Years Of Public Indifference – But Has Social Media Brought Us To The Cusp Of Another Golden Space Age?

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Those famous words, spoken by Neil Armstrong as he became the first person to set foot on the Moon in July, 1969, are forever etched on the consciousness of humanity.

The Moon landing signalled the climax of a decade long Space Race between the USA and the USSR, which captivated the world, as new feats of technological genius took us beyond our home planet for the first time.

What has followed in the 40 years or so since Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquillity has been a disappointing stagnation of space exploration – and decades of public disinterest.

However, as Social Media has risen to become perhaps the most common form of communication for many people around the world, NASA is now beginning to harness the power of websites such as Twitter to rekindle interest in the science of space.

So, is interest in space about to be re-ignited?

Certainly in recent times there has been some excitement surrounding space.

Earlier this year, NASA’s Curiosity rover made a successful landing on the surface of Mars. Since then, it has started to analyse the Martian landscape, sending back fascinating photographs of geographical features and finding some evidence to support the theory that water was present on Mars up until relatively recently.

Curiosity’s findings have sparked such a level of interest that the rover now has a twitter account, followed by well over a million people. From here, NASA tweets daily images and progress updates of the machine’s journey, often using it to point to their long term goal of landing humans on the planet in coming years:

“@MarsCuriosity: I’m taking radiation readings to help future human explorers & detected elusive whirlwinds on Mars…”

Along with a multitude of other Twitter accounts, NASA is helping to make science fun and interesting again, and there is clearly an effort on their part to draw the public back in by stimulating debate on space exploration.

While not technically classified as space exploration, perhaps the largest interest surrounding a story of this ilk was Felix Baumgartner’s stunning Red Bull Stratos skydive from the edge of space.

The Austrian ascended 25 miles into the upper atmosphere inside a capsule carried by a large helium balloon, before leaping back to Earth and exceeding the speed of sound in the process.

His jump in mid-October was covered by most major news networks, not just by means of live broadcast but also by extensive live-blogging via Twitter.

Red Bull Stratos themselves set up a partnership with YouTube and streamed the jump in its entirety to millions across the world.

NASA were of course watching intently, as many of the components of Baumgartner’s spacesuit and capsule may be used in future spacecraft:

“@NASA: Congratulations to Felix Baumgartner and @RedBullStratos on a record-breaking leap from the edge of space!” 

However, times have changed. The 1960’s glamour of space has long since dissipated.

We find ourselves in the middle of the worst recession for a generation. Unfortunately, the governments of the world would be committing political suicide if they attempted to justify the sanctioning of the billions of dollars needed to bring about a new dawn of space exploration, while the global economy limps weakly under the weight of skyrocketing rates of unemployment and poverty.

Even in previous decades, when economic concerns were not as great a burden, the appetite in the United States for serious advances in space was very clearly not there.

The glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes came to an end as the 1970’s dawned, and America settled for the Space Shuttle as their next launch vehicle.

Even the name – “shuttle” – implies a mundane and routine approach to space travel.

So it was, that throughout the 1980’s and beyond only the occasional disaster piqued public interest in space.

First, there was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, which disintegrated only one minute after leaving the launchpad, killing the crew instantly.

And an unpleasant case of déjà vu occurred in 2003 when Space Shuttle Discovery burned up during re-entry.

The relative lack of ambition throughout this period clearly caused interest in NASA to trickle away gradually, as astronauts became anonymous engineers who simply made their way back and forth from the International Space Station, anchored just above the atmosphere in Low Earth Orbit.

Only a few years ago, when NASA’s Constellation programme was unveiled with the grand goal of revisiting the Moon before pressing onward to Mars, it was then subsequently cancelled after many of the spacecraft had been designed, built and test launched.

While Social Media has started to spread interest in space once again, that interest may have to be tempered for some years to come.

There is little doubt that if NASA were to announce a definite plan to head back amongst the stars once more, there would be a healthy appetite around the world for it.

Space travel, by nature, entails a sense of danger which must be overcome with bravery and technical ability.

And as the Voyager 1 probe showed when it produced the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph, space can show us how fragile and tiny we are in the grand scheme of things.

Above all though, space represents an escape from normality – an opportunity to take a moment to realise that there is so much out there we have yet to marvel at.

Neil Armstrong, one of the great voyagers of the 20th Century, passed away in August, leaving a world that had sadly lost its spirit of inquisitiveness in the cosmos.

That spirit will one day be resurrected, but it will not be now.

When the time comes, Social Media will play a massive part at the forefront of space travel, providing unique insights to the day-to-day progress of missions, and keeping people informed of new developments as those missions reach their climax.

It appears however, that that time will not be now.

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