Space To Think: Reflections on outer space

Summer is over and we're taking some time (and space) to think a little differently. One writer reflects on outer space, societal space, and how we may learn from both to better support communities

Article by Rosie Priest | 08 Sep 2023
  • Space

Laika, a dog found on the streets of Moscow, was the first animal to orbit Earth. Her voyage into the vast expanse of space was symbolic of man’s relentless quest for dominion and expansion, an insatiable curiosity at any cost. Laika’s death was always going to be the outcome of Sputnik 2. Man wanted to go to the moon, and she had to die to get them there. Laika orbited the earth over 2,000 times in total. Around 1,996 of those she wasn’t alive. Laika died a slow and horrible death of overheating, for men to go to space. 

When I look up to the moon, I often think about how not a single woman has walked on it, but 12 men have. I think of Laika and the sacrifice she made for men. Space, the stars, our galaxy, our universe, hold within it reflections on our social realities, the space that sits between and connects us. Here I explore that space.

Many astronauts, or cosmonauts, describe “the overview effect”: as they gaze upon Earth from the vastness of space, they witness our planet not as a mosaic of fragmented borders or disparate cultures, but as one interconnected, harmonious entity. I wonder how Laika felt looking back to Earth in her final moments. When we have the capability to touch the stars, I hope we also remember the importance of slow, meaningful connectivity with those around us. If it was not  a space race, but instead a slow venture into space – a sharing space, a care-focussed space – Laika may have set out on a voyage and returned home.

Dark matter is composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light, so they cannot be detected (yet). It is one of the universe's most profound mysteries, and is believed to make up approximately 85% of its total mass. Despite its overwhelming presence, it remains invisible to our most advanced telescopes and undetectable by conventional means. Yet, its existence is inferred by the gravitational effects it exerts on visible matter, on galaxies, and on the entire universe. Scientists at the Gran Sasso Laboratories delve deep beneath the Earth's surface, over 1,400 metres, shielding themselves from cosmic rays, in their persistent quest to detect and understand this elusive substance.

I think about dark matter often, the ways it mirrors the intangible connections and undercurrents that influence our lives. Much like dark matter, the profound depths of human emotions, experiences, and histories often remain hidden, just beneath the surface of our observable interactions. Systems of oppressions and radical movements of hope and change; these unseen forces shape our connections, influence our trajectories, and leave an impact on our journeys. We often focus on the 'visible' – the overt expressions, the loud voices, and the apparent differences. However, to truly understand and connect with one another, we must embark on a quest akin to the one for dark matter. This means delving deep, looking beyond the surface, and seeking those elusive threads that bind us together. It's about recognising that beneath individual experiences lie a vast reservoir of shared emotions, hopes, and vulnerabilities.

Just as scientists venture into the depths of the Gran Sasso Laboratories, shielded from external noise, we too need to create spaces of silence. To listen more and talk less.  Astronomers have had to learn to listen deeply. Radio astronomy (the science of listening for radio waves within the universe) is a delicate art. The collective energy of all radio waves caught by Earth's observatories in a year is less than the kinetic energy released when a single snowflake lands on the ground. Just as collecting these ethereal cosmic signals needs technological silence, truly understanding and championing marginalised people across cultural divides demands a profound silence from those who often speak the most. Only in the stillness of genuine openness can we begin to hear the subtle, often overlooked voices of those who have been silenced. It's the quiet, delicate signals or voices that hold invaluable insights, reminding us that true progress, whether in understanding the universe or each other, often lies in the whispers rather than the shouts.

I will finish with the sun. In mythology, the sun is typically depicted as a man, often the creator of the universe, or bringer of light. Just as planets revolve around the sun, marginalised communities often find themselves orbiting dominant power structures, controlled by their gravitational pull. Their movements, though significant, are often dictated by the central force. The Voyager missions discovered rings around Jupiter, new unknown moons, and it also captured the infamous photograph of the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. The photo was taken six billion kilometres away from Earth and showed the fragility of our planet within the deep vastness of space. Voyager could only make its discoveries and reflect to us, by using the gravitational pulls of the planets – not simply the sun. We could all learn more about ourselves, other people, our world, the universe, by turning away from the brightest and most noticeable voices, towards the marginalised ones. In the end, true progress is not just measured by the heights we reach, but also by the depth of our understanding and empathy.