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NEWSFLASH: Man Jumps From Space and Totally Misses The Point

Sigh.

There are few things in life as crushing as that feeling of deep, deep disappointment you get when someone you looked up to, and respected, lets you down by saying, or doing, something wrong or just plain stupid. I don’t mean a partner, or sibling, or even a friend. I mean someone – to use a flogged to death term – in the public eye, a Figure, someone who isn’t a part of your life but added to it in some way by doing something… incredible, or just different. Someone who made an impact on you, who made you see or lo9ok at things differently. When they burst your bubble, or jump down off the pedastal you built for them, run over to you, spit in your face and run away laughing, you feel…betrayed, almost.

That’s how I felt this morning when I read a piece about “Fearless Felix”, the ‘Austrian daredevil’ who made history – and sphincters contract everywhere – on Oct 14th when he jumped out of a pressurised capsule from a height of 128 THOUSAND feet above New Mexicio, fell like a stone for what seemed like an eternity, then landed safely beneath a parachute. It was an incredible achievement, daring and brave, and it captivated the world.

Felix’s skydive from the edge of space was watched by millions of people online, and was even compared – as a group viewing experience – to the first Moon landing. I was one of those people. I watched the event on my phone, in the staff room at work in my breaktime. Without a WiFi connection I had to make do with watching it “on dial-up” as it were (echoes of the MER landings there!), and the YouTube feed kept stalling, breaking up, buffering… but I managed to see him step off the capsule’s porch and begin his fall -

Then a call bell went (I work in a care home) and I missed the rest, but when I managed to sneak  a look at the news later I saw he had landed safely, and I was impressed/delighted/relieved all at once. What an incredible thing. And what an incredible man, I thought, to have the guts and determination to follow that dream, to embrace technology, to dare to reach for something high and great…

Then I read what he had said when he was up there, poised ready to jump…

“Sometimes you have to go up really high to see how small you are.”

…and I thought “YES! He GETS it! He IS an explorer, this meant something to him, he did it for the right reasons, he isn’t just an adrenalin junkie rich boy who wants to be famous…”

Fantastic!

Then this morning I went online, checked Twitter, and found a storm had broken overnight while I slept. Fearless Felix had given an interview to a British newspaper, and in it he had said something… well, just read it…

“A lot of guys they are talking about landing on Mars,” he said. “Because [they say] it is so important to land on Mars because we would learn a lot more about our planet here, our Earth, by going to Mars which actually makes no sense to me because we know a lot about Earth and we still treat our planet, which is very fragile, in a really bad way.

“So I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”

What the..????

Where the **** did THAT come from?!?!

So much for “getting it”.

The thing is, I can almost appreciate what he’s saying, and maybe he actually believes it. Many people criticise NASA and spending on space exploration, and think that the money spent “out there” would be better spent “down here”. And in this time of troubles, it’s understandable that lots of people worry that money spent “on space” is wasted, just thrown away. That’s just ignorance on their part – and I don’t mean that in an insulting way, I mean it in the accurate way, i.e. they’re just ignorant of the facts. And the facts are that money spent “on space” isn’t spent IN space. NASA and other space agencies don’t pack rockets full of cash and then fire them off into space to explode like fireworks. NASA designs things, and builds things, here on Earth, in workshops, laboratories, universities etc. The money spent “on space” is spent buying things and paying people’s wages, the wages of people who then buy things in their communities, in their local shops, at their local cinemas, at their local garages, etc.

Most of the people who criticise space spending don’t appreciate – because they haven’t been told – that money spent “on space” has given them the modern society they enjoy so much, with its satellite TV, mobile phones, computers, medical scanners and SatNavs. It’s usually not their fault. And when someone like me, during or after an Outreach talk, points out the reality of the situation to them they usually (not always) find a new appreciation for “space”, and realise how important it is to invest in the technology used in space exploration – because, basically, eventually it helps make life better for everyone.

NASA’s exploration of Mars is slightly different. The benefits are not everyday ones. The Curiosity rover’s images of Gale Crater’s dusty rocks, layered hills and butterscotch sky aren’t going to give us better communications, fancier phones or cheaper fuel bills. But they add to our knowledge, tell us a bit more about what’s out there and, through that, about our own place in the Universe too. And if we ever find life on Mars that will be such a paradigm shift in science that our place in the universe will shift tectonically.

And I thought Felix got that, I really did. Especially when he said what he said about “feeling small”. Surely sending people to Mars, to see Earth reduced to a tiny blue sequin in the twilight sky, would make *everyone* feel small when they saw the pictures taken by, and heard the reports returned to Earth by the astronauts?

Maybe Felix said what he said because he really does have strong environmental beliefs, like many people, and he genuinely believes that money spent exploring Mars is wasted because there are no face-slappingly obvious short term benefits for us here on Earth. If that’s the case, then he is just ignorant instead of stupid, and needs educating. I have some very good friends who are passionate environmentalists, but they appreciate the need for hi-tech R&D.

But I can’t believe that he could be that naive or ignorant, I just can’t. He’s obviously a bright guy, with bright people around him, so I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt. He must “get” technology, he must do.

Reading the interview it all seems t be about money, doesn’t it? Well, Felix criticising space spending like this is, in my opinion, jaw-droppingly hypocritical. If he’d paid for his jump with his own money, built the capsule and pressure suit himself, then fair enough. If he had done it to promote environmentalism above everything else, and had dedicated it to the future of Mankind, or whatever, then fair enough. But he didn’t do either of those things.  As I understand it, his jump was paid for by a HUGE multinational company, Red Bull, which is hardly an environmental crusader now, is it? It’s not up there with Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth now, is it? And as the brilliantly funny “Sarcastic Rover” Twitter account pointed out earlier today, as it was brutally laying into Felix’s dismissal of Mars exploration, Red Bull spends 300 million dollars (I assume it’s dollars) each year on sports marketing. They’re hardly in the front row of environmental champions are they?

So, let me get this straight. A man who soared to the edge of space in a pressurised capsule, wearing a pressure suit and breathing apparatus, and then jumped back down to Earth, landing safely, then goes on to criticise spending on space exploration. Who the **** does he think developed the technology to build that capsule and spacesuit that kept him alive inthe first place? The idiot.

I don’t like using that word, idiot, but I will, because I think that’s what Felix has shown himself to be. As I said before, people who criticise and condemn money spent “on space” usually do so from ignorance. They just don’t realise how vital space technology is to their everyday lives. But Felix isn’t one of them, is he? He’s a passport-carrying citizen of the modern world. His world is the “space spin off” world of computers, satellites and technology. Without technology derived from space exploration he couldn’t do what he does – he couldn’t have did what he did. And that makes him not just an idiot, but a hypocritical idiot in my book. And it makes me very, very disappointed.

Although this incredible picture shows him standing alone on the porch of the capsule…

…Felix had company in there – the spirits of countless thousands of men and women who dedicated their careers and lives to ensuring people could survive up there, at the edge of space, and beyond. Now, people just like them are working hard to spread Mankind’s presence out into space, back to the Moon and, eventually, one day, to Mars and even further.

I thought, after he landed, that Felix was going to help them do that. I thought he would become an Ambassador for technology, exploration and discovery. I thought he would help inspire a generation of new scientists, engineers and explorers. But it looks like he’s going to get all precious and preachy on us, and wrap himself up in that famous “I’m important, listen to me!” celebrity flag and go all Bono on us. What a shame.

Felix… you did an amazing thing, an inspirational thing, but don’t kid yourself, ok? It cost an absolute bloody fortune,which someone else paid FOR you. The money your flight to, and fall from, “the edge of space” could have paid for countless environmental projects and programs. If you are really that concerned about the state of the Earth then pay that money – and all the money you’ll raise in the future from your inevitable “celebrity appearances” – to environmental charities and organisations.

I imagine there are a lot of people at NASA, and in other organisations involved in space exploration and technology, feeling disappointed in and probably even mad at old Felix today after reading what he said. The reflex reaction would be to criticise him, condemn him, slag him off (as I’ve done here! haha!) but I don’t think they should do that. I hope someone in the Mars Exploration Program invites Felix over to JPL to show him EXACTLY what’s going on there, and explains to him WHY the exploration of Mars is so important. I hope he can be taken around JPL, as I was a few years ago, by someone *truly* amazing and inspirational, like Scott Maxwell, one of the rover drivers, and shown the magic that happens there. I hope he’ll look in through the windows of the control rooms, and laboratories, and see the men and women working away hard in there and realise just how important their work is. I hope he’ll be given five minutes – just five minutes – with Steve Squyres, the man behind MER who is an incredible scientist, explorer and a true adventurer, so he can hear just why understanding the history and geology of the Red Planet is important to us here on Earth.

I hope someone can take him to one of the labs where NASA scientists study meteorites, hand him a piece of Mars, and let him look at it, feel the weight of it in his hand, and make him see that it’s a piece of a world that’s destined to be Man’s second home one day. We’ve no choice in that. The Sun is dying, and will perish, and we can’t just stay here forever, that’s not an option. We have to find somewhere out there to live on, and until we build a real life Starship Enterprise, Mars Is It. So exploring Mars today, and planning how to land people safely there in the future,  is laying the foundations of the road distant generations will travel down to get to their new home, preserving our species and our civilisation, preserving all our art, our history, everything that makes us *us*. Someone needs to hand him a martian meteorite and tell him to look at it, hard, and tell him that that’s a piece of the lifeboat which will carry the human race to safety in the future.

Then, THEN he might actually “get it”.

One last thought. Felix criticises the plans to send people to Mars, says it’s too far. Well, Felix, the same could have been said about your trip up there. I’m sure many people did say that. But you went anyway, because it was something you believed in, in some way. Part of the reason for doing your jump, it was said, was to learn about the effects of such a jump on the human body – but the same results could have been achieved by dropping a crash test dummy from the capsule. Yet you felt it was something a human had to do, rather than a machine.

Exactly like Mars exploration, in fact.

I hope that Felix, having jumped safely from his capsule, now climbs down off his high horse and uses his public platform to say, and do, something useful. Because the person destined to be the first human being to walk on Mars is already alive, today, as you read this, running around a school playground or playing field somewhere, pretending to be a rocket, or an asronaut, falling over and grazing their knees, looking up at the sky, dreaming of flying *through* it one day and travelling to other worlds. They don’t need people like Felix telling them that’s too far.

A new neighbour…

You know which word I hate? And by “hate” I mean loathe, with a fist-clenching passion? “Amazing“. Everything is ‘amazing’ nowadays, the word has to be the most over-used in the whole of the English language. It’s ******* everywhere. Judges on TV ‘talent’ shows describe even the most average performance as “amazing’; new flavoured crisps are “amazing”; TV news reporters describe everything from floods to sleepy sheep as ‘amazing’. Like other words, such as ‘hero’ and ‘beautiful’, it’s lost its power, its true meaning. ‘Amazing’ now just means… interesting. Cool. Ish.

But the other day a story broke in the world of astronomy which is amazing in the original, true, jaw-hit-the-floor “WOW!!!!!” sense of the word. And ‘amazing’ is really the only way to describe it.

Everyone with even a passing interest in astronomy – from the loner kid reading books in the library at breaktime when they should be outside playing football (yes, that was me…) to the world-weary astrophysics professor sat in a university somewhere – knows that the closest star to the Earth, after the Sun, is Alpha Centauri, a bright, naked eye star in the southern hemisphere, close to the famous Southern Cross (see above image, one of astrophotographer Akira Fuji’s beautiful night sky portraits).  That’s just one of those basic, fundamental facts. And until this week, everyone with even a passing interest in astronomy knew that Alpha Centauri was only interesting because it was close, and not for any other reason, right?

Well, now we know Alpha Centauri isn’t just the boring, average neighbouring star system we thought it was. Now, after believing for years that it was planetless, we know that it has at least one planet orbiting i. And even though that world is nothing like Earth, not really, that’s not the point. The point is that the closest star to the Sun HAS A PLANET GOING AROUND IT!

And even better, the planet in question is a small one, not one of those pretend, bloated, gassy “super” or “hot Jupiters” that so many stars have ploughing or trawling through their outer atmospheres: it has the same mass as Earth, roughly, which is fantastic! BUT… and yes, there’s a “but”… like those blasted “hot Jupiters” it orbits Alpha Centauri B very closely and very quickly: it orbits the star at a distance of just 6m km (closer than Mercury orbits the Sun in our solar system), racing around it like a car on a race track, and its year is just 3.2 Earth days long. So if it’s rocky its surface isn’t covered in lakes, green fields and lush forests, it’s probably molten and scorched, the closest thing to hell you can imagine. So, life? Not very likely.

BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!!!

After years of thinking that only distant, faraway suns have planets orbiting them, suns so faraweay they might as well be in another galaxy entirely, it turns out that the closest exo-planet is, in astronomical terms, just next door.

Ah, but the key phrase there is “in astronomical terms”. Make no mistake, this is a genuinely amazing thing. To have an exoplanet so close, so tantalisingly near (again, in astronomical terms)  is an incredible thing. It brings the whole field of extrasolar planetary science so much closer to us. But the distance thing is seriously mindblowing, and it’s something the popular press just hasn’t grasped yet. They seem to think that Alpha Centauri is just beyond the solar system, a short hop out into deep space.

Er, no. It’s a long, long, loooooong way away.

How long?

Well, the easy, pub quiz answer is “4.3 Light years” of course, but just how far IS that, really? In kilometres or miles? Naaah, that still doesn’t help. Those are silly numbers. Lots of zeroes, doesn’t help at all. What we need is something we can see, and hold, a prop to SHOW us how far away the Alpha Centauri system is, right? And luckily, I ‘ve found just the thing…

Yep, a humble CD. Look over there, by the TV, you’ve got stacks of them. Look there, next to your computer, you’ve got loads of the things. Turns out they’re perfect for showing just how far away Alpha Centauri is. So, grab one, and prepare to have your eyes opened, and your hopes of hopping over to our nearest extrasolar planet well and truly dashed.

Right, take a look at your CD. We’re going to pretend that’s our solar system, with the Sun at the very centre of the disc – in the middle of the hole – and Pluto at the very edge of the disc (yes, I KNOW it’s officially not a planet anymore, I’m not getting into all that again; I’m just using Pluto as a ‘boundary’ everyone can relate to, ok? Sheesh!! :-) ) On that scale, Alpha Centauri would be 0.4km away – or 3,333 CDs away…!

That should bring home just how far away Alpha Centauri’s planet is. But what helps even more is to use our CD as a different scale. Look at your CD again, and this time instead of imagining the rim as Pluto, imagine it as Earth. Using that scale, Alpha Centauri would be 16.5km (10 miles) away… or more than a hundred and thirty three THOUSAND CDs away…

So, now you can see that Alpha Centauri is not, despite what the popular press are saying, “close to us in space”. It’s a helluva long way away. In fact, if you were to set off for it in a fast spacecraft, going the same speed Apollo 11 travelled at going to the Moon, it would take you 116 THOUSAND YEARS to get there. (However, at the moment we’ve nothing that CAN go that fast, so that figure’s a bit depressing for more than one reason…)

But listen, don’t get too fixated on the whole distance thing. Just accept that it’s a long way away, we can’t get there now, and might not get there for centuries, or longer. That’s not the point. The point is, it’s yet another piece of proof that planets are common in the universe, and that’s a good thing. Because the more planets there are Out There, the better the chances are of life – advanced or otherwise – existing Out There too. It really is as simple and as exciting as that.

See? Told you it was amazing! :-)

If you want some of the real, serious science behind this story, I strongly suggest you go over to UNIVERSE TODAY and read Nancy Atkinson’s write-up of the discovery. In it she’ll tell you more about the people who made the discovery and the equipment they used, and explain why it’s such an important scientific milestone. Reading the comments after her article is interesting too, and shows how discoveries such as this generate a really wide range of reactions, from the breathlessly-excited “OMG! OMG!” to the sober and cautious “Let’s all just calm down, shall we?” Inbetween there are the inevitable “What use is this discovery to me?” party poopers and even people who think it’s all just made up. Fascinating. But warning: if you get upset reading comments posted by trolls, you’d better have a stress ball handy to squeeze and pummel half to death if you read comments on UT stories, because there’s at least one guy there who seems to have made it his sacred mission in life to haughtily disagree with everything Nancy says, and argue with many other comment posters, too. I honestly think that if Nancy wrote “Milk is white” he would disagree.  I can’t be the only UT reader wishing his computer would just blow up…! ;-)

One last thing I want to say about this incredible discovery. It really, REALLY is time we started giving exoplanets proper names, and not just christening them “b”, “c” and “d” etc. It’s getting bloody silly. To call the closest exoplanet to Earth “Alpha Centauri Bb” is ludicrous and demeaning, both to the planet and its discoverers. It deserves a proper name! Come on! When craters, hills, even individual rocks on Mars, the Moon and even asteroids have been given names, what the hell is stopping us – and by “us” I guess I mean the Astronomical Powers That Be – from naming exoplanets? Ok, in the centuries to come they’ll be given names by the people who travel to and settle on them, but we can at least give them provisional names now, if only so we all know which planet we’re talking about? It would make things so much easier, wouldn’t it?

I even have a suggestion – “Glenstorm”, one of the centaurs from the Narnia books of CS Lewis. In Narnian mythology, centaurs were wise and clever, philosophers, prophets and stargazers – much less bloodthirsty and crazy than Greek centaurs who were just nuts – so I think it would be very fitting to name a planet, found orbiting Alpha Centauri, after a stargazing centaur. That way, whenever we looked up at the stars of Centaurus, shining there amidst the starclouds of the southern Milky Way, we’d think of the planet and, in our imaginations, see something like this…

…and maybe not something like this…

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