I just really love space.
Sometime between 2013 and 2015 – the exact date evades me now – I was sitting in the lounge of a hotel with my dad, waiting for my dance class to start. What’s important about this anecdote is not the hotel or the dance class: it’s the newspaper we were flipping through as we bided the time. While I usually skipped to the inside games page with the comics and the sudoku, my dad did occasionally read the articles inside. And so it was by chance really that we stumbled across the report that detailed the flyby past Pluto planned for a certain adventurous space rover. I marvelled over the incredulous achievements of space technology and my dad put the expected date of the flyby into his phone calendar, so we’d remember when to look out for the historic moment.
A few months later – maybe even a year – my dad’s calendar popped up onto his screen, reminding us that history was to be made. And sure as rain, the brainchild of human determination and intrigue flew past a planet smaller than some of our own countries and sent the photos home, home to the humans who so carefully crafted a creature whose only mission was to leave and never return.
I cannot tell you when my love for space first bloomed. All I can say is that ever since I could look up to the sky, I’ve lost my heart to the stars.
For a good portion of my life, I lost my head to space too. In grade nine, a pivotal year in the life of a South African high school student – as if each year everywhere is not – I watched both The Martian and Gravity, the weekend before the Very Important Assembly on choosing our subjects. You’d think spending an entire weekend watching two movies about space disasters would put one off reaching for the stars. My sister would second that, she left the room within ten minutes of Gravity playing and she refuses to see it through to the end. For me, it was the exact opposite and I planned a future in science with the ultimate end goal of going into orbit.
I’m not joking! I decided: I was going to be an astronaut. As my family was en route to becoming Canadian residents, I knew I’d be able to apply through the Canadian Space Agency so I exhausted both the CSA and NASA websites looking for application requirements. I was the right height to fit inside the rockets – and had luckily stopped growing anyways; I had a keen enthusiasm in science – I’d have to pursue a higher degree in any one of numerous scientific fields – and I really, really wanted to go to space – perhaps the most important box to check. In fact, if I had dedicated myself from the get-go, I probably could be at least conversationally literate in the required Russian by now.
So, as I sat in the Very Important Assembly about subject choices, I flipped through the booklet and circled all the sciences: Physics and Chemistry, Biology and IT. I added my own prospective career (astronaut!) onto the front page which listed the various doors the assembly preached were opening now. A couple of weeks later, at my Very Important School Counsellor Meeting, the school psychologist asked me what I wanted to do when I was older and after giving her my lifelong answer – write! – I gingerly admitted I also wanted to be an astronaut. She encouraged my enthusiasm and approved me for all the sciences and extra subjects I wanted to take. In hindsight, she was probably bewildered that such a smart child had such an impractical dream but I appreciate her dutiful motivation to support a fourteen-year-old’s wish to touch the stars.
Every project that followed the Space Movie Weekend was centred around my desire to break through the atmosphere. When I had to give an Afrikaans oral on dangerous careers, I stuttered out a few carefully crafted descriptions of the daring spacewalks I hoped one day to perform. When I had to present a report on a possible future career with steps on how I was to pursue it, I put together a very informative pamphlet with lots of pictures of outer space – and I should’ve earned full marks for that because I had to do all the research while in bed because I was sick for a week.
I really did want to go to space – and if it was still my dream to be an astronaut I probably would still be on my way. But somewhere along the line, I realised that such intensely scientific studies weren’t my cup of tea, and I’m actually more of an art-centred student. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. It’s overwhelmingly fascinating and I love the satisfaction of learning the facts and formulas that guide the oddities of the world. But I’d be much more suited to both creative and academic pursuits on Earth. There’s still so much of this planet I have left to see – and as much as I want to see it from space, I’d love to see it from the ground too.
So although my aspirations to become an astronaut were short-lived, my fascination with space is not. I still watch the sky with the same awe; still spend nights zooming out of Google Earth just to see how small our blue-green home really is in comparison with the expanse around us. I still watch videos explaining the mysteries of the unknown; still buy the National Geographic specials on the various interstellar odysseys us mere earthlings are carrying out.
I once thought to myself, “I was born in the wrong era”. I should’ve been born far, far into the future, where space travel is common-place and to see the planet in its entirety – adorned with a backdrop of ever dying stars – was not a far-fetched dream. I immediately corrected myself, and I’ll do so here again.
I was born into an age of wonder, of rapidly developing technology and a gold-rush fever demanding constant exploration. I was born into an age of discovery, of revelations of something escaping my comprehension, and an unquenchable thirst to keep on searching. I was born into an era of curiosity, of realities beyond my wildest dreams, of a sky full of opportunity.
There is something so existentially thrilling about realising just how big the universe around you is. Sometimes it can be scary – you can feel so small and insignificant. Other times, it’s unbelievable just how much we have managed to discover about the infinite expanse around us. Every picture, every probe, every piece of the puzzle we pick up along the exploration of our galaxies is a victory for the ever-determined curiosity of humankind.
And so every robot becomes an extension of our heart, roaming the worlds we long to set foot on, seeing for us with eyes that can reach places we can’t in this lifetime. All our rovers are intrepid journeymen, travelling to the stars our ancestors once made stories out of, discovering the truth behind the legends we stare up at, unlocking endless wonders our imaginations couldn’t even begin to comprehend. And every extraterrestrial explorer is a friend, an honourary sentient being with a personality born from our own creative minds and a mission to match our dreams.
In a sense, losing Oppy to a dust storm on a planet we can’t even reach is losing one of our own. One could argue that it’s a stretch of empathy to give emotions to a machine, but this world could do with an excess of empathy. I won’t deny I cried when I read the news (after frantically fact-checking what my sister told me while I was in the bath). In fact, I cried twice for the lonely little Mars rover whose spirit outlived her target and who captured the heart of so many brilliant people, people with minds who designed the intricate devices that scour the empty planets, people with hearts that yearned so much for a reply from their creation that they sent their favourite songs into outer space to wake her up.
While we will, at some point, have to discuss the ethics in granting machines personalities, and mourning their shutdowns while there are countless human tragedies on our own planet. However, I will save those conversations for a later date – not because I don’t think they’re important, but because I’m letting myself embrace the bizarre yet brilliant ability of humans to connect with anything we so endearingly name.
There is something to be said for our curiosity, for the elaborate ways our emotions intertwine with our minds to give character to our highest forms of technology. There is a force to be reckoned with inside all of us, the drive to discover things most of us don’t even understand.
This week, in honour of a robot I never met, I am publishing a few posts about space. Some of them are generic blog posts with a twist – I’ll be sharing some of my favourite books, movies and songs set outside our solar system; others are silly posts, the epitome of adoxographical. If you’re a space fanatic like me – or even if you have interests besides the great void around us – I hope you’ll enjoy coming along this journey with me.
And to Oppy, a little rover I never met on a red planet I’ll never end up on, you have a piece of my heart. You embody the spirit of perseverance and the idea that something can be someone. You’ll never read this message – just like I won’t live to see you wake up again – but your line has crossed mine and I will cherish this moment to embrace the wonders of space. It’s an out of this world opportunity.