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8 July 2017

The real value of space travel is recognising the beauty of our planet

We, and other living things, are part of this Earth – and without it we are nothing.

By John Burnside

In March 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first human to walk in space, emerging from the tiny Voskhod 3KD module to float high above the Earth for just over 12 minutes. As a ten-year-old space nerd, I was thrilled and I dreamed of emulating my new hero some day.

I had no idea then that Leonov’s specially designed suit had expanded so much during the spacewalk that he almost didn’t make it back through the craft’s narrow door, or that, on the voyage home, Voskhod was driven so far off course that it plunged to Earth several hundred miles from its target, landing in the Siberian Upper Kama Upland, an area populated mostly by wolves and bears.

These exploits aside, what made Leonov a hero for me was what he said after he was recovered from the snowy wastes: “The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone. Our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ‘round’ meant until I saw Earth from space.”

By then, pictures spoke louder than words and, because of technical problems, Leonov was unable to capture an image of what he was seeing: that would have to wait until Bill Anders took the Earthrise photograph from lunar orbit in 1968 (above).

If we consider Leonov’s words and Anders’s picture together, we are reminded of the two most important lessons of space travel: first, that this blue, green and terra-sienna-coloured planet is uniquely beautiful; and second, that we are here to defend it “like a holy relic”. What comes across from the early space travellers is a privileged sense of belonging. In a crudely material age, they learned that we, and other living things, are part of this Earth, and without it we are nothing.

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Behind this new understanding, not always fully expressed, was an appreciation that human societies exist in order to have a culture – and for no other reason. The accumulation of vast wealth is not only a chimera; it is also a symptom of mental illness. Once we have sufficient food and shelter, any moderately sane human gets down to the more important business of painting still lifes, playing ice hockey, singing part-songs, writing poetry and looking at the stars.

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Our voyages into space were justified to the money men by the technologies they spawned, but their real achievement was a handful of never-seen-before images alongside a few spontaneously lyrical sentences, spoken by men and women whose training did not include the composition of miniature praise poems.

Those new visual perspectives and expressions of awe gave us fleeting opportunities to break away from a mechanistic, Newtonian world-view, the kind that lies behind Stephen Hawking’s recent call for human beings to abandon this planet we have ruined and travel into space to find a new home. Hawking doesn’t tell us who “the chosen ones” will be on this great voyage of discovery, or what will happen to those left behind.

Such an irresponsible, Mad Hatter’s tea party vision of our relationship to the planet is the very opposite of Leonov’s recognition of the Earth as a holy relic and it should be seen for what it is: the childish daydream of a functional, anthropocentric culture that, having done so much damage, lacks the courage to make amends or, failing that, to go down honourably with the mother ship.

This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania