To Be There

Gordon Cooper...or Daniel Peters?

Daniel Peters has the best space helmet in the world. Well, at least he did have it back in the autumn of 1975. But given the fact that it was the closest thing to astronauts’ headgear I had ever seen – it even had a green tinted visor for goodness sake (yeah, that opened and shut too) – I feel confident in asserting that he still has it. I mean, why would anyone let go of something like that?

I’m afraid I cannot actually confirm his possession of said article of wonders, as Daniel and I ceased all meaningful communication somewhere during the summer of that same year. No doubt this was connected to Daniel’s (grudgingly understandable) reluctance to negotiate a long term loan of his space age equipment to me, during his birthday party. So 32.5 seconds was all I got, and I haven’t felt that mixture of jealousy and impotent rage since…well, we’ll not go into that now!

But I definitely cling to the hope that somewhere in Daniel’s home, in a secure and safe place, there sits the white plastic, emerald-visored replica of NASA headgear. Because something within my jealousy acknowledges a deeper desire in the possession of the helmet. I didn’t just want to pretend I was an astronaut – I was going to be one. Sadly, my ambitions were to be thwarted within a few years through my fumbling encounters with the physics and mathematics curriculum, but the recollection of this desire brings a sharp contrast to much of the ‘virtual world’ we engage in today.

Here I put my hand up and say ‘Yes!’ I too watched Star Trek and later the Star Wars trilogy, with great enthusiasm. Yet for some of us, there was always a serious edge to these pleasures; acknowledged I think, by the makers of these films in their attempts to portray some of the realities of the future. For example, many Star Trek plots were based around what were considered at the time to be genuine scientific conundrums or barriers and George Lucas put great store by his concept of a ‘used universe’, as opposed to a slick and shiny one. So for us those programmes were not merely entertainment; they had the ring of the training manual about them. That was how it might be once we got to go there.

Perhaps Daniel’s fascination with astronautics fizzled out with the cancelling of the Apollo missions, which is understandable. What I dread, yet have to say is more likely, is that it was replaced with a love of virtual encounters through the likes of X-Box and Playstation games such as Lost Planet, Dead Space or even Star Trek -encounters. With a lack of genuine, get-out-there-and-put-your-foot on-it-exploration, too many of us have succumbed to inner, rather than outer vision.

Our worlds have grown ever smaller and our eyes have turned ever inward upon ourselves. There is no need to have ambitions beyond your own sofa these days. You can experience all the thrills you need vicariously. And before you think I am damming the teenage predilection for shoot-em ups or high speed car chases in front of the tele, I should say stunted vision is found in all layers of our society.

I get a tinge of it when I pass middle aged people in the gym on their virtual bikes, pedalling furiously and getting nowhere. Why not ride a real bike? Why play Wii tennis when you can grab a racket and become genuinely good at the actual game itself? How many of us sit and salivate over cookery programmes without ever putting a morsel of what is shown into our own mouths?

Maybe we’re not entirely to blame. Even science seems to have become pre-occupied with the great indoors. I appreciate advances in Nano-technology as much as the next, but find it hard to become over-excited around things I cannot see. The ever news-worthy discoveries of Genetics and molecular biology are yet, by outcome, focussed largely on the individual and I admit to feeling very uncomfortable that the ability to access Broadband appears to be on the verge of becoming an inalienable human right. Perhaps the drift began with the cancellation of NASA’s program to the moon. It was just too expensive and unreliable. Or perhaps we’re just in danger of lazy acquiescence to the technology at our fingertips.

Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the folk who are actually out there breaking new ground or taking that small step that the rest of us can aspire to follow. 

And sometimes not. The media and popular attention given to David Walliams’ swim gave me courage. Here was someone actually doing something that hadn’t been attempted before. Without any trickery or virtual assistance, relying solely on those good old human standbys of courage, determination and endurance, David Walliams showed that there are still figures willing to challenge our limited concepts of what is achievable. I won’t compare Walliams’ victory over the waters of theThames with the achievements of the men and women of the Soviet and American space agencies. But there is something in it of the hero rising to the challenge. And what warms me is that Walliams did it all in real time.

So who can blame Daniel Peters if he eventually realised he would not actually be able to wear that helmet on the moon’s surface one day? And who knows? Perhaps he pursued the vision further than I could, and is today hard at work down some labyrinthine corridor at NASA itself. It’s possible of course that Daniel traded in that thin piece of aspirational plastic for a games console. But perhaps, just perhaps, he has kept that helmet, that small object of my desire, to remind him that he too one day, might leave his imprint of adventure and exploration on the face of the world itself.

(c) S Dyer 2011

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About Stuart Dyer

Stuart Dyer, Christian Writer and Musician living in West Sussex, England. Works in the hope of producing the worthy novel or solo; giggles at Oliver Hardy, Peter Sellers and Spike Jones; admires Hudson Taylor, Dickens, Salinger, Bill Bailey and Neil Peart; listens from Wagner to Miles with lots of stops in between; dances to motown and aims to achieve balance in all things.
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