The Twentieth Planetary Congress

September 21, 2007

The Association of Space Explorers is in town – qualification for membership at least one orbit of the Earth. (I guess a round the world ticket on British Airways doesn’t count). So two days ago the astronauts, cosmonauts, and the tiny number of euro-nauts were dispersed about the Schools of Scotland giving inspirational talks. Then yesterday there was a public conference hosted by the University, with a whole bunch of interesting talks – about fire safety on spacecraft; about how to keep crew members fed all the way to Mars; about returning to the Moon; and about how space exploration has changed our attitude to Earth and its fragility.

It was a strange occasion for various reasons. Firstly, the audience was about one third each crumbling astronauts, university scientists, and high school kids, all sitting in different parts of the room. Secondly, my daughter was there, which I am not used to at scientific meetings. She made faces at me from across the auditorium anytime somebody said something vaguely rude about astronomers. Thirdly, it was all taking place in the famous Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. During the intervals, walking the corridors drinking tea, I felt I should be plotting against other factions, watching out for the ecclesiastical knife, and fretting about gay bishops and so on.

There was a talk about the NASA “return to the Moon” program, now called Constellation (not to be confused with Constellation-X, the big X-ray mission). I still can’t quite decide what I feel about money on the manned space program versus the unmanned science programme, but it depends on how you ask the question. If the question is “well, we got so much money for space stuff – do you wanna spend it on astronauts or on telescopes and space probes ?” then my answer is “telescopes please”. But if the question is “should we spend another billion or ten on bombing Iran, or should we train up some astronauts for going to the moon ?” then my answer is “why are you even asking ?”