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Blast Off! | May 18, 2011

T’other night I was sat at my PC and suddenly thought “Shiiiiiit! Have I missed the space shuttle taking off, again!”

A quick flurry of typing and the NASA website said “No Jon, there’s still a couple of hours til Blast Off!” or words to that effect.

Patrick Moose - First Lord of the Space Admiralty...

So I stayed up late, watching the live feed on the web, sometimes wondering whether it was just a still shot of the shuttle on the pad, then a bird would fly by. It’s been a long time since I stayed up late (the shuttle took off at nearly 1am New Zealand Time, and I call it late – I am saddened by my own words) to watch a space event, about 25 years in fact.

Ah, the 80s, my space age – space things used to get a reasonable amount of coverage in those days, partly helped by the fact that the cold war was still in action and we were all convinced that WW III would take place at some point in the future and reduce us all to ash or mutants. My mom would often count her blessings that we lived so close to a rich target of oil refineries and steel mills – at least it’ll be quick, was her not so encouraging philosophy. I expect the personal pension market has grown enormously since the fall of the USSR. The space race was, of course, the civil side of the arms race, America’s way of telling everyone that it couldn’t figure out any more ways to spend money on military projects.

I like space technology a lot, but I do wonder what would have happened if bouncy castles had been the chosen technology for showing off national pride and prowess.

Against this backdrop though there were times of international cooperation, such as the fleet of probes that intercepted Halley’s Comet. King amongst these was the utterly insane Giotto, a barrel of thing that was sent to actually photograph the comet’s nucleus at close range. Crazy fool.

Me and my dad stayed up late that night in March 1986, when I was but 10 and he a fighting fit 50. Patrick Moore was our MC and he talked us through all kinds of stuff that I don’t remember – I might well have been playing with Lego at the same time, which has the power to block out the world. I have odd snapshot memories of men talking in a studio and the big question was “will it survive?”

That's the nucleus of Halley's Comet - it wasn't quite what I was hoping for...

I think we saw a picture (maybe several), taken by the probe, on TV that night but we definitely had a picture in the newspaper the next day. It was very strange, all a bit abstract, with bands of bright, bright colour it looked like much of the graphic design of the era, not the living mass of a comet. Regardless, I cut the picture out and kept it, in fact it’s probably still in a box at my mom’s house somewhere.

But this appeared later - I don't know when though, because I had to wait for the internet to come along before I saw it...

Now I’m wondering what space event I’ll be staying up late to watch in 25 years time… the first man on Mars perhaps? I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but at the rate things are going it’s more likely to be “The first man in space for 10 years.”

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