Off the planet – Mahir Ali


IN the pioneering phase of human space exploration, which can roughly be dated to the dozen years between the first Soviet Sputnik in 1957 to the initial manned landing on the moon, the American Apollo 11 mission in 1969, long-standing fantasies of routine travel beyond the confines of our planet reached a fever pitch.

It was widely assumed in those halcyon days that by the 21st century space travel would be commonplace, with routine trips to the moon, Mars and perhaps even beyond. What was not envisaged, as far as one can tell, is scientifically irrelevant vanity missions to the edge of space by billionaires who can’t think of better ways to expend their excessive wealth.

Last month, Virgin mogul Richard Branson beat Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to the countdown. Both of them shot up a little more than 80 kilometres in their private rockets, experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, then promptly came down to earth. Neither flight lasted much more than 10 minutes.

Branson is keen on orbiting hotels, but didn’t bother attempting any kind of orbit himself. Future flights are open to anyone who can cough up a quarter of a million dollars. Up and down, a fleeting experience of weightlessness, a glimpse from way above a fragile planet that may soon become uninhabitable thanks in large part to the outrages of capitalism. Any takers? Apparently there are 600.


Bezos went a bit higher than Branson, and he has bigger ambitions. His public offer of a $2 billion bribe to Nasa for a contract to build the first American moon lander since the 1970s has been trumped by fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX enterprise. Musk, incidentally, is reported to have booked a flight on one of Branson’s rockets.

Quite amazingly even for the Amazon tycoon, Bezos had the audacity to thank his employees and customers for enabling his superfluous space adventure. These are the same employees, mind you, who are obliged to urinate into bottles because toilet breaks are too time-consuming.

Any number of commentators — including in the Bezos-owned Washington Post — have pointed out that some of the world’s richest men, who get away with paying hardly anything in taxes, would have been far better advised to expend their excess resources on the planet they live on, rather than on making fanciful plans to escape it when the going gets rough.

What has far less frequently been pointed out is that Bezos’ and Branson’s journeys were incredibly less impressive than what was happening 60 years ago.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to be unleashed from Earth’s gravitational pull, and the first to look down on the planet from such a tremendous height — and to fall in love with it all over again, in the light of his then unique oversight.

His accomplishment is all the more remarkable when one considers the fact that even his closest colleagues in the endeavour were only 50 per cent sure that he would return unscathed from it. The incredible tale of his journey is superbly recounted in Beyond, Stephen Walker’s scintillating account, published earlier this year, of all that led up to Gagarin’s mission and its aftermath.

Eisen­hower-era America was appalled by the idea of a small Soviet sphere called Sputnik — which could be translated as ‘fellow traveller’ — orbiting the planet in 1957. Throwing a human being into space was the next obvious landmark. American steps towards that goal floundered, and were extensively publicised.

The Soviets proceeded secretly. Disasters, when they happened, could be covered up. The American programme was by the 1960s guided by a Nazi veteran and former SS major by the name of Wernher von Braun, poached from the dying embers of a defeated Germany. His then unknown rival Soviet rocket scientist was Sergei Korovlev.

He was top secret, and a very different person. Unlike von Braun, he had not thrived on totalitarianism but suffered from it, spending six years in Stalin’s gulag. He survived the experience, but never quite recovered from it. On the eve of a fatal operation personally conducted in 1966 by the Soviet health minister, he shared his deepest thoughts with Gagarin, whom he treated as a son.

The Soviet space programme floundered after Korovlev’s demise, and it had fallen well behind by the time Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Gagarin’s death in an air crash in 1968 can retrospectively be seen as spelling the end of Soviet supremacy in the space race. It had included not just the first satellite and the first man in space, but also the first woman, the first multi-cosmonaut endeavours, and the first spacewalk.

Sixty years ago this week, Gagarin’s close friend Gherman Titov, who never got over being overlooked for the first manned space flight, orbited the earth 17 times. It could be a while before Branson or Bezos matches that achievement.