On December 24th Radio 4 gave a heads up that the International Space Station would be visible over the UK at about 5:20pm that evening. The sky was expected to be clear and the air crisp, the lady said. The station would be the brightest thing in the sky, moving like a very fast jet – or Santa’s sleigh. Cor, I thought. I’m up for that.
I expected cloud or some other factor to intervene, but when the time came conditions were exactly as promised: perfect. So at 5:15 I went outside, accompanied by Dudley, our Labrador, armed with hot coffee, iPad running the Star Guide app so I’d know where to look, and waited for the space station to appear.
Few things really impress me, I mean really impress me, but I watched the ISS nothing less than gobsmacked. It was a golden gem that rose from behind the houses and moved smoothly across the sky. To some this might have looked like an aircraft, but the speed – over 17,000mph – and colour of the solar panels were incredible. Yet these were not the things that struck me most.
This ISS is in orbit, in space, outside the Earth’s atmosphere. We know this. Yet the vehicle seemed so low. I know the atmosphere’s thin, but it was much closer than I’d expected, and as it described its perfect arc across the sky I was able to perceive not only the curvature of our planet, but also its size. It’s even smaller than I thought.
Some will question spending billions on the development of such a vehicle given the world’s multitudinous problems, but there is also the argument that the technological advances engendered by such endeavours can make contributions for greater benefit in the longer term. My belief is that we should push on beyond low Earth orbit – something not achieved since Apollo 17 back in 1972 – return to the moon, Mars and eventually beyond. In 2015 Tim Peake will begin a 6-month stretch aboard the ISS. I wonder if he’s open to visitors.