This Side of the Pond – March 20

By Sarah Pridgeon


I write to you this week with stars in my eyes. A new television series launched last weekend and it has reignited my inner astronaut. In case you missed the first episode, Cosmos is a remake of the original journey of the imagination that was hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan in the 1980s.

This time, it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm, a man who commands my unwavering attention. His charisma makes him the perfect envoy for the science community, while his own cosmological talents are hardly to be sniffed at. Tyson’s book, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, was the last birthday gift I gave to my late grandfather, from whom I inherited my space-faring mindset.

I grew up on a diet of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. An avid reader since I was knee high to a grasshopper, I found plenty to entertain me on my granddad’s bookshelves. Meanwhile, to this day, I regard the original Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as family traditions.

Clarke himself hailed from the county next door and, though I am still friends with two college-mates born in the same tiny town, I never had the pleasure of meeting the great man himself. He had long since upped sticks to Sri Lanka, much to my chagrin.

There’s a reason that I fell in love with science fiction. It was Foundation and Rendezvous With Rama that introduced me to the idea of being a tiny speck on a little planet in a vast and unknown universe. It was through Clarke’s predictions of the internet, the Spaceguard program and satellites and Asimov’s thoughts on robotics that I watched the future arrive.

Science fiction has a long history of inspiring ideas that will one day come to pass, almost as though these sages are planting thoughts in our minds. Clarke even predicted the iPad.

Since those good old days with my grandfather, plenty of authors have carried the torch and it remains my go-to genre, but the sciences of the sky have blossomed even further – and that’s where Tyson comes in. I discovered his work a decade ago and was impressed as much by his swagger as his words. These days, it seems, it’s cool to be a space buff.

We have a similarly debonair scientist in England by the name of Professor Brian Cox. He’s known for making astrophysics a part of popular culture and emitting such inspiring quotes as: “We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”

It certainly stirs the imagination but, despite Professor Cox’s presence on several streaming video services, I am unable to share his wisdom at home. With his soft voice and northern accent, he has a unique ability to send my husband into a deep and immediate sleep, which really isn’t the best way to learn about astrophysics.

Fortunately, Tyson has no such effect, so I was not alone in enjoying the pilot of Cosmos. And though astronomy is not quite so deeply ingrained in my husband’s consciousness, he had almost as much fun watching it as I did.

The original is still the most widely watched public television series in the world; more than 60 countries and 500 million people have enjoyed it since its 1980 debut. In the time since it aired, we have discovered a thousand new planets and our understanding of the universe has advanced dramatically – as, it seems from the new version, has our ability to create special effects.

For me, mankind’s journey into space is the most important work our species has ever done and the International Space Station our greatest achievement. And it’s all due to the imagination of the United States of America, which makes me a very proud resident indeed.

When the space age began, over in Europe it was really only the Russians who were feeling motivated to spend their cash and it’s certainly not thanks to the English that we made it to the moon. As comedian Eddie Izzard once said: while America was testing its space rockets, we didn’t have the money to get a man in a tracksuit up a ladder.

“Have you got more ladder? We’re not quite at the moon yet, but I can see right over the tops of the houses. Fantastic!”
Even now, we’ve only managed to launch six of our own into space and they’ve all been the carbuncles on the side of American or Soviet crafts. The first Brit in space was Helen Sharman in 1991 and, despite heroic efforts to fund her from a flower company and the people who made floppy disks, it was only thanks to President Mikhail Gorbachev’s generosity that it ever happened at all.

We enjoy flicking satellites into orbit, but we’re not exactly a cornerstone of the space station project. Arthur C. Clarke often wrote of the UK one day having a thriving space program of its own; sadly, he’d still be disappointed.

Growing up in a land where space wasn’t getting any closer, I looked to NASA for my inspiration – and, oh, how they delivered. This country was launching things at the stars almost faster than I could keep up with, planting its flag on lunar soil, sending probes whizzing towards the boundaries of the solar system and driving little vehicles around Mars. All of that and more for just half a penny on the tax dollar – it’s amazing what can be achieved when we dream that dream of tomorrow.

Now that I live here, I can officially call myself a part of the space program. I may not be likely to land on the moon myself, but I know that my tax dollars have been contributing to the cause and I can stand under clear skies to watch the stars I could never see through the lights of London.

This weekend, while I’m waiting for the next episode of Cosmos, I have decided to celebrate what makes this country great – and will keep it great, thousands of years after we’re gone. If you feel like joining me, the International Space Station will be a speck of light in our sky at precisely 5.17 a.m. on Saturday.