Space Odysseys: The Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures
Photo: During Kevin Fong's 2015 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, Tim Peake beamed a message down to the lecture hall from space (c) Paul Wilkinson.
Astronaut Tim Peake's recent journey to the International Space Station has had a profound effect on many schoolchildren up and down the land. The former helicopter test pilot spent over 26 weeks orbiting around the Earth at 17,500 mph aboard the football-pitch-sized satellite. Completing a lap of the planet every 92 minutes, Tim and his fellow crew members were treated to sixteen sunsets every day, along with spectacular views of the Northern Lights and the spinning world below.
A big part of his mission was inspiring a generation of children about the wonders and importance of space. During his travels he linked up with classrooms covering the length and breadth of the UK, fielding questions from what it is like to sleep in space to the ins and outs of space toilets. One of his many messages was relayed to the audience of the 2015 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures entitled How to Survive in Space. Televised on the BBC, medic Kevin Fong was explaining what it takes to make it as an astronaut including a first hand account from Tim from 400 kilometres above our heads.
But inspiring a generation to think differently about space is far from a new phenomenon. The RI's Christmas Lectures have taken place almost every year since they started in 1825. Many of them have been devoted to unravelling the mysteries of the universe. Over the last year I have been fortunate enough to have been granted access to the RI's archive of old material in order to write a book on these space lectures – 13 Journeys Through Space and Time. Tim has kindly written the foreword.
It is remarkable how far back our passion for the cosmos stretches, even long before visiting it was a reality. The first lecture in the book is Robert Stawell Ball's 1881 offering The Sun, the Moon and the Planets. Back then Ball believed that humans would never travel to the Moon. Yet as the years rolled by and the lectures came and went, successive audiences heard of the magnificent discoveries being made in space. By Carl Sagan's 1977 lectures series on The Planets, not only had man landed on the Moon, we'd also sent landers to Mars to bake, scratch and sniff the Martian soil for signs of life. And by Fong's lectures in 2015, we'd had an orbital outpost permanently inhabited by astronauts like Tim for more than a decade.
Researching and writing this book has made me more excited than ever before about what we can achieve in space in the future. We've come so far since the days of Ball when space travel seemed all but an impossibility. What would he have made of the 2015 lectures with messages beamed down from space? Today's generation, inspired by the Christmas Lectures and Tim's travels, could well be the first to set foot on Mars.
As Sagan said in 1977: “Human beings are a curious, inquisitive, exploratory species.” Here's hoping our desire to reach into the cosmos continues for many years to come.