Space is back, with a [big] bang


It’s been a few weeks since Chris Hadfield appeared in Dublin, where he was treated with a reverence somewhere between that afforded to the Beatles and the Virgin Mary in 1960s Ireland.

After a long period in which space was deeply uncool, it’s back in fashion, with competitions to go to space even being run by deodorant brands.

I put this down to a few things: the Big Bang Theory has helped to make nerds loveable; the rise in billionaire techies like Mark Zuckerberg, revealing the potential profit in spending the entirety of your teenage years in your bedroom; and of course, the new, sexed up Star Trek franchise.

I was reminded of this at a work event on Friday night, when, much to my delight I ended up seated beside a confirmed nerd friend rather than the usual rugby-playing accountant with whom I have three things to talk about before we dig into the grub (weather; the food; something about sport, or else the weather again).

Said friend ‘casually’ name-dropped Chris Hadfield, whom he’d met in Dublin. Chris, it seems, is a Captain Picard rather than a Captain Kirk man. Those of you who are Trekkies, or live with a Trekkie, will know what this means.

Like Hadfield, Picard (Patrick Stewart) is a renaissance man. Hadfield’s well-read, wise, ‘singing astronaut’ persona has worked wonders for the image of space travel. Just contrast him with Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, who’s busy beating up people at three minute intervals in the new films.

The latest evidence that this is a real craze is a competition being run by a private company, Mars One, which is raising billions for a new venture to colonise the red planet. And people are queuing up to join – they have shortlisted from the original 200,000 applicants, and there’s one Irish guy on the list.

When I read this headline somewhere during the week, I immediately scanned the page, panicked. For, dear reader, I live with a Trekkie; this is how I know so much about Captain Picard. He’s more than capable of applying for something like this.

But – relief! – it wasn’t him.

(History does not tell us how Columbus’s family reacted to his departure, but it’s fair to say they probably weren’t happy).

Joseph Roche from Co Kildare is the Irish guy who made the cut. Fair play Joseph, and best of luck.

Because if Joseph does make it to the final few, he won’t be coming back. Ever.

The aim is to get people living on Mars, so they can find out what needs to be done for us earthlings to be able to utilize the resources there. That means living in a space suit, in a tiny enclosed space, with a few other people, for the rest of your life.

Anyone who watched Chris Hadfield’s videos of life in the space station and the difficulty of the tiniest tasks, such as shaving, would have a very good idea of just how tedious zero gravity could get after a while.

So far it all sounds very traditional explorer, albeit with restrictions – think about Columbus setting off in 1492 with maps suggesting ‘here be dragons’ or Amundsen at the South Pole.

But, apart from the lack of gravity, the space suits, the close confines and the technology, there is one major turning point in how we interact with the new world; it’s going to be a reality TV show.

The Hunger Games will be like Little House on the Prairie by comparison – in a venture like this, there’s the very real possibility some or all of the participants will die pretty early on.

Then again, it could end up more like Big Brother, with all those people stuck in a confined space, although if you’re expecting any romantic action, forget it. If you’ve seen Mr Hadfield’s videos, you know what happens to bodily fluids when there’s no atmosphere.

The final frontier is getting a little bit closer, it seems, and Joseph is prepared to boldly go where the rest of us will only venture through a button on our TV remote.  More power to him.

Published in The Herald, 10 February.

 

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