Violently tumbling end over end, Gemini 8 was the first American manned spacecraft to suffer a major technical failure during a mission.  Its two-man crew, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott, were not far from blacking out as fifty wild revolutions a minute span them round and around.  Wrestling with the controls, Armstrong was the best pilot NASA had.  Much later Scott told a friend of mine that he knew they were in big trouble when Armstrong turned to him and said, ‘Do you want to try?’

Anniversaries and conspiracies

That incident from 1966 is one of a series of space-related anniversaries which come up this month of March.  A more famous close shave happened to Apollo 13, one of whose main oxygen tanks blew up on the way to the moon.  March saw the birth of its Commander, Jim Lovell.  It also saw the birth of the first and youngest woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.  That was way back in 1963 but to this day she’s the only woman to have made a solo flight in the cosmos.

As for the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin was also born in March and thirty-four years later, in 1968, he died the same month in a plane crash that has provoked conspiracy theories ranging from him losing control of his jet through taking potshots at wild deer to being assassinated by Leonid Brezhnev.

Other astronomical births this month include father of the US lunar programme, Wernher von Braun and British astronomer and Sky at Night presenter, Patrick Moore.

Blowing hot and cold

Moore would have told you about March’s planetary anniversaries including the first contact between a space probe and another planet when the Russian Venera III craft hit the surface of Venus while exceeding the speed limit.  Contact had been lost due to overheating.  Not surprising.  The goddess of love gave her name to this ‘twin’ of the earth but Venus has sulphuric acid clouds and a temperature equivalent to a blast furnace.  Its mirror opposite is Uranus.  First observed by Sir William Herschel in March 1781, the atmosphere of Uranus can drop to minus 224 degrees, which would freeze your lungs to solid sponge, and it can also generate 560 mph winds – equivalent to the force of a volcano.

Prime directive

But anyway, where does this urge to explore space come from, whether from the comfort of a telescope or the sharp end of a Saturn V?

The instinct to learn is present in all of us from infancy onwards, even before.  Fetuses recognize their mothers’ voices and even the language she speaks.  Once a baby is born, it only takes about ten months for her or him to begin exploring their surroundings.

The impulse may well be hard-wired.  That’s certainly the view of neuropsychologist, Mark Solms.  Working with a fusion of the views of Freud and neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, Solms promotes the existence of seven innate emotional needs in us.  Some of them are bodily drives, some of them are emotional instincts and some of them are sensory reflexes.  The seven are:  lust, rage, fear, panic-grief, care, play and – the one we’re interested in here – seeking.


Solms describes seeking as a foraging drive, the need to explore and engage with the outside world.  The feeling associated with it is ‘I’m optimistic there’s something good out there and I want it’.

That feeling first made us hunter-gatherers and now it has made us astronomers and astronauts.  You often hear people say of space exploration:  ‘The money would be better spent on …’.  But to argue that way is to come up against a fundamental human drive – seeking – that will not be denied.  We’re programmed to be curious.

This thing is bigger than us

There’s a spiritual element to all this too:  a fascination with things that are bigger than we are.  The first astronauts to orbit the moon, the crew of Apollo 8, did so on Christmas Eve 1968 and read from the book of Genesis to a billion people tuned in across sixty-four countries.  ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … ‘.  And few of the twelve (to-date) moonwalking astronauts returned home without being changed in some way.

The ‘bigger than us’ phenomenon is daily reinforced in those who study the universe.  As I write, the largest galaxy known to humanity has just been discovered.  It’s over sixteen light years wide.  That’s 160 times wider than the galaxy we live in, the Milky Way.

Won’t take no for an answer

How many planets in that galaxy could potentially support life?   Because that’s the quest we’re currently undertaking in search of an answer we’re currently closing in on.  It’s been calculated that our own modest-sized Milky Way contains sixteen billion possibly habitable worlds.

It’s highly likely that well within the lifetime of many people reading this we’ll know for sure, and my guess is the answer will be that life can and does exist beyond the Earth.  The first discoveries will probably be of primitive organisms that will turn out to be widespread across the universe.  After that, who knows?  In the coming decades we will be capable of spotting any signs of civilizations on exoplanets just by looking for tell-tale traces in their atmospheres.

Black whole

The technology to do all this is mind-boggling, as are the implications for us.  Star Trek the Motion Picture closes with Jim Kirk being asked what heading he wants set for the Enterprise.  His reply is simply: ‘Out there’.  The process of exploring ‘out there’, in space and across all dimensions of human knowledge, will almost certainly reveal that the sum total of what we don’t know is far greater than the sum total of what we do know.