December 2, 2011 10:07 pm

Outer space? Kinda been there, Dad …

The ascendancy on unmanned probes and the lack of a human narrative or drama has removed the thrill of space exploration
illustration of a father and son in a Nasa gift shop

Like most men my age, I’m a sucker for space flight, so the details of Nasa’s latest robot mission to Mars have certainly captured my attention. Sadly, however, I’ve come to understand that this fascination is just one more thing that separates me from the next generation.

It’s baffling: a robot mission to Mars, for heaven’s sake; how cool is that? But it seems computer graphics, Xboxes and the second Star Wars series mean that the story of how we went to the moon just doesn’t cut it for kids. And as for an unmanned drone – well frankly they’ve seen better in the last Transformers movie. It simply doesn’t occur to children that this is, in any way, exceptional. For kids raised on a diet of zapping zombies, the perils of standing on an empty planet with an American flag look decidedly pedestrian. Today’s generation do not say “Houston, we have a problem.” They do not play at being Dan Dare or Captain Kirk; they will never know the innocent pleasures of being rushed to casualty with a goldfish bowl on their heads. Today’s “final frontier” is more likely to be a place in the last 16 of Britain’s Got Talent. It’s probably just as well that this is a recent trend or who knows where we’d be: “So Magellan, welcome to the show; what are you going to sing for us today?”

Years of “routine” space shuttle missions (disasters notwithstanding) have confirmed in their minds that this is just what we do. It will be worse if Branson gets his way. His Virgin Galactic space flights will soon be turning the fantasies of our youth into package holidays for millionaires. “Actually, we’re going sub-orbital again this year; well it makes a change from Sandy Lane.”

This youthful indifference was painfully brought home during a recent holiday when I took the family to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was, of course, more dad trip than day trip and I was conscious that the base was full of misty-eyed middle-aged men dashing about with cameras and saying things like, “Look Tommy, the Saturn 5,” to sullen kids who were eyeing the gift shops. To be fair to my own spawn, they were not uninterested or bored. This was a perfectly acceptable day out for them – it’s just that it wasn’t exactly Legoland.

I couldn’t understand it. There were huge rockets; lunar modules and simulator rides.

We even got to meet a real astronaut. Admittedly, I’d never heard of him, but he had been on six space shuttle missions and had spent some months on the Mir space station. He may not have looked exactly like my idea of a space hero, but he had at least slipped the surly bonds of Earth. The furthest I’ve ever been is Jakarta.

The ascendancy on unmanned probes and the lack of a human narrative or drama has removed the thrill of space exploration. Back on earth, science in general is reduced to gadgets and personal technology. Who cares about a drone when you can have a touchscreen tablet or a games console that simulates a real tennis match? Even TV scientists have to look cool now. Once our screens were filled with mad boffins such as Patrick Moore, James Burke and Carl Sagan. Now they need to look like the bass guitarist of Franz Ferdinand if they’re to hold our attention.

This is why a manned mission to Mars is so necessary. It will be dangerous. Some may argue that we have enough scientific challenges on our own planet and unmanned spaceflight is enough of an indulgence. But a human footprint in the dust of another world is the stuff of dreams.

It will inspire future generations in ways that the history of human exploration has always done, from Marco Polo to Jacques Cousteau; from Leif Ericson to Neil Armstrong. The entire history of human evolution is a straight line of exploration and innovation from the mouth of the cave, over the mountain, across the seas and into the air.

One can only imagine a world where our predecessors drew back from what came next, because it was too expensive or too far or too difficult. “Yeah, we sent a drone to the next valley – didn’t look all that. Now hurry up or you’ll miss Strictly.”

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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