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Let’s Talk About Space, Baby

I lay flat on my back. The ground beneath me was dusty, but I didn’t mind. It was eerily dark. The rims of the volcanic crater I was lying in were only just perceptible over the horizon. As I gazed up into the heavens, I waited for some light fluffy clouds to clear. And when they did, the most stupendous sight greeted me. An inordinate number of bright, twinkling stars, splashed onto the black canvas of space. A gentle band of what looked like fog stretched from horizon to horizon, arching over my head in a massive sphere. The Milky Way. Our spiral galaxy. I was only looking at one of its many spiral arms. The galaxy as a whole is home to some 200 billion stars; our sun is but one of them.

We live in one of these things, a galaxy. They contain hundreds of billions of stars.

As I lay there in awe and wonder, I occasionally saw one of our own space objects – satellites – zooming around the atmosphere at incredible speeds. That most satellites orbit our Earth in less than two hours makes perfect sense when you see the speed at which they flash across the horizon. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of (slightly terrifying) smallness that staring out into space can give you. The feeling that we are completely alone. One tiny planet, charging through the cold, vast emptiness of space. This feeling only slightly interrupted by our tour guide, who insisted on screeching space facts to us every few seconds. Especially whenever I felt close to truly connecting with the strange feeling of solitude that space gives you.

We packed up and began our journey home. Rest assured, the guide wasn’t invited. Located in the middle of an ocean, with limited light pollution, and with the natural telescopic view given to us by sitting in a crater, was really quite a sight. I pondered over what I’d seen as we trudged back to the car through Lanzarote’s dry and dark sand.

My experience here reminded me of stargazing in the Atacama Desert, in Chile. Given its dryness and altitude, it too has some of the clearest night skies on the planet. And hence, is home to many of the world’s most important Earth-based telescopes. I remember seeing our closest galaxy neighbour through a telescope when in Chile. Andromeda. A small cloud on first appearance, which on closer inspection burned bright with the light of hundreds of billions of stars. In both cases, experiencing space like this was profound. I vowed to take this new cosmic perspective with me wherever I went, and throughout my life.

But in both cases, this feeling lasted a few minutes at best. I checked my phone. Got upset about some men kicking a football around in a foreign country. Read a few clickbaity news articles. Checked social media. And swiftly forgot about the reality of our collective predicament. We are small apes, here only for trillions of accidents of evolution. We’re literally made of stardust: our elemental components being made in the hearts of exploding stars.

We’re on a giant rock, which is careering around a massive nuclear explosion millions of miles away. Our solar system is so large it took the Voyager 1 probe 45 years to reach the edge of it in 2012, travelling at a modest 35,000mph. And yet, if you imagined our solar system were the size of a coin, then our galaxy would comparatively be the size of the Earth. Hold a coin in your hand. Really try to imagine this. Oh, and our galaxy, which contains hundreds of billions of stars, is one of an estimated two trillion galaxies in the Universe. There are more planets in the Universe than there are grains of sand on the Earth’s beaches. And these are all conservative estimates!

This rather terrifying image was taken by the Hubble Telescope. Each light is a galaxy, with hundreds of billions of stars. There are trillions of these in the Universe. Oh, and this picture is a snapshot of the Universe 13.2 billion years ago, because that’s how long the light travelled to get to the telescope.

The recent launch of the mind-bending James Webb Telescope is likely to further deepen our understanding of how the Universe came to be. Perhaps unintentionally, it was launched on Christmas Day in 2021, and is sure to offer a much more compelling creation story than the ‘a man in the sky did it’ one.

Seriously, though, I can’t believe Fulham FC lost 4-1 to Coventry away. To give away a one nil lead and to capitulate like they did is criminal. Criminal!

Space Is A Dirty Word For Many

Why do we find it so hard to think about space? If I try to start talking about space to some people, why do they change the subject? Or why, on any day I’ve been truly terrified by the scale and reality of our existence, do I start to incessantly check the news or sport results taking place on the grain of sand we all happen to live on?

The truth is, our brains can’t really cope with the reality of our smallness. We feel so important. Our achievements seem so great. Our day-to-day lives seem to matter. But when considered against the backdrop of the Universe’s infinite vastness, it’s hard to comprehend that our lives don’t really matter at all. In the scale of the cosmos, we seem irrelevant, fleeting, and pointless. So we ignore it.

Or we invent fairy tales which put us at the centre of the Universe’s epic cosmic story. And fortunately, with over 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, light pollution covers up the stars here anyway. The bright lights of our cities hide the uncomfortable strangeness and irrelevance of everything that matters to us. Which, of course, gives us more time to read stories about celebrities, buy stuff, and take close-up pictures of our own faces and post them online. Lovely.

What About Cosmic Consciousness?

Our willed ignorance of our reality – and our position in the Universe – is a massive mistake. There’s actually much to be gained from having an appreciation of our place in the Universe. Even if it might be scary. Millennia ago, Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers practised a visualisation called the ‘View From Above’, which I still try to do a few times a week. Here, you imagine zooming out on where you are seated, then on your city, then the Earth, and then the solar system. Until all you’re left with is a mental image of a tiny blue speck surrounded by trillions of stars and galaxies. It might seem strange at first. But I can tell you, there’s an odd sense of calm in knowing that all the crap you worry about on a daily basis really means nothing at all.

Realising our place in the Universe helps to give us perspective. A book called the Overview Effect explored this further. It found that astronauts who’d been to space and looked back at the Earth – and for the first time truly understood they lived on a small blue marble – were profoundly psychologically  affected by the experience. Astronauts reported seeing the big picture, recognising the interconnectedness of all things and all humans, and viewing human violence through an even more bewildered lens. Many implied that seeing the Earth from space made them love the planet, and indeed humanity, much more than they used to.

This is where the idea of cosmic consciousness comes into play. Superstar astrophysicist and overall achingly cool person Neil deGrasse Tyson talks up the value of taking a cosmic perspective in our approach to life. Recognising our home is a planet in a vast empty universe can profoundly influence how we view science, culture, and politics, he posits. Put simply, if you truly recognise that ‘you’ are just a decaying collection of trillions of cells careering around a vast explosion, political, nationalist, and religious dogmas are less likely to take a hold over you. Against such a backdrop, invading another nation, or even celebrating the ‘greatness’ of your own country, becomes even more stupid than it already is: very.

In Defence Of Billionaire Space Lunatics

For this reason, I’m perhaps in a minority of people who view space travel as very important to the future of humanity. There’s little doubt that Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are strange and unhinged characters. I’m not going to argue against this. And maybe the knowledge that my spending money on Amazon – viewed as some kind of heretic act in the eyes of many – is funding space travel in some way makes me feel less guilty about my shopping habits. But I firmly believe that making space travel realistic and affordable is crucial. So that many more of us can one day experience these realisations – about the importance of protecting humanity and loving each other, instead of being swept up by hating people who happened to be born in a different chunk of the planet from you.

One of Elon Musk’s Tesla cars, which he chucked into space just because he could.

Also, I’d argue that becoming a multiplanetary species is one of humanity’s most important tasks. Even if we gain a handle on climate change, something else is likely to finish us off one day. A comet. An extinction event. Nuclear war. Or, eventually, the inevitable explosion of our sun. So if we – the only intelligent life that we know of in the Universe – want to survive, getting off this planet is less of a frivolous task than it may seem on the surface. And before you get defensive, people much cleverer than you or I agree. Legendary physicist Stephen Hawking said we must colonise Mars within 100 years, or face extinction from asteroids, pandemics, or population growth. See!

So, next time you watch the video of Jeff Bezos laughing dementedly like Dr Evil after landing from his space trip, be happy. He – and a few other people – are spending their own money on trying to solve these problems. Governments wouldn’t ever touch space travel like this with a barge pole, as it’d be politically untenable. “We have a lot of problems here on Earth to focus on first,” will be the smug, predictable, and very short-sighted view of any celebrity or politician asked about it these days. A lot of physicists and astronomers believe that we’re probably the only civilisation in the Milky Way and maybe one of only a handful in the Universe, given the millions of unlikely conditions that had to be met for life to evolve and for our civilisation to come about.

The fate of humanity rests in this man’s hand. God help us all.

Out of cosmic nothingness. Out of inanimate space dust. A species has evolved which is able to think and be conscious, so it can now consider its own place in the Universe. And can now explore and understand it. We are very important. And I think we need a backup plan if things go tits up here on Earth. Which, history shows us, it will. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Bringing Space Into Daily Life

Obviously, most of us don’t have a couple of hundred million dollars lying around for Elon Musk to blast us into orbit for three days. So, what can be done to make space a bigger part of our conversations, and indeed our daily lives? For me, practising the View From Space, reading space books, watching space documentaries, and stargazing whenever I can, seem to help. Travelling can also give you a sense of scale and the majestic beauty of the planet. And while space is terrifying, the more I connect with it, strangely, there’s some kind of comfort that comes from knowing your irrelevance in the scale of nature.

Whenever you can. Look up at the stars.

You get a similar feeling when looking at vast oceans or mountains. You know your place. While the self-referential thoughts of your mind place you on a pedestal of unfathomable and profound importance, the reality is, you and your mundane worries don’t matter at all. You’re here for a blink of an eye and then you’re gone forever. You are but a speck in the infinitely vast canvas of the Universe.

So, next time someone cuts you up in traffic or spills your coffee, remember space, before you get into a rage. And just be happy that you’re lucky enough to exist.

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