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I’m often asked how long I’ve ‘been into this space stuff’. The easy answer is ‘always’ and it’s true, as my mum will tell you. In 1971, she dutifully bought box after box of Brooke Bond Tea, just so I could collect their ‘The Race into Space’ card set and mount them in the special booklet. I still have it, it’s here beside me on the sofa right now (being walked on by the cat... she has absolutely no respect for history, I tell you...) and flicking through its pages of beautifully painted cards is as fascinating today as it was then. The only problem is the dates their experts predicted for ‘future space exploration’ events were wildly optimistic.


It’s


understandable, I suppose; everyone was still giddy after the successful landing of Apollo 11 and it seemed like the universe was ours to conquer, with Moonbases and missions to Mars all expected to happen over the next decade or so, unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way. Sadly, those things are *still* in our future, *still* a couple of decades away at best. Cards 48 and 49 show a ‘Lunar Shuttle’ and ‘Moon Base’ respectively, illustrating predictions of lunar colonisation in the late-1970s. Heartbreakingly for me, the final card in the booklet, number 50, shows a pair of sleek, nuclear powered spacecraft arriving at Mars and sending astronauts down to its surface - in 1982. 1982! Sob! We’ll be lucky if people are standing on Mars by 2040 at this rate...


I know we’ve come a long way and have explored Pluto and beyond with probes but it’s hard not to be disappointed and frustrated that we didn’t have astronauts observing last month’s solar eclipse from the Moon and maybe even from Mars.


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Going back to the album, card #47 is titled ‘The Grand Tour’ and its accompanying text discusses a proposal for a reconnaissance mission into deep space by a probe in 1977, six years after the album was published. Well, the experts got that right, because that mission


LETTER FROM THE SOUTH...


is now history and we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launches of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes in 1977 which embarked on that Grand Tour. Those two spindly robots, with their big radio dishes, primitive cameras and even more primitive computers revolutionised our understanding of the four most distant worlds in our solar system, making one startling discovery after another along the way. It was a golden age of solar system exploration. As you read this, we’re coming to the end of another such golden age.


More than a decade ago, a robot probe called Cassini went into orbit around Saturn and every day since then, it has taken and sent back incredible images of the planet’s rings, moons and clouds. It has given us more discoveries than we dared dream possible and brought Saturn and its family of satellites to life - and has even shown us where there might be life on several of its moons. On September 15th - as you probably saw on TV - the Cassini mission came to an end when the probe went into a kamikaze dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it burned up like a brilliant shooting star. This was done deliberately to prevent an accidental collision with one of those possible life- bearing moons, a collision which would at best have contaminated the moon with nuclear fallout from Cassini’s generator and at worst destroyed that life. I’ll be sad to see the mission end but it’s the right thing to do.


Today’s space mad kids have a lot to look forward to. As they grow up, they should see astronauts return to the Moon, private and commercial space stations being built and space probes landing on and looking for life beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. And that crewed mission to Mars? I expect that won’t happen until 2040 at the earliest, when my precious ‘The Race into Space’ card album will be almost 70 years old.


And if I’m still around then - I’ll be 76 - I’m sure I’ll have it beside me and will flick through its yellowed pages to


look at card #50 again as I watch the first man or woman finally walk on Mars.


Stuart Atkinson in Duror, Scotland. Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal http://cumbriansky.wordpress.com


17 AUGUST 2017 ISSUE 417 PAGE 12


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