Lessons from Looking Up

Lessons from Looking Up

June 1, 2020
Reading Time: 8 minutes

I love Space. I spend a significant amount of my time reading about space travel, rocket engineering and the history of spaceflight. I watch most rocket launches through online live streams and follow the journeys of many astronauts through their training, launch and work in micro-gravity. I do research and watch interviews with people that have been to space to better understand the mindset required by astronauts with an ever-fading hope of getting the opportunity to go to space myself. Naturally, I watched the recent Spacex and NASA effort to put the first humans into orbit on a commercially made vehicle with awe and a tinge of jealousy.

I even have an app on my phone to tell me when the International Space Station will be visible in the sky where I live and I always run outside to try to catch a glimpse of humanities greatest engineering achievement.

Whenever I look up at the International Space Station, I feel humbled, I feel awestruck, I feel pride but I also feel shame.

I feel shame not because I may never achieve a goal of space travel, but because for those that do will see our world at it's most magnificent before returning to see it at it's worst. I feel shame because despite our advancements, our world is still unjust and true equality remains out of reach. I feel shame because poverty and prejudice in even our most developed nations remain suffocatingly present.

How can we live in a world, one that we've figured out how to leave and still be so stuck in the past on so many issues?

Less than 250 people have braved the journey to the space station, one that does not guarantee a safe return, to participate in the greatest research effort of our lives. Conducting experiments that are literally out of this world for the benefit of us all. According to Nasa, research on the ISS has helped develop vaccines and given us an understanding of how our bodies respond to gravity. We now understand the true importance of protecting ourselves from solar radiation and developed unique technologies to sustain human life in an inhospitable environment for months on end.

The Canadarm2, a robotic arm on the outside of the ISS that manoeuvres components, visiting spacecraft and even astronauts around, became the basis of tools now used to operate on otherwise inoperable tumours. And medical equipment developed for Astronauts have found their way to benefitting the world through advancements in laser eye surgery and ultrasound monitoring. From this orbiting outpost, we can observe the impacts of climate change, deforestation and even our disposal of waste. These brave men and women train for years on end to travel beyond the reach of safety to perform tasks that ultimately help us all. And it's hard not to feel a sense of shame for when they return, they will find a world in a worse state than they left it. Entrusted to us to look after and nurture and refine, but the vast majority of its guardians, myself included, selfishly exploited it's resources and failed at every opportunity to give something back.

For the efforts of years of specialist research and countless brave exploits, Astronauts can enjoy clean drinking water year-round inside a habitat more than 250 miles away from the nearest ocean. Yet they will return to find 780 million people still without access to clean drinking water. The inspired work of engineers and scientists have allowed our space-travelling heroes to enjoy basic hygiene in an environment where running water isn't an option, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people die from poor sanitation and hygiene-related illnesses with leading research indicating that as many as 289,000 women die every year in childbirth due to a lack of water, sanitation and hygiene.

Adventures off-planet are no longer limited to just men either and in 2024, NASA intends to put the first woman on the Moon. Returning to the moon is a colossal undertaking, costing billions in research and development and requires the commitment of thousands of talented individuals and the preparation of a small few to make the ultimate sacrifice for the advancement of science, technology, exploration and now, equality. In ensuring the safety of those that set foot on the lunar surface, engineers have developed a new spacesuit, one that is more suitable for women than it's predecessor. Yet, in the United Kindom police officers are still not equipped with body armour that is suitable for women, even after 20 years of requests stemming from a fatality of an officer who was stabbed after having to remove her restrictive armour in order to perform a task. And in 1999 a female office even underwent breast reduction surgery because of the difficulties and health effects of wearing ill-fitting protective armour.

How we could ever become a multi-planetary species when we haven't yet mastered being a multi-cultural one?

Most recently, of course, we've once again seen the brutality of man and it's recklessness through the killing of George Floyd. Another innocent life has once again been taken for nothing more than the colour of a person's skin. Something that is sadly nothing new. But our outrage is treated as the thing that isn't normal, not the murder of an innocent man.

Here in the UK, the 2019 General Election was hailed for bringing together the most racially diverse parliament to date. Personally, I struggle to see 1 in 10 as diverse, especially when the 1 in that 10 represents every other ethnic group that is not White British. The current US Congress also boasts the most ethnically diverse house ever, beating the UK with 1 in 5, twice that of the UK, however, the US Congress supposedly represents (at the time of writing) 4.93 times more people than the UK.

When I think about these things in the context of the incredible advancements we've made in areas like space travel, it seems impossible to comprehend how we could ever become a multi-planetary species when we haven't yet mastered being a multi-cultural one? It's a heartbreaking truth that not only did such inequalities even come to exist but that they still exist and continue to hold us back.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but they made a start!

When I look up and see the International Space Station in the night sky and feel shame, I don't feel hopeless.

I don't feel hopeless because real change is never truly out of reach. But change takes time, it needs action. Rome wasn't built in a day, but they made a start! All too often we see efforts quashed by impatience. Ignorance is no longer an option. The time for change is now. But progress needs planning and the consideration of all points of view.

We live in a conscious world. One that finally understands it's own impact. Well, mostly. And we know that recklessly charging forward without question usually leads to disaster. And in knowing this, we can and must work to close the gap between the fortunate and unfortunate, the safe and unsafe, the clean and unclean, the free and the oppressed. We need to close the gap in data and open the eyes of those who are blinded.

Perhaps my own generation will never see the real benefits of these changes but to leave the world worse than we found it will be what our children remember us for the most.

Change is hard, but as we collectively realise during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the world can adopt change. But imminent disaster must not remain our only motivation.

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