“I knew I was alone in a way that no earthling has ever been before.“
So many things have been said, written, and filmed about one of the most important events in the XXth century –when humans first set foot on another celestial body, giving us a new perspective into our place in the Cosmos, and a pretty long yardstick by which to measure our technological achievements– and now that Apollo astronaut Michael Collins has embarked into that Great Beyond, no doubt more rivers of ink will flow extolling the merits of this great man.
As for myself, I can’t help but thinking in how for 28 hours he became the loneliest, most isolated man in the history of our species; sitting all by himself in a tin can while his companions were making that giant leap for mankind; having no other lifeline to the world than Newtonian physics, the occasional commlink with Houston, and electronic instruments so primitive you wouldn’t even trust your dog to be guarded by them today while you were away at the office –let alone a trip of 380 thousand kilometers.
Twenty. Eight. Hours. Talk about the ultimate isolation tank.
What did he do during those long hours alone, facing the void, do you reckon? Did he pray, sing or cry? To my knowledge he never said. NASA made their choice well, picking men of steel who would not budge to the challenge ahead. There is more than one reason why it is easier to send robots into the really risky space missions nowadays.
Once I wrote a blogpost –on a now defunct webpage– in which I speculated how perhaps space tourism would allow more people to experience the ‘Overview’ effect that caused Dr. Edgar Mitchell to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), and how those experiences might help us come closer to attain a sort of ‘cosmic consciousness’ that would benefit humanity in so many ways. But now, some 8-9 years later, I must admit I am not so sure about that premise, anymore.
“As I look back on Apollo 11, I more and more am attracted to my recollection, not of the moon, but of the Earth. Tiny, little Earth in its little black velvet background,” Collins said while marking the mission’s 50th anniversary in 2019.
I’ll tell you why: Because it is still too f*#king dangerous!
Meanwhile Virgin Galactic is ELEVEN FREAKING YEARS overdue in delivering on their promise of suborbital flights to those rich and famous enough to afford one of their maiden tickets –the very same people who could benefit from some Overview perspective, mind you– but the way things are going, space flight for the masses (and by ‘masses’ I mean people with yuuuge liquidity) will only become a reality when there’s at least a 90% guarantee they will return in one piece.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not rooting for having people dying in space –I’m old enough to remember the impact the Challenger explosion had on the American psyche. What I’m sorta musing over here is that that sense of cosmic perspective may be a privilege only gained at the cost of putting everything on the line once you venture into the void. Maybe you can recreate that higher sense of consciousness in a safer –even virtual– way, but so far it remains to be seen if that is true. After all, if all one needed to get the same high as a mountaineer was seeing hi-def pictures of mountains, then why risk your life climbing mount Everest when all you need to do is buy a large 4K TV and subscribe to NatGeo?
All of this, of course, brings us nowhere near answering the main question of: when are we going back? When will human beings dare to push forward and face that unrelentless, wonderful void once again? Who will become the next loneliest person?
“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand,” Collins said on the 10th anniversary of the moon landing in 1979. “Exploration is not a choice really — it’s an imperative, and it’s simply a matter of timing as to when the option is exercised.”