My love affair with Space is multidimensional. I think when we were young all of us were smitten with Space to some extent. I just never really grew out of it. I have dipped my toes in lots of other things, but always found myself coming back to Space. In this introspective piece, I contemplate why.
There are some reasons why people may be interested in Space but these are not why I personally am. This includes the wish to exploit the abundant resources around the solar system or expand outwards to safeguard the lifeline of humanity. There is a lot of traction in harnessing Space for militaristic or civil purposes, for applications like communications, navigation or monitoring, to accelerate scientific advancement or to transcend boundaries and unite the world. I certainly see the utility in these for collective groups of people. I would say these are important reasons from a societal perspective, but on an individual level they do not drive me.
My interest in Space was primarily driven by my wish to experience Space first-hand. I wanted to hop on a spaceship and venture out to far worlds as an astronaut. What would it feel like to be “weightless”? What would it be like to look out at Earth while zipping past it? What would it be like to walk on the Moon, a world away? I got a feel for the “weightlessness” whenever I took a plane ride, those little dips and drops during turbulence. On the swing, I used momentum to propel myself further and further out, just so the drop was better. I liked it, and almost signed on to become a fighter pilot for that feeling of dropping and rush of adrenaline that followed. Imagining how much more thrill Space could offer, I was drawn to it.
Interestingly my earliest dream was to become a pilot. This was before I knew about spaceflight. I used to live not far from the airport and was stunned by the reverberations made by low-flying planes. Once I learnt of spacemen, I wanted to become one. My ambition evolved overnight. Since then I have tried to emulate whatever astronauts did to become astronauts. I would pore through astronaut bios and pick up pointers from there to increase my chances of being selected as an astronaut candidate – I would shortlist and gun for schools where astronauts often went to, study languages of the major Space powers and develop a liking for adventurous hobbies. I overcame my fear of water to learn swimming and then diving, which astronauts under training have to do a lot of. I was so bent on obtaining a PPL, that when I was turned down from flight school due to a medical condition, I was dejected for months. Still, I did what I could to get myself “ready”. I read books on Space, watched Space films and documentaries, and pinned up Space infographics on my wall. Today I use my Twitter account almost solely for following developments in the Space industry. Going to outer space was a goal I set for myself early on and that spurred me on to grow my interest in all things Space. I told all my close friends I wanted to be an astronaut, unabashedly.
There was also a natural side to the pull that Space had on me. Have you ever seen the sky from a place high up and far from light pollution? It is breath-taking. I’ve lived in cities most of my life but in my teen years I had opportunities to observe the sky in all its natural splendour in dark rural settings. I have fallen asleep on the rooftop under the spell and beauty of the unpolluted night sky. Stargazing gave me peace. When I was going through tough times, I would chuck aside everything and go stargazing. It gave me solace. Have you seen ice caps on Mars, Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s red dot through the telescope? They look surreal! I got goosebumps when I saw them planets, all massive bodies hovering in limbo. We are part of something big, truly truly big.
I revel in the intellectual joys of interacting with Space: learning, thinking, creating. When you look at stars, you look at something that was, not is. You are literally seeing the past. (Well, technically anything we see with our eyes is from the past, but when you observe say, stars you often see a more distant past.) The science behind astronomy is so cool. The experiments we do to tease out underlying principles and test hypotheses are creative in themselves. Knowing that we are all made up of stardust and realising that we are zooming through Space alongside thousands of other galaxies, you are no longer the same person. Trying to imagine the size of distant suns and time scale over which they grew, how long light must travel to reach us... I liked it that my brain was challenged whenever it tried to make sense of such astronomical scales. The technology we use to access this science is even cooler. Spacecraft engineering is an exciting field to work in, where one can literally take on out-of-this-world challenges. It has a vast scope and necessitates the confluence of many disparate disciplines. I got the Space engineering bug in my sophomore year when I sat in an Introduction to Space Systems class. This is one of the few lines of work I would take on as my career.
Finally, while not everyone is thrill seeking, I think the feeling of wanting to go up there or see what is out there is common to humanity and applies to me as well. We call it wonder, curiosity, exploration. The enormity and mystery of Space kindle in me a deep fire, to go explore and see what’s out there. That which is unknown makes us eager to figure it out. There are so many possibilities to be uncovered, discoveries to be made, endeavours to be embarked on.
I would like to close off with an anecdote, and a call for you to explore your interests in Space regardless of what other people think, wherever you might be, whichever field you are in.
I am fortunate to stay a stone’s throw away from one of Singapore’s two public observatories (to my knowledge), the Andromeda Observatory housed at Galaxy CC (previously Admiralty CC). Some years back in 2012 there was a Venus transit. (Venus appears as a dark spot as it travels between the Sun and the Earth). I had gone to the observatory to watch the rare event safely only to join a long snaking queue. So, I ran back home, grabbed an A4 sheet and my pair of binos, and came back. I pointed it at the sun and focused the image on the paper placed on the ground (don’t do this unless your binos are expendable). There it was, crystal clear as it could be, a black dot travelling across a white circle. Just as I was enjoying the simplicity of the technique, a man walked by clearly unhappy that he couldn’t get a glimpse of Venus in transit from the telescope. Seeing what I was doing, he called out to me and said it can’t be done and one cannot see it the way I was doing it. I had this Galileo vs. Inquisition moment where the truth was as apparent as it could be, but this person was refusing to accept it for what it was, and it angered me. Well, I think the man had a preconceived notion of what can and cannot be achieved – a closed-mind that led to his distancing and denial. Thankfully, the experience urged me to delve into astronomy further rather than discourage me. So yes, never listen to people who tell you what you can achieve and what you cannot. Use your own brain, follow your own heart. If you are not given an opportunity to achieve your dreams, then create that opportunity for yourself. You might be wrong, you might fail, but if your heart wills it, you must at least try.
So much for my love letter to Space. What’s YOUR story? Why do YOU love space?