People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 17

April  24, 2011




Use Space Exploration

For Humanity’s Benefit


Sitaram Yechury


FIFTY years ago, as a primary school student in Hyderabad we were taken to receive Yuri Gagarin at the airport. As he walked past us, I remember waiting to 'touch him', is human flesh different, after weightlessness in space? Gagarin had (ala Star Trek) dared to go “where no man had gone before”. In Cold War hostilities, it was simply unacceptable for the USA to acknowledge the superiority of the socialist system in expanding the frontiers of human endeavour into space. Though, US president John F Kennedy formally congratulated the Soviet Union, he nevertheless had to appear on the then infant US national TV network to assuage the hurt US pride that they would land the man on the moon by the end of the decade. US literally did so, only at the end of the decade.


However, it is very refreshing to note the universal commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's space triumph. The centrepiece was when a US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off on April 12, 2011 on a Soyuz craft emblazoned with a portrait of Gagarin from that very launchpad that put Gagarin's flight into orbit on this very day 50 years ago. The director of the European Space Agency said, “We are all sons of Yuri Gagarin”. The commander of the Apollo 10 mission went on to say, “Without Gagarin going first, I probably wouldn't have gone to the moon”. A film entitled First Orbit was shot from the International Space Station, combining the original flight audio with footage of the route taken by Gagarin. The Russian, American, and Italian Expedition 27 crew aboard the ISS sent a special video message to wish the people of the world a “Happy Yuri's Night” wearing shirts with an image of Gagarin.


Under the stewardship of Sergei Korolyov, the Soviet space programme went on to put the first dog Laika in space, the first woman Valentina Tereshkova, oversaw the first space walk and established the Mir space station. In the meanwhile, the US, had generously funded the NASA Apollo programme that finally put the man on the moon. However, the Soviets had earlier soft-landed a remote craft.


The launch of the Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin's orbitting the Earth had tremendous collateral benefits for human civilisations. This is true of all major advances in modern science. For instance, modern life today is simply unimaginable without various satellites that are serving us. The Cyberspace cannot simply exist without them. Television images, communications, weather forecasts, mapping and discovery of underground mineral riches, etc, are simply inconceivable without satellites. The malfunctioning of satellites can wreak havoc collapsing financial transactions, crippling world economy.


Much of these advances, in space exploration however were spurred by the Cold War hostility. Instead of using these advances for larger benefits of humanity as a whole, the initial US reactions were predictably based on its die-hard anti-communism. This was a time when progressive intellectuals and some of the most creative minds in the USA were being persecuted by the Committee on Un-American Activities headed by McCarthy. McCarthyism's this frightening persecution was referred to, nurtured a mindset that in a sense was epitomised by Lyndon B Johnson. This US vice-president, who became president after Kennedy's assassination was the Senate majority leader when the Sputnik was launched. He warned that the Soviets would soon build space platforms and drop bombs on the US, “like kids dropping rocks on cars from free-way over passes”. The United States tried to launch its own satellite soon after, Vanguard. But as the nation watched on live television, the rocket rose just four feet and exploded. Johnson called this “one of the best publicised and most humiliating failures in our history”.


Johnson chaired the Senate Preparedness Sub-Committee on Satellite and Missile Programmes, whose report laid the basis for the future Star Wars programme, passionately embraced by Ronald Regan. The mindless nuclear arms race was thus carried forward by the US into outer space as well.


These developments impacted the US and hence the world in a different way as well. Shocked at the Soviet advances in science and technology, many in the US paid serious attention to what the Soviets were doing. A runaway best-seller, What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t, showed the immensely advanced and universalised educational system put in place by the Socialist Soviet Union. In contrast, the USA compared very poorly.


The high scientific level and democratic foundation of higher education in the USSR had received worldwide recognition. William Benton, publisher and chairman of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the seventies had opined that the level of science education in the USSR is far ahead of the education given to the students in the US. Thus, it is no wonder that the USSR was the first country to send a satellite and human being to the space. In fact, Sputnik's launch prompted massive American investment in education and technology. That concern sparked a revolution in scientific education in the US. In classrooms, educational tools began to change. Lab kits and overhead projectors were added, and educational films became part of the curriculum, imitating the USSR.


Additionally, the USA consciously adopted the policy of 'Brain Drain'. In order to overcome its relative backwardness compared to the USSR, it enticed the best of minds from the developing countries promising, 'the el dorado' – a life of milk and honey. Indeed, much of the scientific and technological advances in the subsequent period in the US have come from these sections.


The announcement by the Soviet Union on the Sputnik’s successful launch said, “Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labour of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man’s dreams into reality.” The Soviet Union followed this with the launch of Sputnik II which carried the dog Laika to observe the effect of weightlessness on life.


It was indeed refreshing to hear Michael Griffin, head of the US space agency, NASA at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik's launch, at the Russian Academy of Sciences: “I am convinced that the Sputnik accomplishment by the Russian people was responsible for the creation of the American space programme that I head today.”


The current commemorations must however spur a serious collaboration in space exploration, to look ahead into the future, in the interests of what Gagarin said when he saw the ravishing sight of Earth from space: “It is beautiful! What beauty!” International cooperation between US and Europe in space exploration led to the revolutionary space observatory – the Hubble Space Telescope. US and Russia cooperation has led to the replacement of the American Skylab station and the Soviet Mir station with the single most complex, collective space-engineering project ever attempted: the International Space Station.


Such space exploration is important not merely to satisfy human curiosity. From the fascinating photographs and information that the Hubble keeps sending, it is clear that there is much more in the universe that we do not know about. The 1980 Physics Nobel winner, James Watson Cronin says, “We think we understand the universe, but we understand only 4 per cent of everything”. He goes on to say that most of the universe – 96 per cent to be exact – is made of dark matter and energy, whose composition we simply do not fathom. 73 per cent of cosmic energy seems to consist of 'dark energy' and 23 per cent of 'dark matter' is the pervasive but unidentified stuff that holds the universe together and accelerates its expansion. Thus, leaving aside the curiosity around the existence of life elsewhere in this universe, we seem to understand very little even about that matter on our planet which created the basis for life and our subsequent civilisation.


In the background of the US decision to close its space shuttle programme that began with Columbia's flight in 1981, international cooperation becomes essential. The world is now left with only the Soyuz spacecrafts to link with the International Space Station, which is designed to function by rotating its crews of US, Russian, European and Japanese astronauts.


Some maintain that meaningful space exploration has taken place through robotic spacecrafts that have been in use since 1972. Robotic missions have landed on Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter's moon Titan, and the asteroid Eros. They have deployed devices like balloons, rovers and atmospheric probes to discover the conditions. The stunning evidence gathered was about one of Jupiter's moons, Europa. It is a giant pearlescent drop of sea-water (three times more than on Earth). Many scientists consider Europa as the most likely potential home of terrestrial life inside our solar system.


The NASA's science mission directorate, which runs all US unmanned missions, in international cooperation with the Russians, Indians, Chinese, French and others will have to carry forward such explorations in the interests of both understanding ourselves better and to comprehend our environment so that we can better protect ourselves.


The monies spent by the US on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated to cost $1.29 trillion and on the current Libyan operation, so far put at $550 million, if used for research and exploration of space would immensely benefit humanity.


Finally, consider the benefits of cooperation as against conflict: the US's Apollo programme discovered that in simulated weightlessness, astronauts could not keep records as ink did not flow in zero gravity. Apart from funding research to create now-familiar free-flow pens, the US sent a CIA team to investigate what the Soviets did. Answer: Soviets used pencils! The pencil that ironically let Gagarin down during orbit by drifting away out of his reach forcing him to pack up his logbook!