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There's space for all

Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin's flight, we know very little about the universe. Nations must collaborate to improve our understanding of the outer world and our lives. Sitaram Yechury writes.

columns Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:28 IST

Fifty years ago, my school in Hyderabad was fortunate enough to be chosen to receive Yuri Gagarin at the airport. As he walked past us, I moved to touch him - to find out if human flesh becomes any different after experiencing weightlessness in space. Gagarin had gone "where no man had gone before". During the days of Cold War hostilities, it was unacceptable for the US to acknowledge the superiority of the socialist system in expanding the frontiers of human endeavour into space. Though US President John F Kennedy congratulated the Soviet Union after the success of Gagarin's flight, he nevertheless had to appear on national TV to assuage hurt American pride by assuring them that they would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1969, the US did it.

However, it is truly refreshing to see the universal commemoration of Gagarin's flight. The centerpiece was when a US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts were sent off on April 12 on a Soyuz craft emblazoned with a portrait of Gagarin from that very launch pad that put the latter'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 (ISS), 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: "Happy Yuri's Night".

Under the stewardship of Sergei Korolyov, the Soviet space programme went on to put the first dog (Laika) and the first woman Valentina Tereshkova in space, oversaw the first space walk and established the Mir space station. Meanwhile, the US generously funded the Nasa Apollo programme that finally put a man on the moon. However, the Soviets had earlier soft-landed a remote craft. The current commemorations must spur a serious collaboration among countries in space exploration. The US and Europe have put together the revolutionary space observatory - the Hubble Space Telescope. The cooperation between the US and Russia has led to the replacement of the American Skylab station and the Soviet Mir station with the ISS, the single-most complex, collective space-engineering project ever attempted.

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. James Watson Cronin, the 1980 physics Nobel Prize winner, says, "We think we understand the universe, but we understand only 4% of everything". He goes on to say that 96% is made of dark matter and energy, whose composition we cannot fathom. Around 73% of cosmic energy seems to consist of 'dark energy' and 23% 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 the matter that created the basis for life and civilisation.

International cooperation becomes all the more essential since the US has decided to close its space shuttle programme that began with Columbia's flight in 1981. The world is now left with only the Soyuz spacecraft to keep a link with the ISS, which is designed to function by rotating its crew members comprising US, Russian, European and Japanese astronauts.

Some maintain that meaningful space exploration has taken place through robotic spacecraft 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 balloons, rovers and atmospheric probes to discover the conditions, like the stunning evidence from one of Jupiter's moons, Europa. It is a giant pearlescent drop of seawater (three times more than on Earth). Many scientists consider Europa as the most likely home of terrestrial life inside our solar system.

The NASA's science mission directorate, which runs all US unmanned missions, must strengthen international cooperation with the Russians, Indians, Chinese, French and others, to carry forward such explorations in the interest 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 at $1.29 trillion and on the current Libyan operation, so far put at $550 million, could be put to better use for research and exploration of space benefiting humanity immensely.

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 in orbit by drifting away out of his reach forcing him to pack up his logbook!

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP.

The views expressed by the author are personal.