. Jules Verne dreamed up submarines and moon rockets in the 1870s. Arthur C Clarke proposed a communications satellite in 1945.

William Gibson pioneered the notions of cyberspace, virtual reality and the world wide web in 1984. Star Trek featured mobile phones in the 1960s. Today, we take all these innovations for granted, forgetting that they were once dismissed as fiction.

If anything, science is even crazier than fiction. What is weirder than quantum mechanics? Particles that exist in two places at once, that interact with each other across vast distances and disappear and reappear elsewhere (in geek terms, quantum superposition, quantum entanglement and quantum tunnelling).

The more researchers delve into the mysteries of the minute, the stranger it gets, to the point that they are now asking whether time itself can be reversed. Maybe, just maybe, quantum weirdness may make space travel faster and easier.

In the meantime, in the macro world, ISRO is forging ahead. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan, ISRO's maiden interplanetary mission, has been orbiting Mars since 2014. Next year, ISRO plans to launch its Aditya-1 mission to study the Sun.

A second mission to Mars and another to Venus are on the cards, as well as more lunar missions. Gaganyaan will be the first step in the Indian Human Spaceflight Programme, scheduled for 2021. The search for 'Vyomnauts', three of whom will be launched into a low-earth orbit for seven days, is already underway.

In the long term, ISRO plans to build a habitat on the lunar surface, perhaps as a launch pad for further exploration of the solar system. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars”.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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